Building Top Teams: What it takes

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., © 2009

Forget team building ropes courses or wilderness adventures if you want to build a top team. Yes, they bring people together, they usually are fun and people feel great afterward. But, the transferable carry over learning lasts about three minutes once people get back into the work place and encounter real problems to solve. Building effective teams is an on-the-job task. People learn to work together best by working together on real substantive tasks that are challenging and that force them to depend on each other, to learn about each other and to help each other.

So what else is necessary to build top teams? I will discuss below what I learned from a variety of research and through my experiences working with executive teams.

Five conditions for top team success – what any team leader needs to do to get the most from their team:

  1. Establish a clear and compelling direction
  2. Create an appropriate structure
  3. Select the right people
  4. Support the top team
  5. Provide development

1. Establish a clear and compelling direction: Research by Richard Hackman of Harvard University and Ruth Wageman of Dartmouth College showed that on outstanding teams, the leader gave far clearer direction than on average or poor-performing teams. This may seem obvious, but in my experience team members often have conflicting ideas about what their mission is. Clarity of purpose is extremely important “because when the team leader does not provide it, a leadership vacuum is created, one that all members rush to fill with their own individual priorities and goals. High-performing individuals want and need goals and direction. When team members cannot see where the team is going, each member will promote his or her personal interests. With no unifying team purpose, irresolvable conflicts often erupt. Ultimately the top team can self-destruct, often with considerable collateral damage, including severe personality clashes and deep cynicism about the value of teams.”

In addition to setting clear goals, the executives need to make the goal compelling. He or she “should never ask the teams to take on challenges that could be accomplished by lower-level managers or executives. The executive team’s mission must be consequential, requiring the deep experience and skills of the top team members.” People really do want to be challenged and when challenged as a team, their collective energy and creativity can achieve amazing results.

2. Create an appropriate structure: Executives who hope to create a successful
team must also put in place an appropriate structure for the team. To do so, the executive “must set team size and boundaries, establish its procedures and spell out the norms of conduct for the team.” The research is very clear that the best size of team is from 6 – 8 members. “Larger teams usually mean more competing interests, more personality clashes and a greater risk that competing factions will form.” As one high performing leader noted, “With smaller groups you get better discussion, more passion, more honesty.” In addition, high functioning teams set and follow mutually agreed upon procedures and establish norms of conduct. “Norms are the glue that holds a team together.” As a team leader you “should never assume that because your top team includes bright, successful individuals, there is no need to establish clear norms." The research also suggests the opposite is true: Because top teams are composed of such strong personalities, clear norms are even more important. And, the leader must be involved in establishing the norms and, of course, enforcing them effectively.

3. Select the right people: The research findings from a Hay Group study found that “people on outstanding teams were neither brighter, more driven nor more committed than members of less accomplished teams. What people on the best teams contributed was the ability to work with others. They brought emotional intelligence to the table. Two attributes in particular distinguished members from those who served on less capable teams: empathy and integrity.”

Hackman and Wageman were adamant that “it is critical that executives select emotionally intelligent team members capable of empathy, people capable of mutual respect who can listen to others’ views without interrupting. It is equally important that team leaders remove anyone not willing to demonstrate this important attribute.” Strong, effective leaders move quickly to replace team members who do not conform to the norms of conduct.

Regarding integrity, on top teams, “a person with integrity is someone who behaves consistently with the organization’s (or the team’s) values—even when it is personally risky to do so.” In addition, “a team whose members have the kind of integrity that puts the organization first, team members also develop an extraordinary amount of trust in each other.” When people trust each other, their energy can be focused on creative and cooperative endeavors rather than dissipated on unproductive protective behaviors. In teams characterized by outstanding integrity, members recognize that they must subordinate their narrow interests to those of the group.

4. Support the top team: The Hay research showed that executives who want outstanding teams must arrange to provide them with strong organizational support by providing their members with “sound data and forecasts.” However, executives must also see to it that team members get training and that their efforts are adequately rewarded. It is especially important for the “CEO in particular to set compensation that is appropriate, but also encourage top team members to buy into the goals set by the team. Doing so delivers a strong message about what a company values. Compensation also can be a powerful tool for accomplishing top team goals.”

5. Provide development: Executives who are outstanding team leaders periodically review team performance. They hold meetings to discuss how the team is doing, what it is doing best, what it is doing poorly and what it and its members have learned. The level of professional development, or coaching, was much higher on outstanding teams than on typical and poor ones. Furthermore, outstanding team leaders frequently provide individual coaching for team members.

Developing top teams is hard work. They don’t just happen. The payoff can be can be significant—faster execution of the CEO’s agenda, improved responsiveness to market changes and higher perceived valuations from institutional investors are three big benefits. As one highly effective CEO client of mine observed, “On top teams you have very talented individuals who demand a lot of themselves, but who also have the team demanding more and more of them. People feel tremendous pressure from the group. So you get results that you wouldn’t get from individuals only acting for themselves. That’s the real power behind teams.”