Building a Successful Team


October 2003

Building a Successful Team

CIDMIconNewsletter Jill Bentley, Consultant to the software industry in Silicon Valley

It was my first day on the job, and I was met at the door by my new boss. “Welcome aboard!” he boomed, extending his hand. “Let’s go meet the rest of the team.” By the end of the day, I found myself wondering what kind of ship I was on and whether or not there was actually anyone at the helm.

Over the first weeks and months of life on that job, I came to recognize and appreciate the skills of my coworkers. They were a well-qualified, thoroughly professional group of people, but no matter what the boss thought, they were not a team. This was not the ship in full sail that it might have been, had our boss understood there was more to being a captain than just standing on deck. He gave no thought to the basic concepts of team building, consensus, and teamwork.

In the years since that day, I have watched this scenario played out time and time again. Most companies and business leaders have good business plans and a good idea of what they want to achieve; they know they will need resources to meet their goals, they’ve usually thought about the costs involved, and they do their best to recruit topnotch staff. Yet their failure to involve their workers in the efforts of the others, their failure to build real teams and to reward teamwork, continues to have an adverse effect on the bottom line. All too often, business leaders have no idea what makes a good team or how to build one and run one.

The problem stems from the fact that everyone thinks they know about teams; after all, we hear about them every day. There are baseball teams and football teams, teams of road workers, rescue teams. My team, your team, the whole team! We are exhorted every day to team up, join the team, be team players, think about the rest of the team. Yet in reality, few really successful teams exist.

Why is this? What is a team? What makes it successful? Is it just a group of people? Is it just a group of people with special interests or qualifications? Or is it just bluster?

Teamwork as a Balance

Well, it’s probably all of those things! Teamwork is a delicate balance of experience, knowledge, leadership, and expertise.

In the simplest terms, a team is indeed just a group of people-but a group of people is not ipso facto a team. In fact, making the assumption that a group is automatically a team is at the very heart of why so many teams fail! The teams that actually succeed, the teams that bring home the honors, whether in sports or any other field of endeavor, are those that understand the difference between simply fielding an enthusiastic group of people-even if each has the requisite basic skills-and bringing together a group of people with differing skills but a common goal and the ability, leadership, willingness, and personality to work together to accomplish that goal.

It is possible to change a group into a team, but it’s a complex procedure!

A good team doesn’t have to be a big team. Indeed, the most successful team I ever led was quite small, but each member knew his place within the team. Each recognized his own strengths and weaknesses, each confined himself to working within the boundaries established for his piece of the project, and each recognized what each of his teammates contributed and were responsible for. It was that simple-and that complex.

Rules for Team Building

First and foremost, then, a team is always a group of people brought together to address a single goal or purpose. The goal could be a deadline. It could be winning the trophy or pennant. It could be a rescue operation or a block party. Each goal is different, and if the goals are different, then the mix of personnel required to accomplish them will probably differ too, even though on the surface it often seems as if everyone on a team must be the same. For example, a football team consists of football players, so in a way, everyone on the team is the same-except that when the team takes the field, there’s only one quarterback and only one kicker. Every other member of the team understands his role, and the coaching staff is there on the sidelines to lead the way and make sure each team member completes his assigned role in the overall project.

That’s the second rule: a team is a group of people with different skills and experience working toward a single goal. But what makes a good team member?

It’s essential to recognize that each member of a team is as important as every other member. It is also essential to recognize that every member of a successful team must be committed to the success of the team as a whole. There are no stars in successful teams-that’s another big misconception. Where there is a star, everything is subjugated to the skills and/or desires of that one person. If the effort required to meet the goal could be divided into equal chunks, the star would want the biggest chunk and the greatest visibility. Each team member must understand his or her role within the team, and the team leader must make sure that individual team members pull their weight and work within the parameters established for them. Members of successful teams certainly support each other and work together very closely, but they don’t take on work or responsibilities assigned to other team members. This is obvious, but it’s often overlooked.

To succeed, teams must be balanced. One person, no matter how talented or accomplished, cannot carry a team: the load is too great. Sooner or later, that person gets worn down, and his or her ability to concentrate and produce is affected. Because the success of the team as a whole was predicated primarily on the ability of that one person, the integrity of the whole project is compromised.

Similarly, a group that consists of a group of “stars” will not succeed as a team because each person is trying to shine, to outdo all the others, instead of working for the betterment of the group as a whole.

So the net rule of successful teamwork is to make sure that each member understands his or her role in the team and has the skills or training necessary to accomplish it. Each team must have a strong leader whose primary responsibility is to make sure everyone follows through.

Barriers to Teamwork

This all seems intrinsic and obvious, and yet many companies actively encourage work styles and practices that are counter-intuitive to team building, even while they’re making a great deal of noise about the importance of teamwork. They recruit huge groups of people, build elaborate reporting structures and project plans, and then point everyone out of the starting gate at the same time with exactly the same set of instructions! Groups are pitted against each other; it’s every man for himself.

All too often, when deadlines are in jeopardy and project plans in disarray, the result is constant corporate reorganization, which generally doesn’t improve the situation. Groups are broken apart in an effort to pull together one that might succeed, projects and goals are redefined and reassigned, and unrealistic deadlines are imposed in an effort to make up for poor management and lost time. But all this generally only re-creates a bad situation and leads to further failure.

Serious, knowledgeable leadership is obviously the order of the day; but leadership roles are frequently assigned to those who make the most noise, not necessarily to those who possess the skills and the interest to build and lead a successful team. What, then, makes a good team leader?

Leadership Role

Being a team leader is not for the faint of heart. First and foremost, the leader must be a team player. It sounds silly but it’s true. Although they may be more visible within the overall organization by virtue of their role within the teams they lead, leaders are nevertheless equal members of the team. Nothing is to be gained from a leader who just stands back and watches everyone else work! Good leaders, successful leaders, work right alongside the rest of the group. They must know and understand the goal to be achieved and be able to define it to the rest of the team. They must draw up the project plan, assign tasks and responsibilities, mentor newcomers, provide guidance and feedback, and keep tabs on everyone and everything all the time. They must have a solid understanding of what every other team member brings to the table. They must be realistic and be able to plan for and use the resources available to them. They must allow team members to be innovative, even to fail, as long as they learn from their mistakes. And they must see that everyone arrives at the finish line on time and according to established procedure.

Some people think the shortest route to being a successful team leader is to have the largest group. They think they’ll succeed by throwing more resources at the problem. Others think they’ll succeed by having the group with the most impressive list of credentials-but qualifications for the sake of qualifications aren’t enough either. A leader has to lead. A leader has to know how to put everything together, set it on the right path, and move it forward.

Consequences of poor leadership
I know of one very successful engineer who was given responsibility for building a new team to handle a completely new, highly visible product. She was allocated headcount and budget and recruited a group of six. When they all assembled to get started on the project, they had among them seven bachelor’s degrees, a law degree, four PhDs, one MBA, and a total of eight years’ accumulated business experience, none of which was directly relevant to the project at hand. As a group, they were as well educated as anyone could wish: bright, intelligent, well read, and well spoken. As a team, they were a dismal failure! They would have failed regardless of their credentials because the team leader did not know how to build or manage a team. Her idea of team building was to assemble a group of people with impressive credentials, regardless of the disciplines in which the credentials had been awarded. She thought that all she had to do was point this group of well-intended souls toward the starting line and fire the starter’s pistol. Thereafter, they ought to be able to sort out what was needed, divide up the tasks, and get on with it.

The downstream consequences of this disaster lingered for years. The corporate reorganization motor was cranked into full gear time and again, successful teams were torn apart, team members were reassigned right and left in an effort to stem the tide, and project after project was allowed to fall by the wayside-all without accomplishing the initial goal, because the project still lacked effective leadership.

Equally disastrous was the situation in which a manager inherited a group as the result of a reorganization. He had no interest in them or in learning about the project or the process; he just wanted the group to keep on cranking along. He lacked both the confidence to lead a team and the ability or interest to guide them.

Qualities of successful leadership
A good leader understands the project, recognizes and can articulate the skills needed to complete the project, has the courage to select the right people for the job, shows the willingness to delegate tasks to team members, and has the ability to see that each member follows through. Good team leaders must know and understand every member of their team; must be familiar with their abilities, strengths, and weaknesses; and must be willing and able to mentor, manage, and reward them. Doing so pays dividends. Team members at all levels learn by seeing the process in action and are then able to carry that experience forward.

Finally, good leaders always provide feedback. Because a team effort is necessarily a joint effort, the rewards must also be shared. Good leaders know that if they want to attract the best team members for future projects, they must give accolades publicly, sing praises loudly, and direct this feedback to the team as a whole. Nothing succeeds like success!

The New York Times best-seller list frequently features books written by business leaders explaining their successes and touting their methodologies. They make interesting reading and often provide great insight into people and practices. But we would be fooling ourselves if we overlooked for one second the fact that every successful business is a team effort. Each of these leaders succeeded because they knew how to build and lead a team!

The success of a team depends on the ability of the individual members to know their own limitations and on the willingness of their leaders to recognize and honor such knowledge. Remember my boss? He finally realized he didn’t like to lead. He gave up on the high seas of the business world and went into politics, where he could be led by the wishes of the voters and settle for the comfortable anonymity of a committee! CIDMIconNewsletter

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