Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Great Teams....Common Themes and Notes for Leaders

My blog yesterday about Dr.Richard Hackman and the myths of teamwork caused me to reflect on  great teams I've been a part of, what made them great and if there were any common themes.

A couple of notes before I start.  In my entire 40 year working life I'd only consider three of the teams I've been a part of really special.  My point in raising that issue is it's not easy to create a great team and it doesn't happen all that frequently in one's working life.  I feel fortunate it's happened to me three times.  A second point is I wasn't the main leader in any of these instances, but a team member.   This blog entry isn't about me talking about how skilled I was at leading these great teams....I was just one of many contributors in each instance.  With those qualifications in mind here are my themes....and some notes for leaders.

Deep Talent.  In every instance there were people who were really good at what they did...really technically proficient in their craft not only at the designated leader level, but two and three levels deep in the organization.  This freed up leaders to deal with interface and system issues rather than spending an extraordinary amount of time making sure routine things were routinely accomplished.
Note for Leaders .  A group of the best individual contributors don't necessarily make the best team.  I once had the opportunity to hand-pick a team for an elite organization.  My first impulse was to pick the most talented people.  It turned out to be very difficult to manage as they were all highly ambitious and competitive with each other. When some naturally moved on to other roles, I was more careful to get a balance of personalities, and complementary skills.  I looked harder for "fit" to the team rather than individual talent level.

Competitive.  As mentioned above this quality has two sides to it.  In the best teams, people are competitive, but competitive externally, not with each other.
Note for Leaders.  Some really competitive people can't turn their "competitive switch" on and's always on.  The leadership challenge is to make sure those competitive urges are focused outwards and to act when it turns to unconstructive internal criticism.  My other observation is that men and women are equally competitive, women just compete in different ways than men.  Many men are completely oblivious to this fact.   Be aware those competitive urges exist both with men and women staff and be watchful for signs of  unhealthy internal competition.

Enjoyable work climate.  I'm not sure I've got this category title correctly but in the really outstanding teams I was part of team members genuinely liked and respected each other.  There were disagreements without people becoming disagreeable.  Team members took their work seriously but there was often humor and laughter.  Laughter in team meetings from time to time is a healthy sign.
Note for leaders.   It is a trap to take work too seriously and not create space for the enjoyment of a difficult task done well.  Often there is someone on the team with a knack for "lightening things up" at just the right time...leaders need to look for those opportunities when they emerge and encourage them.

Willingness to help others on the team.  Often one part of the team will get a particularly difficult task or special high priority project. On the best teams, colleagues offer support and resources.... usually people or specialized expertise.
Note for leaders.  In the best, mature teams this happens spontaneously.  Sometimes early in the life of a team the leader has to trigger this by asking one part of the organization to help another.

The social component of work.  On the best teams I was on, it was never only about work.  Team members were genuinely interested in each others lives and interests outside of work.
Note for leaders.  Leaders need to create the opportunity for these social relationships to emerge. Including partners in some events and carving out time in team meetings(often over a meal) for pure social conversation ar some successful techniques I've used.

The role of the senior leaderIn the best teams I've been on the senior leader played an important but not dominant role.  I've come to believe that the image of the almighty leader with great charisma, vision, innovative strategy and answers to all the organization's problems is a myth. 
Note for leaders.  The best leaders set direction, establish expectations, provide resources, and remove obstacles...and don't attempt to be everything to all people.


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