Failing organizations are usually over-managed and under-led.
— Warren Bennis
If you are a sports fan like me, you were enthralled by the performance of excellent teams during the World Cup. Everyone who follows the so-called beautiful game marveled at the teamwork exhibited on the playing field. Americans were delighted at the efforts of the U.S. national team, who proved the old adage that the total is greater than the sum of the parts.
As the summer progressed, sports fans were engrossed in speculation about what NBA team LeBron James would join, as his addition would make them a future contender. While his decision to return to Cleveland may or may not result in a championship, most sports fans appeared somewhat pleased that his decision was motivated at least in part by a desire to return to his hometown team. As the summer wanes, baseball fans like me are engrossed at decisions by major league teams to move young players from the minors to the major leagues or seek last minute trades to improve a team’s chances for a final run towards the World Series.
But what do we mean by a “team?” The dictionary tells us that a “team” is a collection of people (often drawn from diverse but related groups) assigned to perform a well-defined function for an organization or a project. While this would appear fairly straight forward it does not help us with a second and even more critical question – how do you build a great team?
If I continue with my sports analogy, I might reflect on comments made by Yogi Berra when he was the manager of the New York Yankees. Berra led his team thru a difficult season and won the American League pennant, but then they had to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
Berra was asked by a sportswriter, “Yogi, how do you build a world championship team?”
He quickly replied, “hire world championship players.”
Still that may not always be the final solution. Berra’s team eventually lost the World Series to the Cardinals. He also was a player for Casey Stengel, a very successful and veteran baseball manager. Stengel was once asked what was key to his success.
Stengel replied, “I try to keep the six guys who hate me away from the three guys who are still undecided!”
While this would hardly be a leadership style I would advocate it is important to realize that “finding championship players” is clearly necessary but not sufficient to ensure a great team. But there is not always a clear linear relationship between individual talent and overall group performance.
Roderick Swaab, a professor of organizational behavior, and a group of researchers conducted a study on the performance of basketball teams. They concluded that adding more talent to any team was important, but at a certain point their research showed that the addition of more talent was actually counterproductive. It resulted in worse teamwork and poorer overall performance. A similar study of baseball teams suggested that additional talent did, however, normally result in improved performance. Swaab concluded that basketball which required more intra-team coordination and, consequently, too much talent had an adverse effect on teamwork. While such research is interesting, it would be important to consider how well the leader was in building an effective team. Berra had great talent on his team during the World Series. Still many baseball historians believe he was not able to dampen internal dissension on his team, and the Yankees ultimately lost the World Series.
A successful leader is a successful team builder. He or she has to balance their efforts between finding the best talent, developing that talent, retaining that talent, and insuring that the members of the team work together effectively. Recently a corporate executive observed that healthy organizations have a turnover rate that is below 10 percent. If the turnover rate exceeds 15 to 20 percent there is likely something wrong with the organizational culture that indicates a subpar performing team.
Good teams are collaborative and allow their members to make decisions. They also accept that mistakes may be learning experiences. Consequently, leaders of such organizations look for indicators that an individual is a “team players” and willing to collaborate when they hire new members. In this regard another executive was asked about her interview and hiring practices. She related that when she was conducting interviews she would tell the receptionist to offer every candidate a glass of water and ask them to be seated. After the interview she would talk to the receptionist about how the interviewee reacted and how he or she treated the receptionist. Clearly, she wanted to know if even in a stressful moment did the person being considered show courtesy to his or her prospective teammates.
Finally, building teams means not only finding talented people but also looking for those who remain curious. The effective leader wants the members of the team to seek self-improvement and have a desire to be mentored by the most talented members of the organization. They provide necessary resources, seek to create a climate that encourages mentorship/collaboration throughout the organization, and make this a topic of discussion during team meetings as well as individual counseling.
Jim Collins in his remarkable book, Good to Great, perhaps best described the challenge of team building today. Collins suggested that the leader is like a bus driver. One of their primary jobs is to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and everyone sitting in the right seat.