What makes a team work? How do you lead one?

I have been actively in business as an employee, individual contributor, team member, team leader, manager and an executive. I have been in many people related situations that needed to be tackled in a smart manner, and also at human level. My biggest learnings have been as the size of my teams started to expand to uncontrollable levels, when I simply did not have a physical chance to know everyone nor develop relationship with all of my people. That is when things get really interesting.

When you become responsible for the results of a small team, this obviously is a major step upwards and a step into an unknown realm. If you have stepped up to a leadership role, then you know what I am talking about: You cannot control everything anymore, you simply are dependent on the output and behavior of your team! You know need to establish a team spirit, whatever that means, you need to built credibility and develop a leadership style, whatever they mean. You either start figuring out through a focused and dedicated approach, or on the other extreme you end up thinking yourself as “the boss”.

These are very different approaches. The one that comes through focus and dedication over the longterm creates opportunities for all team members. But if you have set yourself up as if you know all and you decide all, “the boss” that is, then you will lose even in the short term. In this day and age, 2020 COVID-19 times, an open and focused approach that targets learning and development has become a critical task.

So, what makes an effective team work led by a mature and learning leader? This should have been the title of this post. I can summarize the requirements under these 5 themes:

1. Leader

2. Team members

3. Principles

4. Routines

5. Results and accountability

Leader:

Unfortunately for most of the organizations, still, we need people that must take over the leader role. Why? For the focus and effectiveness of the team. The leader sets the tone, vision, establishes expectations and ensures that the team can work together as open, honest and effective as possible, which then leads to expected results towards the objectives in line with the strategy and principles set by the leader together with the team. In certain organizations, not-for-profit, software development companies where the teams are made of extremely capable technical experts, maybe the teams can simply manage themselves and allocate their time and energy to what makes sense, but even in these organizations there will need to be someone or a committee that will need to determine the direction of the organization and how the compensation and accountability models should work.

Key success factors of this leader to be effective and successful in the long term, she needs to be and she needs to do:

-Effective self discipline, be able to manage time, self learning, focusing on what matters and be able to stay the course no matter what, keeping positive energy flowing and never giving up with a strong courage, conviction and grit to achieve goals and objectives.

-Effective communicator, be able to articulate in a crisp and simple manner complex messages in an understandable, engaging, motivating and inspiring manner

-Complex problem solver, be able to understand where the problem may be and what the problems is, being able to gather right amount and quality of data, using experience and brain power to reach to meaning conclusions that can be acted upon towards objectives

-Effective collaborator, be able to work with people in a solution orientated and proactive manner, not only focusing on business needs but also getting to know team members, peers and others in the organization as well as outside of the organization at a personal level. Be able determine critical people to develop relationships with towards the goals, to identify strengths and weaknesses of each individual, be able to help them to create goodwill and momentum, which then should lead to a win-win type approach in all interactions. This piece I can easly say that is the most difficult to develop part and requires massive amount of proactive focus, self development, thinking and being a selfless, ego-free person.

-Open to new ideas and innovation, nowadays we cannot have a leader that is not continually testing ideas, learning from them and pivoting as required towards the goals, this requires a listening more and learning more approach. Every interaction, reading must be an opportunity to connect new dots and learn new things. Reading and getting exposed to unfamiliar grounds, topics, problems will help the leader expand their horizon and become better innovators and students of ideas.

Team Member:

For a team to become effective the team members must be also leaders in their own right obviously, so everything that applies to the leader should apply to individual team members too. We can assume that the person in leadership position has more experience, skills, capabilities than the team members, therefore the leader must instill the qualities that are required to make a member a leader at the same time. However, there are other qualities an effective team member should have to make the team work better and more effectively towards goals:

-Delivering excellence, continually pushing oneself and, if applicable, their teams towards results and high quality outputs

-Understanding the overall goals and strategy of the organization to translate these into her specific area of responsibility to contribute to the team with unique value pertaining to her expertise and capability

-Selflessly seeking ways to help other team members achieve their goals with the intention of goodwill and to achieve organizational goals. Some people underestimate the importance of this. Team members not helping each other and a leader letting this happen will contribute to the demise of the team; this team will not deliver. Therefore, the team members need to create an environment of trust, openness and collaboration; obviously the leader must create this environment, but each individual in the team has a massive influence of this environment and they must take ownership of the quality of the team interactions.

-Continually learning and bringing unique value to the team that can only be provided by them. This sounds obvious, but the mindset and the attitude behind this principle is massively important. If the team members are not continually developing themselves and their expertise being in the forefront of whatever they are responsible for and of course all adjacent developments, then they will miss the opportunity to make the team stronger and innovation comes with good ideas and execution of these unique ideas built on the combination of unique knowledge and skills of the team members.

Principles:

A team must agree and know what will make them fail or be successful. This is critical right at the beginning of the engagement, ideally, to agree on the value system of the team. Here we are talking about value items, such as “we help each other out”, and not business strategy or objectives or values of the company. The values should be surfaced by the team working and brainstorming together, reaching to very unique value items that are there because of who the team members are. In this discussion, each team member should also be provided feedback openly by others, including towards the leader, so that a significantly open and honest environment is established, values can then be shared much easier. Each individual must make themselves vulnerable for this exercise, and believe me, the goodness that will come out of this is unbelievably critical and valuable. The team will come together and the secret sauce, which is trust, will be built. Now here is a caveat, if certain team members fail at this the leader will need to bring them to the table and ensure that they open up, otherwise they may need to be changed to team members that can do this. The outcome of this exercise is a document that contains all principles the team will use and take into account as they interact with each other (some examples, no matter what, we will tell the truth to each other; we will challenge each others in meetings to ensure we reach to truth and top quality decisions eliminating group-think; we stick to deadlines and never miss them; we respect each other’s time as top priority, making meetings useful, meaningful and eliminating all meetings that do not contribute to objectives and results we are seeking).

Routines:

Sounds boring right? Wrong! Routines are everything and they also make or break a team. Why would we have routines? Is this not about creativity, interaction, let the thoughts and ideas flow freely to generate innovation… Well, those things are fine for certain objectives for sure, however for a team to establish results excellence, accountability, focus, attention to detail and effective collaboration team routines must be established. We are not talking about micromanagement here of course. We are talking about meetings and activities that will ensure that the team delivers, develops the business and people and manages risk effectively. So what kinds of routines we potentially could have?

-Weekly team meeting: Objective, focus on limited number of priorities and KPIs, talk about results, key derivers, root causes for failure or gaps towards goals, decide who does what and by when, move to the next topic. The outcome of this meeting should determine the focus areas for the team for the week

-Monthly business reviews: Some of the KPIs may not be ready for the weekly reviews, where you may want to review leading indicators. In the monthly meeting you can focus on targeted outcomes and forecast pertaining to this. Second, long term strategic objectives, risk areas can also be reviewed. You can also utilize these monthly reviews to give opportunities to talent and have them join discussions and make presentations so that the team can get to know up and coming future leaders.

Quarterly talent reviews: These offsite meetings is a great opportunity to review the bench of future leaders, as well as most to gain team members along with people that may need to leave the company. The meeting can focus on development plans and opportunities for the potential talent.

Results and Accountability:

A team that cannot deliver is better be dissolved! The reason a team exist is to deliver business results, nothing else. Everything that is done must fill this purpose. The leader is critical ensuring that everything the company does lead to delivery of results as well as the value proposition of the company towards its customers and stakeholders. It may sound simple and obvious, but trust me, the demise of companies come from not being able to create a result focused environment for the short as well as the long term.

Summary:

So, what makes the team work? A good leader, good team members, valuable principles, effective routines and a surgical and unwavering focus on results. There is nothing you cannot achieve with a team that can work together in this manner!

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