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3 Principles for Real Team Building

Team development requires more than authority and answers

Li #236 3 Principles for Real Team Building
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ONE OF THE most beautiful things in the world is the functioning of a self-motivated effective team. It is also one of the most challenging things in the world to develop.

One bit of good news: Just as there is no “right” personality or temperament to be an effective leader, there is no “right” group personality to be an effective team. I’ve observed effective teams where their corporate personality was laid-back, friendly, and positive. I’ve seen others that were driven and rough, in which the members spoke directly to one another ­­— even loudly arguing — yet were very productive and remained best of friends when the workday ended. The key principle here is selecting people who fit into the established culture.

There are, however, some qualities that all effective teams seem to share, regardless of their differing cultures and personalities. The following are three things a leader can do to facilitate team development.

1. Promote and reward a team mentality

The expansion of the Roman Empire provides an interesting illustration. For centuries, numerically smaller Roman armies won victory after victory over barbarian tribes. Those Celtic and Germanic tribes were ferocious and fearless warriors, yet the Romans conquered all the territory west of the Rhine and most of Britain. How did they do it?

According to historian George Hunter, it’s because the Romans and their allies always fought as coordinated units, while the barbarians would usually fight as individual tribes. Hunter compares the situation to that of a group of lions fighting a group of tigers. In an individual battle, a tiger will defeat a lion because it’s bigger and badder. But in a fight between groups the lions will win. Lions fight together, while tigers will only fight individually and be defeated one by one. In the same way, the Roman legions picked off the barbarian tribes in turn until all were subdued.

What’s the lesson for a leader? Simple. Teach your people that “What we can accomplish by working together as a team is far greater than anything we can do as individuals, no matter how talented we may be.” Teach them to think and speak “We” instead of “I.” Patrick Lencioni has written,

“Unless a leader gives people a reason to do otherwise, we tend to look out for our own best interests, and not necessarily those of the team.”

If you are the leader, that’s your job. To do this you must first model it, and it must be a continual emphasis. This requires a leader to be more a facilitator than a boss with all the answers, more like the conductor of an orchestra than a genius with a hundred helpers. You must genuinely believe in the collective genius of likeminded and committed people to solve problems, create, and innovate.

Keep in mind: “Behavior that is rewarded will be repeated.” If you typically reward people for independent individually-focused behavior, you will get more of it. If instead you want more team thinking and behavior, you must recognize and reward those who exhibit them. Sharing credit for successes is essential. The proper attitude after a victory is “We did it.” That shared experience is one of the greatest satisfactions of team membership.

2. Teach and emphasize fundamentals

Coach Vince Lombardi led the Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships in nine years. Uncharacteristically, during the 1960s the team played poorly over a stretch of games. Lombardi got increasingly angry until he blew. At the team meeting following a loss, he shouted his assessment of their recent play in colorful terms. He concluded his tirade with, “I will not stand for it! We are going back to the very beginning! We’re going back to basics!”

Lombardi paused, holding up an object. “Gentlemen,” he said, “this is a football!”

A cheerful voice interrupted from the back of the room. It was veteran wide receiver and “class clown” Max McGee. “Hey, slow down, Coach,” he called, “I’m taking notes!” The mood was broken by laughter, but they did get back to basics and got turned around.

Lombardi always credited his emphasis on the fundamentals for victories: “Football is blocking and tackling,” he said countless times. “If you block and tackle better than the other team, you will win.”

UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden provides another example. No one in sports history has matched the amazing winning record of Wooden, winning 10 national championships in a 12-year span.

His commitment to the fundamentals was legendary. I remember hearing a former player speak of his very first practice as a freshman. He came thinking, “Coach Wooden is so famous, and is supposed to be so wise. What deep wisdom will he share with us?” He was excited to hear those first profound words.

Wooden gathered his team and said, “All right, gentlemen, the first thing we are going to do is to learn how to put on our socks and shoes properly.” He proceeded to demonstrate. “You put on your socks and smooth them like so …”

The player was shocked. “This is the great wisdom of John Wooden?” But, of course, it was wisdom. You play basketball continually on your feet, which must endure tremendous stresses and pressures. If you don’t have your socks and shoes on properly, you can get blisters or sprain an ankle and be out of the game altogether. It doesn’t matter how much talent a player has if he can’t play. Neglecting fundamentals is hazardous.

The personalities of Lombardi and Wooden couldn’t be more different, but they were two peas in a pod regarding fundamentals. Their teams’ unrivaled successes are testimony to the principle.

Whatever your team’s task, there are fundamentals ─ things like clear statements of purpose, cultural values, essential targets and measures, and philosophy. As a leader, identify and define them sharply, and teach them to your team. Keep them simple, say them repeatedly, and dedicate yourself to the never-ending task of aligning behaviors, systems, and activities to them.

3. Cultivate internal leaders

Great teams are typically self-policing. Yes, occasionally you see effective teams that have a single leader with a group of followers, but those tend to be small groups. Excellent larger teams have multiple internal leaders who support and reinforce the leader’s goals and the team’s values and principles.

A single leader can’t be everywhere or in every conversation. To promote widespread agreement and commitment to values and goals, you need the help of others. If you’re the only whip-cracker, some people can use that as an excuse to tune you out. It’s much harder to deny the team’s values when other team leaders are vocally and visibly supporting them.

How can you develop those internal leaders? First, by intentionally watching for them. Observe the real behavior and performance of your team members and identify those who show maturity and consistency in the right direction ­— those who “get it.”

Second, share more of your mind with them in private conversations. Talk about what you see regarding the big picture, where you hope to lead the team, what values are most important to you.

Third, ask for their support. The confidence in them you show by asking for their help is highly motivating. Sometimes they have a specific title or authority, but that’s not as important as the moral authority and credibility they have earned over time. You also demonstrate through your affirmation what kind of attitudes and behaviors you want to see. Others who seek your approval will be encouraged to follow.

These partners in leadership are incredibly valuable for your future success and for your team’s accomplishment. Sharing leadership in itself helps promote team unity and values.

The proof of your leadership is the quality and performance of your team. By promoting and rewarding a team mentality, teaching and emphasizing fundamentals, and cultivating internal leaders, your team will be on the road to increasing effectiveness. Li


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