Why Your Team Should Have “Words” Just Like Great Houses of Westeros


This post is part of a series on the 5 Keys to Building a Kick-Ass Team.

“Winter is Coming.” Throughout seasons of the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, the Starks use their house words to remind all of Westeros that darker days are on the horizon and that the foresight and preparation of the Northmen will serve them well as it has served Northmen for thousands of years. The words of House Greyjoy of the Iron Islands – “We Do Not Sow” – remind everyone that ironborn take what others have sowed, paying the iron price of battle against anyone who stands in their way. Similarly, Catelyn Stark’s ferocious desire to protect her children was no doubt a product of her upbringing in House Tully, where the words are “Family, Duty, Honor.” When key characters face tough moments, we sometimes see other members of their house asking them the rhetorical question, “What are our words?”

What about you? What are your words? What is the northstar your team can look to when in need of inspiration or practical guidance?

McMaster-Carr Supply Company is a multibillion-dollar B2B industrial supplier most people will never hear of. Yet, somehow it’s managed to not only survive, but thrive for 115 years. The key to that success is customer experience. Poll a group of companies that look to McMaster-Carr for their maintenance, repair, and operations supplies and ask them why they do business with McMaster-Carr. What they’ll rave about is the customer experience. Everything McMaster-Carr does is about making the process from securing a pricing quote to placing an order to receiving merchandise to issuing payment as seamless as possible for its customers. And, if something goes wrong in that process, every single team at McMaster-Carr, from frontline employees to senior management, knows that its charge is to get the right outcome for the customer.

As I moved from the finance team to sales operations to launching an e-Commerce Contact Center, I found that managing teams and processes at McMaster-Carr often meant training and coaching individuals on how to problem solve in the face of numerous different challenges. Providing step-by-step instructions on how to handle any and every scenario my teams might face was not only impractical, but also would have been the worst kind of micromanagement — the kind that presumes management knows all and that those they manage should simply execute as they’re told. Instead, both then and now, I’ve found it far better to give my teams a northstar enabling them to draw on their own analysis and creativity to develop solutions that help us achieve a common goal. In my time with McMaster-Carr, my team’s words were “Get the Right Outcome for the Customer.” In practice, that meant going the extra mile to make doing business with McMaster-Carr as easy and frictionless as possible.

So, what can this look like for your team? Developing your words is an exercise in getting to the core of your mission and goals. Once your team has its words, your work doesn’t end there. You have to communicate them through consistent internal messaging. That means repeating them during meetings and individual interactions. You also have to calibrate on what your words mean in practice. One way to do this is by elevating examples from your team’s day-to-day work that embody certain guiding principles. Lastly, measurement is always key. It’s important to set specific goals for living up to your words and to calculate how well you’re doing by using quantitative measures to track performance over time.


  • Team words serve as a northstar, providing inspiration and practical guidance.
  • Once you have your team’s words, communicate them repeatedly.
  • Calibrate on guiding principles so that team members know what your words mean in practice.
  • Calculate and track your performance using quantitative metrics.

What about you? What are your words and what are the guiding principles that show what they mean for your team in practice?