Best and Brightest, Like Star Players, Need to Be Able to Work as a Team

Don Tennant

If you’re like me (perish the thought), you love this time of year because football season has finally arrived. A lot of us find ourselves using sports metaphors a lot more frequently than usual, like when we talk about building teams in the IT workplace.

Some fine sports imagery along those lines has been delivered by J. Allan McCarthy, an entrepreneur, business consultant and author of the book, “Beyond Genius, Innovation & Luck: The ‘Rocket Science’ of Building High-Performance Corporations.”

“It’s not just a matter of getting the fastest, strongest and smartest players on your side,” McCarthy says. “If you’re building a championship team, you’re gauging how the individual athletes fit together; how their personalities, talents, drive and abilities will mesh to meet the team’s goals. It’s exactly what you need to do to build a winning corporate team.”

McCarthy has worked with a lot of tech companies, including Cisco Systems, SAP, Redback Networks, BEA Systems and Ericsson, and his familiarity with IT types is pretty solid. So I thought his tips for building a successful, effective team would be worth sharing here:

Lead with a team, not a group. A team of leaders behaves very differently than a group of leaders. Many companies don’t know the difference. It comes down to clear goals, interdependencies and rules of engagement. Every corporation claims to hire only the best and the brightest but it is evident that getting the best and brightest to function as a team can be a challenge.

Know your goals. Teams should be able to act with the same unity of purpose and focus as a well-motivated individual. Many big-name CEOs like to say their talent runs free with innovative ideas. It makes for compelling literature. But would that work on the football field? Corporations need their personnel to think out-of-the-box but also act in a prescriptive culture — to work within a system in order to achieve common objectives.

Not everyone can be the coach — or the quarterback. The problem with executives is that they all want to lead and none want to follow. A team made up of executives is like a group of thoroughbred stallions confined to a small space called an organization — plenty of kicking, biting and discord. Thoroughbreds don’t naturally work well as a team. Better to define responsibilities that build a “foxhole mentality,” wherein one person has the gun, the other the bullets. It’s in the best interests of both for each to succeed.

The strongest teams are adept at resolving conflict. Hiring the best and the brightest should create a diverse, competent group — but inevitably these stallions generate friction that can sabotage company progress. So, sensitize team members to the early warning signs: know-it-all attitudes, multi-tasking during team meetings, exhibiting dominant behavior, not responding in a timely fashion or engaging in avoidance. Agree, as a team, on how to mutually manage and minimize counterproductive behaviors as they surface.

Create individual and team agreements. Here is where the rubber meets the road — it’s the final stage of planning who will do what for team objectives, as well as a collective agreement on team rules and interdependencies. Ask individuals to openly commit to what they will do, and how the team is to function. The public declaration stresses employee obligation and collaborative management.

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