Written by
James Martin

Published
19 Oct 2015

There certainly is no 'I' in team

19 Oct 2015 • by James Martin

How can you strengthen your team?

Try a thought experiment. Think of any team that has, in your view, achieved perfection to close to it. What’s the answer? A sports team? An orchestra or band? An elite military squad? I’m guessing that a business team didn’t feature in your list. 

Why not? Part of the reason will be that business teams don’t have the same profile as a sports team that wins a championship. However, my hypothesis is that main reason is that very few senior executives spend much, if any time working on their teamwork. In fact, the contrary is celebrated. The language of the war for talent is all about spotting stars. The focus of appraisals and senior leadership development is on honing individual strengths and fixing development needs. Compensation systems support it. CEOs enjoy the glory when things go well and suffer in the spotlight when they don’t. Most seem to like it that way. 

This presents a huge opportunity for the management team that wants to buck the trend. My observation is that the route to achieving consistent out-performance in any field is a relentless focus on working towards shared goals as a united group. That means working on your teamwork, day-in, day-out.

What is perfect?

Think of your example of perfection. What do they do that most management teams don’t? One area is likely to be a relentless wish to hear feedback and a willingness to act on it. The London Symphony Orchestra didn’t select Sir Simon Rattle as a conductor just because he is a celebrated conductor. They are expecting a continual level of coaching about how they play together as a group. The members of the LSO are world-class musicians already. They know how to play their instruments. They are seeking something different – the ability to communicate together.

Another area is a drive for continual, incremental improvement. World class teams don’t happen by accident. As Sir Dave Brailsford, the head of Great Britain Cycling team and Sky’s winning  Tour de France squad observed, “a team isn’t a thing – it’s a group of people working together to become a team.” In his view attitude is more important than raw talent; its vital to have a group who focus on spotting and acting on every small micro improvement that can be made. For example, during the last Tour every team member was provided with a bespoke bed, mattress, pillow and linen that suited them. A team went to every hotel in advance of their arrival, removed the existing beds and installed their own. They reasoned that a comfortable bed won’t win you the tour, but it may help a little.

So, what can a management group do?

Supplying bedding might seem a bit unnecessary. However, ensuring that the conditions are in place to allow the team to perform at its best is just as important. The first thing is to set an explicit goal, perhaps to become an elite team. There is no reason that any team at any level can’t have this inspiring aspiration. The second is to work at becoming a team. That means spending time reviewing how you work together and what you spend your time doing. Don’t be afraid to ask some basic questions.

•    Do you all know what the team’s purpose is?
•    Are you all aligned around the team’s goals
•     Are your actions and agendas aligned with that purpose?
•    In meetings, do you listen to each other, particularly to diverse or contrary views?
•    Does everyone get the right amount of airtime?
•    What happens to your behaviour when you are under pressure?
•    Do you spend enough time looking externally for examples of best practice you can implement?

Don’t think of this as a one-off exercise. The best teams will debrief frequently. I spend an increasing amount of my time consulting to executive boards on this topic and, in my experience, the best teams take it the most seriously, having 20-30 minutes set aside at the end of every exco meeting devoted to improving the team. This is a highly practical exercise, typically with 4 questions. Did we achieve our objective? What went well? What didn’t? What are the lessons for our next meeting?

Some final questions. Have you ever personally been part of an elite team? Would you like to be? Its partly in your gift to make it happen.