Succeeding With the Team You’ve Got

In Atlanta we just experienced our first week in a long time without 90 degree temperatures, which makes us all cautiously optimistic that the annual brutality of July and August weather is coming to a close. People are slowly emerging from their refrigerated homes and offices, in a process akin to the emergence of folks from their heated caves in northern climates at the end of winter. The sidewalks are now filled with runners in the morning, and outside tables at bars and restaurants are hard to come by after 5 o’clock.

However, more than anything, in the South, the coming change of seasons really means one thing: Football! Around here, people seem to collectively lose their sanity when football season arrives, which may be partially explained as a release of the cabin fever we built up over the sweltering summer. Anyway, whether you are a fan or not (c’mon!), if you’ve watched any football you have to admit that it’s the ultimate team sport. Although the “playmakers” get all of the media attention, the reality is that not even one play can be successful without the combined and carefully orchestrated efforts of all eleven teammates. The stars themselves get that – how many times in post-game interviews have you heard them run through Bull Durham-esque clichés –  “I’ve gotta give credit to my teammates . . . I’m just happy to be here . . . Hope I can help the ball club.”

Sports and (especially) military analogies are overused in the discussion of business concepts, however, I don’t think you can ever learn or talk enough about the concepts, tactics and nuances of team building. Although teamwork is not always as necessary in business as it is in football (many services, for example, can be fulfilled solely by individuals), most significant business activities require organizations. To be successful, these organizations require teamwork.

So, every year leaders spend tons of money on books,  speakers, training programs, cheesy wall posters and – the most dreaded of them all – retreats – to encourage their employees to work together. At one of the many retreats I had the (ahem!) good fortune to attend, the facilitator had us observe each other holding stones with our Core values printed on them – Seriously! I guess it did work, as we came together as a Team thereafter in the hotel bar laughing hysterically about the experience.

Of course, as I progressed in my career, I also passed out books, hired speakers and arranged retreats for my Teams. We didn’t have any rock-holding exercises so hopefully some things were accomplished, but I’m sure some folks were similarly bored/annoyed by the experience. So, why do we do these things? Beyond modeling the behaviors of leaders we observed and/or worked for in the past, hopefully it’s because we understand the need to commit time and resources in an earnest effort to achieve the results that only come from a team that works well together.

In two recent engagements, we were hired to assist our clients with big business development projects. Although the initiatives were vastly different – one was a product deployment while the other a services effort – after getting up to speed, I quickly realized that my biggest contribution to each project could be assisting our clients in building their delivery teams. In each case, the “end client” was asking for a novel solution, requiring the combined efforts of people from different disciplines and organizations who had never worked together before in that particular context. As these were new, market-making (testing?) solutions, the budgets were “developmental” – in other words, ridiculously thin. And, of course, there was the added stress of immediacy – like all clients, they wanted the solutions NOW.

In both cases, outsiders criticized certain team members because of their perceived talent gaps, and therefore predicted failure from the outset. From there, as we experienced the inevitable frustration of slow progress and incremental failures, I even struggled to suppress doubts in my own mind about the Team’s composition and its prospects for success. However, I forced myself to stay patient and to listen to my teammates – we were going with the Team we had. Hey, there was no budget to recruit the proverbial “A” Team, so taking personality tests to “identify the gaps” seemed pointless, and there was certainly no time for ropes courses or Kum Ba Ya. However, there was also no time for turf wars, politics, and other ego-driven conflicts. It was time to get stuff done.

In short order, the Team had to develop fundamentals and attitudes such as:

Fundamental Representative Attitude
Respect Nobody’s perfect,  but everyone here has skills and has succeeded in the past; therefore, each person is due our respect.
Compassion There may be others out there that are better and we may have had issues with one another in the past, but we’re going with the Team we have and we truly want each other and the group to succeed.
Trust Each person has a job to do, so we are going to trust them to do it and, even if they fail, we are going to work things out internally and present a solid front externally.

Of course, these things take time and progress is incremental. However, both project teams completed their first Phase deliverables on time and to the satisfaction of the clients. My most significant role, it turned out, other than being “happy to be there” was to “help the ball club” by encouraging each member of the respective Teams to listen, to work through differences of opinion openly and factually, and to address adversity together. The folks that were assigned to our project teams may not have even wanted to be there, but they had valuable skills and insights that we needed, so we had to find a way to blend our talents towards the objective.

Listening is perhaps the greatest outward evidence of respect and it also implies compassion – if you care about someone you will listen to them. As my friend and mentor Steve Wiley says, you have to “listen until it hurts,” an obvious but very difficult rule to live by. However, especially in groups of people who haven’t worked together before,  it often seems that someone has the solution to the problem, but no one seems to be listening. Furthermore, under the stress of tight budgets and deadlines, it’s very tempting for a leader to cut to the chase – I know what needs to be done here so, enough debate, let’s take action. Sometimes that works, but sometimes that decision is also the one that sticks out in the post-mortem of a failed project, initiative or business.

Instead, leaders can create opportunities for the Team to succeed by questioning rather than telling and by listening rather than suggesting. I heard a speech one time by Jim Collins in which he encouraged leaders to improve their “question to ask ratio.” Rather than demanding your solution and finding “teammates” who will deliver it, maybe your questions will elicit a solution that really can be delivered NOW at a lower cost and with the people you have. In the process, the client will get most (if not all) of its needs satisfied and your people will be uplifted rather than unemployed. Sounds like a good deal to me.

In the next posting, we’ll cap it off by working our way through the last fundamental – trust. In the meantime, have fun tailgating and, as always, thanks for reading, commenting, forwarding and tweeting. Take care.

About Denis

Business Leader, Consultant & Social Entrepreneur. Proven senior executive leader with deep experience guiding companies throughout various lifecycle phases including start-up, rapid growth and maturity. Principal of YellowPark Garden, providing executive leadership expertise and assistance in economic and societal development initiatives.
This entry was posted in Career Growth & Management, Leadership & Management, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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