Java with Joe: Building a Winning Team

Like many of you, I’ve worked and played on many teams, right from the time I was young. Some of my happiest memories are of the athletic teams I played on, from elementary and high school right on to my four years on the football team at Northwestern University. And later, in my career as an HR practitioner in three very different industries…technology, health insurance, and healthcare delivery…I worked on, led, and supported a great many teams, some with just a few members working side by side in the same office, and others with thousands of members scattered across multiple countries.

So almost inevitably, I’ve spent a fair amount of time wrestling with the question of why some teams win and some don’t, why some consistently perform at a very high level and others always seem to come up short.  And my guess is that you’ve grappled with the same question yourself.

Not surprisingly, there’s been a ton of research into the subject of team performance.  Some of this work focuses on internal issues, such as member selection, role clarification, communication processes, and so forth. Some focuses on how teams interact with other entities inside and outside of their own parent organization.  And of course, much of it deals with what it takes to be an effective team leader.

It’s definitely worth digging into this rich body of literature, but for today, I’d like to keep it simple. So let’s start with the idea that good teams are made up of good team players.

In my experience, good team players share three essential attributes. First, they have humility. No matter how self-confident they are, they keep their ego in check. They are genuinely interested in more than their own success. Second, good team players are hungry, eager to step up to make a contribution and add greater value. They’re always thinking about and asking what they can do to make the team more successful. And third, they have emotional intelligence. No matter what their personality, no matter whether they’re naturally introverted or extroverted, they know how to connect with the other members of the team.

How can leaders build these qualities into their teams? Clearly, one step is to select team members who already possess those qualities. The problem here is that team leaders don’t always have complete control over the selection process, and even if they do, they may need to include some people on the team who aren’t as strong as they’d like in these areas but who possess other necessary skills and qualities. In that case, as a leader, you have to make it clear from the start that you expect everyone to behave in accordance with those qualities, then provide the necessary coaching, modeling, and recognition/reinforcement that shapes those behaviors.

Will this work? In my experience, most people can grow in these areas, but some just can’t. If and when their behavior becomes an obstacle to the team’s success…if for example, you have someone on the team whose ego keeps creating significant problems with the other members…you’ll have to manage that like any other performance problem, which may ultimately include asking those folks to step off the bus.

This gets us to the question of what it takes to be an effective team leader. The first point I want to make is that good team leaders are good team players. They’re humble, they’re hungry, and they’d score high on any test of emotional intelligence. If you’ve read some of my previous blogs on Servant Leadership,  you might note that the characteristics of a good team member that we’ve just listed are also key characteristics of servant leaders. By definition, servant leaders put others first. They see their role as doing whatever they can to help the other members of their organization develop their full potential and maximize their success.

More specifically, Larry Spears, the author of hundreds of articles and books on servant leadership, has identified 10 characteristics of a servant leader: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. It’s easy to see that many of these are variants or sub-sets of the three characteristics of a good team member that we’ve just listed.

OK, so if you want to be an effective team leader, you should practice being a good team member, which involves being humble, hungry, and using your emotional intelligence…all of which is closely related to being a servant leader.

Now, taking this discussion a step further, it seems clear that if you want to be an effective team leader, you also need to be clear about what characterizes a good team, as well as a good team member. Again let’s keep it simple.

I think the single most critical attribute of an effective team is trust. Trust among the team members, and trust between the members and the team leader(s). If that trust is lacking, fear will get in the way of the team’s performance. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of reaching out to ask for help. Fear of being blamed, even for problems not of the person’s own making. That kind of distrust and fear cramps a team’s engagement, creativity, and ability to collaborate. Inevitably, performance suffers.

So, as a leader, how do you build trust? In simple terms, you act as a Servant Leader. You commit yourself to helping your team members succeed; you put their interests and the interests of the organization ahead of your own. You respect the integrity of your team members. That means you set a high bar for their performance, but you give them room to grow, which in turn means that you allow them to exercise appropriate autonomy. And it means that even when people come up short…which they sometimes will…you treat the situation as an opportunity to learn, without pointing fingers.

What else? If you want to build the trust that’s so critical to a winning team, you never take credit for what others have accomplished. And you never reward or even allow others to do so.

Obviously, there’s much more to be said on this subject. But I hope this at least some food for thought. After all, much of the work that gets done in organizations small and large is done in a team setting. If we can make our teams 10%, 20%, 30% more effective, just think of how much more our organizations can achieve.

So what’s your definition of a winning team? How would you rate yourself in terms of humility, being hungry, and emotional intelligence? What are some immediate steps you can take to help build trust in your team?