Building a successful team is about more than finding a group of people with the right mix of professional skills. Over the course of interviewing more than 500 leaders, they were all asked about the art of fostering a strong sense of teamwork.
Their insights can help you lay the ground work for a highly productive team that can communicate, co-operate and innovate in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.
You need a clear and measurable goal for what you want to accomplish.
If you ask enough top executives about their leadership style, you’re likely to hear a number of them say: “I hire the best people and get out of their way.” It is a good line that makes sense at a certain level. Hiring the right people is the most important part of building a strong team, of course, and delegating to give people more autonomy is a powerful motivator.
However, managing a team is not that simple. Leaders have to play a far more hands-on role to make sure the group works well together and remains focused on the right priorities.
There are six main drivers for creating a strong culture of teamwork, things that if done well have an outsize impact. The insights are applicable to any team or organisation, from five people to 500 000.
The trouble often starts when leaders start listing five, seven or 11 priorities. Determining these priorities and how they’re going to be measured is arguably the most important job of a team leader because most of the work that everybody does will flow from those goals. Those priorities have to be lined up as carefully as the trajectory of a rocket launch because even the slightest miscalculation can take a team off course over time.
Create a clear map
Leaders owe their teams an answer to the same question that young children often ask their parents before setting out on a long drive: “Where are we going and how are we going to get there?” In other words, what is the goal and how are we going to measure progress along the way?
That may sound simple, but it is often one of the greatest challenges that teams, divisions and companies face. What does success look like? If you were to set up a scoreboard to track success over time, what would it measure?
Have a shared scoreboard
Another benefit of having a simple plan is that it creates a shared goal that will offset the tendency of people to identify themselves as part of smaller groups.
Think of a football team, for example. There are many “tribes” within a team – offence and defence, linemen and receivers, running backs and defensive backs. But because the goal of the team is clear, and there’s an external scoreboard to track progress, there is a greater sense of “us” on the team than the “us and them” dynamic that can often divide colleagues in companies.
In the absence of a shared scoreboard, people will make up their own ways to measure their success.
You may feel like a broken record. Once you have a simple plan, you have to keep reminding your team of the priorities, even if it can feel repetitive.
People often have to hear something a few times before they truly remember it. Marc Cenedella, the chief executive of TheLadders.com, a job search site, shared a good rule of thumb.
“You say something seven times and they haven’t heard you,” he said. “Until they start making jokes about how often you repeat it, they haven’t internalised it.”
Rules of the road
You’ll need a set of values, behaviours and cultural guardrails so that everybody knows how to work together.
Create your team’s culture
All families have values, even if they aren’t discussed explicitly. There are certain behaviours that are encouraged and discouraged, like rules of the road, for how everyone is going to try to get along and spend their time.
Teams aren’t really that different. Pull together a group of people to work on any project, they will develop a culture of their own and it will be as unique as the people in the group.
As a leader, you can take a laissez-faire approach and hope the team blends well over time or you can look for opportunities to set some shared guidelines for how people will work together.
Stick to it
The most important thing is for the team or company to live by their stated values, rather than just going through the motions of the exercise, with people earning promotions although their behaviour runs directly counter to the stated rules of the road.
Show a little respect.
If team members don’t feel respected, they won’t be motivated to bring their best ideas and their best selves to work.
The effects of a bad boss
Unfortunately, most of us have worked for at least one bad boss over the course of our careers. Bad managers often share many of the same bad tendencies. They don’t listen. They micro-manage. They’re not trusting. They see employees only as pawns to help them accomplish their goals. They point fingers rather than owning their mistakes. They steal credit for the team’s accomplishments. They dress people down in front of their colleagues. The list goes on.
That kind of treatment puts people in a defensive crouch and they start subconsciously checking part of their self-image at the door before they go into work.
It means that if they have an out-of-the-box idea for the team, they may think twice before sharing it, out of fear it will be dismissed. In this kind of environment, innovation is hard, if not impossible.
Set the tone
It is incredibly important for leaders to set a tone and model behaviour that everyone will respect one another.
Robin Domeniconi, the chief executive of Thread Tales, a fashion company, said she used the expression “MRI” as a cornerstone of culture.
“MRI means the ‘most respectful interpretation’ of what someone’s saying to you,” she said. “I don’t need everyone to be best friends, but I need to have a team with MRI. So you can say anything to anyone, as long as you say it the right way. Maybe you need to preface it with, ‘Can you help me understand why you don’t want to do this or why you wanted to do this?’”
It is about the team. A team is stronger when everybody delivers on their individual roles.
Treating people with respect is part of a two-way street to help foster teamwork. At the same time, leaders also need to hold everyone on their team accountable for their work and role on the team. In effect, it is a simple bargain that leaders can offer their employees: “I’ll treat you well, but we’re also going to be clear about the work you’re expected to contribute.”
At many companies, this culture of accountability is discussed explicitly. “I hold people accountable for everything that comes out of their mouth,” said Steve Stoute, the chief executive of Translation LLC, an advertising and marketing firm. “Don’t say you’re going to do something and not do it, because in a company of this size, everybody is directly responsible for the person next to them.”
Difficult discussions aren’t anyone’s idea of fun, but they are necessary for running a successful team. A big part of holding people accountable for their work is a willingness to have frank discussions about problems and misunderstandings that inevitably arise among colleagues.
But the fact is that most managers go out of their way to avoid these “adult conversations”. It is understandable. They can be unpleasant and most people would rather deliver good news instead of bad.
Also, you never quite know how somebody’s going to react to feedback. That is why problems are often swept under the carpet, and maybe dealt with months later in an annual performance review.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.