dr carl robinson
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The Currency of Success - Interpersonal Intelligence™

Building Top Teams: What it Takes

If you want to build a top team, forget team building ropes courses or wilderness adventures. These activities do bring people together; they are usually fun and participants feel great afterward. But once people get back into the workplace and encounter real problems to solve, the carry-over learning fades quickly.

Building effective teams is an on-the-job task. People learn to work together best by tackling real, substantive, challenging tasks as a team. They learn about each other, depend on each other, and develop an understanding of how to help each other.

Through research and my experiences working with executive teams, I’ve learned what is necessary to build top teams. To get the most from their team, team leaders need to: 

  • Establish a clear and compelling direction
  • Create an appropriate structure
  • Select the right people
  • Support the top team
  • Provide development

Establish a clear and compelling direction

According to research by Harvard University psychologists Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman, leaders of outstanding teams gave far clearer direction than average or poor-performing teams. Team members want and need goals and direction in order to perform their job well. When a leader does not provide this, team members may use their own goals and priorities instead. And if each team member is acting without leadership providing a unifying purpose, conflicts arise, and the team can self-destruct.

In addition to setting clear goals, team leaders need to make the goal compelling. If assigned appropriately regarding skill and managerial levels, the team should be able to accomplish the goal. But that doesn’t mean that the goal should be very easily attainable. People want to be challenged and, when challenged as a team, their collective energy and creativity can achieve amazing results.

Create an appropriate structure

Executives who hope to create a successful team must also put in place an appropriate structure for their team. When structuring the team, an executive should consider team size, standard procedures, and norms of conduct.

Studies have shown that the optimum size for a team to achieve a goal is around five to eight people. With fewer members on a team, each team member can contribute their skill and perspectives on a task. The sense of camaraderie might also be stronger. However, fewer team members can also cause groupthink if stronger personalities take control. Fewer and less diverse experiences can undermine decision-making quality for the overall team. In comparison, larger teams have more competing interests and personality clashes. With more moving parts in a team, miscommunication is more likely to occur.

When a team has the optimum number of members, they’ll function well using mutually agreed upon procedures and establish norms of conduct. Team leaders should never assume that a put-together team does not need structured behavior guidelines: because top teams are composed of such strong personalities, clear norms are even more important. The leader must be involved in establishing the norms and enforcing them effectively so that the entire team operates smoothly.

Select the right people

According to Theory and Practice of Leadership by Roger Gill, people on outstanding teams are “distinguished by empathy and integrity, rather than brainpower…[they] excel at working with others and are adaptable, capable of self-control and able to manage ‘productive conflict’…over ideas rather than personalities.” Successful team members and leaders are not necessarily more skilled, more intelligent or more driven. Rather, they’re more emotionally intelligent and caring about themselves and others.

Strong, effective leaders should choose team members capable of mutual respect and who can listen to others without interrupting. Being empathetic builds a sense of trust and camaraderie or a sense of “we.”

When a sense of integrity is infused into the foundation of a team, 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.

Support the top team

Executives who want outstanding teams must provide team members with strong organizational support. Executives must see to it that team members are trained properly to do their job well and that their efforts are adequately rewarded. Acknowledgement and praise from team leaders can often have a perceived higher value than promotions or monetary compensation (though both are still an important part of a team’s structure and provide goals for team members to work towards).

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 on their own. However, the payoff is significant. Benefits include faster execution of the CEO’s agenda, improved responsiveness to market changes, and higher perceived valuations from institutional investors. 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.”