Leadership

Lessons in leadership: How to build a winning team

Ilya Bogorad lists the key qualities of a great team and shares the seven individual traits you should aim to find when you're building a team from the ground up. He believes that if you find people with the right mindset, you can develop the specific skills later.

Visit the nearest bookstore and you will find uncountable volumes on team building, hiring, and personnel management. Browse the Internet and you will discover scores of articles, blog entries, and other content devoted to the topic. There is a good reason for this amount of attention to the topic. A leader cannot act alone and is only as good as his team. When we talk about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Jack Welch, we mustn't forget that there are people behind them, a team that supports and enables them.

So, given the abundance of writing on the subject out there, why this article?

The answer is simple: on an average, organizations suck at it -- all the books and articles and other knowledge notwithstanding. As a consultant, I see a lot of environments, and the sheer number of teams that have a potential to be absolute stars, but are mediocre at present, is astounding. I would like to inspire the reader and provide some ideas for changing things for the better. I cannot be in every organization all the time to fix the problem, so this is simple way of leveraging the reading audience for maximum result.

What exactly is a winning team?

I believe that every leader should strive to build a team that possesses the following three qualities of greatness:

Effectively achieving set objectives

This is the most basic requirement -- getting the job done. The necessary conditions for this are cohesiveness, competence, and accountability of the team.

  • Cohesiveness is essential for excellent team performance. Let's say we want to put together a team of 10. What we want to see is that the team results will be much more than simply a sum of individual effort. Cohesive teams achieve that through sharing and building on each other's strengths. Disjointed teams actually do worse than that because of the costs of coordination (meetings... you can tell how bad things are just by the amount of meetings an organization holds daily).
  • Competence is an obvious point, but it is often confused with narrowly defined criteria for the immediate job at hand, applied to all team members equally.
  • The sense of accountability motivates and sets an important framework (ethical, financial, strategic, tactical etc), within which the team makes everyday decisions. It is unmatched in power which it exerts on our performance and no coercion, no prospect of profit (material or not) come close in effectiveness.

A leader would be remiss if she relied on these conditions to occur automatically, yet how often do we see exactly that, management lamenting about their staff's shortcomings without any attempts to rectify them? Too often!

Innovative

Superb teams develop and prosper through innovation. This is especially important in the era of globalization when the competition is fierce and the pressure to minimize costs is often overwhelming. Why can't this team's work be done as well, but cheaper, elsewhere? This question never comes up if your team's innovative spirit is seen as a great asset, a jewel within the organization.

Enjoyable

We spend perhaps half of our waking hours with our colleagues. If this is unpleasant, so is a half of our life. To me personally, this isn't an option. As a leader, I also understand that only those teams that are enjoyable to be a part of, are sustainable in the long run.

What to aim for (and why this is not happening)

Does my take on winning teams sound reasonable? Many more points can be discussed and added, of course, but the important question I would like to answer at this point is this: what qualities should one look for in people to create a winning team as described above?

Here are seven key qualities I look for. I can easily develop everything else, such as technical skills, communication, and domain knowledge. I have little control over these innate virtues.

#1 Intelligence: Nothing beats raw intelligence, the ability to think clearly, to frame one's thoughts, to use appropriate examples, to abstract. Intelligent people create intelligent solutions. Intelligent people are interesting to work with.

The problem with traditional hiring today is that people are pre-selected for interviews based on some arbitrary measure of experience in the industry (why five years and not three or seven?) or the stated knowledge of a tool or technology (is your resume not full of buzzwords?). But how often do you see the requirement of intelligence?

#2 Integrity: As leaders, we put our utmost trust in people. As the experience of many political leaders suggests (President Obama's effort in putting the Cabinet together is the most recent), integrity is not to be taken for granted and its lack in a subordinate can be very damaging indeed. #3 Enthusiasm: Another powerful internal motivator, it cannot be taught. It is, however, said to be contagious. The upbeat take on life, events, and adversity is essential in today's environment. #4 Curiosity: The drive to learn, challenge, question, and try to understand is incredibly important if the team's performance, growth, and the ability to innovate is of any significance at all. I don't know how to develop it in someone lacking it. Do you? #5 Diversity: One of the fallacies of hiring is approaching it as if people were screws -- state the length, the diameter, the head shape, and the type of the thread, and expect them all to be the same for the immediate project at hand.

This approach is demeaning for the candidate and limiting (possibly, damaging) for the organization. Recently, an IT executive lamented on his efforts to find a job after being laid off. It seems, he said, that 20 years of diverse experience, solid leadership, and great results are not as important as whether he managed a particular system. This is the reality.

I look for people with complimentary skills and experiences, which not only make the team so much more powerful in terms of the breadth of collective knowledge, it also encourages teamwork and learning (we all need each other), and creates a team that delivers much more than a multiple of the individual effort.

#6 Teamwork. There is a small proportion of the population unable to work in a group. They may be great at what they do, highly intelligent, and have solid values, but it's a team we are building, right? #7 Sociability: What kind of people do you like to work with? Friendly, helpful, with a sense of humor? So do I.

"Fabulous," you may say, "now, how do I go about hiring these fine people?" In my next article, I'll cover "30 concrete hiring ideas you can apply straight away." Send me an email if you would like me to alert you when it is published.

About

Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building better IT organizations.

22 comments
steven.lock
steven.lock

I have always hired my staff based on the following criteria: 1. Attitude 2. Aptitude 3. Personality This has worked wonders for me. I have a high performance team, consistently showing good results. It does not really matter if the candidate/person I'm hiring has the technical skills I'm looking for. With the correct Attitude, coupled with the Aptitude to learn new things, it is not that all difficult to train/teach a person the technical skills required for a job. Here's a quote I've always relied on : "Hire and promote first on the basis of integrity; second, motivation; third, capacity; fourth, understanding; fifth, knowledge; and last and least, experience. Without integrity, motivation is dangerous. Without motivation, capacity is impotent. Without capacity, understanding is limited. Without understanding, experience is blind. Experience is easy to provide and quickly put to good use by people with all the other qualities." -- Dee Hock

Triathlete1981
Triathlete1981

This is great for building a wonderful team. One of the key traits is intelligence. Intelligent people know their value, and if their value is not rewarded, they will not be motivated. Therefore, a once motivated person becomes a lower producing worker because he knows management doesn't reward effort. Teams need reward just like everyone else, and reward comes from management.

FatNGristle
FatNGristle

Screen for aptitude, hire for attitude, train for skill.

belarl
belarl

This article was very interesting, I would really like to see the one on the 30 techniques.

addicted2speed
addicted2speed

Low turnover, both voluntary and involuntary, are good indications that the team is doing well and is happy. Hi involuntary turnover is indicative of leadership's inability to hire effective people. Voluntary turnover happens when people just don't want to work in the group (for various reasons). I once worked with an IT organization that had over 30% annual turnover, including voluntary and involuntary. Maybe this isn't so surprising to some of you, but this was incredible to me. Eventually I became part of that 30% simply because the group was not a fun group to be-in. I was not empowered to rectify the underlying issues, and was directly coerced into supporting the ineffective status quo. I'll just say that this place was not the "Happiest Place on Earth". From the friends that I made in the group, I hear the place is as ineffective as ever, with a dismal ROI. People are not motivated, empowered, or vested in the success of the group.

bcgumbert
bcgumbert

I liked this article and there are some good points brought up. Your mention of cohesiveness alluded to one thing that is critical. That is peoples personalities which is something you have no control over. This however is the most important thing to consider when forming a team. If you have a wrong personality mix you will never get out of what is sometime referred to as the storming phase of a team which is always a disaster. However one of the best things to ensure success is to have all the team members complete a Myers-Briggs or a Keirsey temperament sorter. These are simple tests to determine a basic personality profile. Getting this mix right is going to give you the some of the best performing teams you could ask for. With training dollars being scarce today besides knowing your teams personalities you need to give them some tools to work with. I am a book reader and have found a couple of really good references that I have been using for years. My favorite books on the subject are "The Memory Jogger Plus+" with the accompanying pocket guide and "The Team Handbook" which have been around for a while. There are a lot of one and two day seminars that would help. The benefit will ensure that you have great teams and that understand how they should work together. could send one or two of you people to a train the trainer type session and then use them to train others in house as the need arises. I have experience working places where this type of philosophy was employed and where it was not. The bottom line is if you do not do something like this they your chances of success are usually repeating the same mistakes over and over for years and eventually it will affect your bottom line.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

often, is they are not desired. What you actually want is a group or a department or even a mob. Getting the right people is one thing but without the required set up, that won't matter. Set them a collective goal(s), make them accountable as a team and keep your fingers out of it. Far too often managers feel threatened by the lack of man management a team should need, so they start dicking about with the dynamics to show that they are still in charge. If you aren't part of the team, ie live or die by their collective success, then the only thing you should be doing is defining success, preferably in easily understood concrete terms. Teams are flat structures, at best a team leader is the voice, traditional management relies on and requires far too rigid a hierarchy to allow them to work.

Bareng
Bareng

Good article indeed

yusman
yusman

Nice article, Ilya! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

rikudesai
rikudesai

Great article! I would love to get an alert when your next article is ready.

kandrolewicz2
kandrolewicz2

Excellent article! So easy to overlook the obvious.

MK Nice
MK Nice

Intresting - simingly small issues we overlook, thanx for the heads up

dalmei
dalmei

How do you apply this to teams you don't ever have face time with? Meaning, a few individuals are in one part of the world, others are somewhere else and I, the team leader am in a different location...

kevaburg
kevaburg

Although I agree that managers DO feel theatened from the knowledge that not all teams need continual management, they do still need management. A team without a central point of management contact is simply a mob and it does not take long before conflict breaks out. If the manager appointed is not technically up to the job of making a technical decision in times of conflict, then that manager should appoint someone that is capable from within the team. In this case the manager observes from the sidelines and the people that know what they are doing just get on and do it. In this way, a team is not held accountable, something I have never believed in. A team conprises of individuals with perhaps diverse skillsets. Why therefore should a team be held accountable for what could be a failing of one person?

abasi_obori
abasi_obori

Your really should talk to my bosses (Egyptians) about this, I am sure they will need to be refreshed with this great information. Nice article!!!!!

ibogorad
ibogorad

There are many things you can do: - establish relationships just like you would do with a local team. You need them to see you as a real person, not as an email account in the "From:" box. - use technology (video, teleconferences etc)to put names to faces. Communicate more than you would normally do. - visit in person if at all possible - treat them in the same way as your local employees when you disseminate information. A typical issue is that remote guys feel like second class citizens because local staff knows way more than they do - encourage lateral communication between the remote and local team members - tap into their expertise, ask for their opinions, delegate: make them feel an important and trusted part of the team Distances and time zones don't help, but productive work and successful teams are perfectly possible if you are willing to make it work.

NereusArcadius
NereusArcadius

I have done it but it is not easy. As companies merge and go lean this is becoming more and more common. The only true remedy for distance in communication. If you can get your management to agree to it or are able to coordinate with larger corporate events, bring the team together for a shared effort or activity. Regular group meetings by conference call can also help. Random calls to see how things are going don't hurt either. Just remember to use technology to the fullest and try to find ways to duplicate those things you would do if you were all co-located. The more chances your team has to contact one another, the better you will be able to develop synergies and team spirit.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Creating a team or fixing a broken one, is a different issue. But a team should pick it's own leader. My team we used to swap about depending on who we thought had the best idea to lead us forward. Manager knows best in a real team is a disaster, they are much easier to break than to fix. Most of what you are saying is coming from the trick where you take an existing group, call them a team, and then expect them to be a team. I was lucky enough to be specifically selected to be a part of new one. Five guys, no formally identified leader, one goal, reduce production losses due to IT systems failures. Clear achievable objective, good team election, sit back take the plaudits and keep your fingers out. We had disagreements about how on occasion but we sorted it out, or if we couldn't then we consulted our manager. It's an ideal I've only seen realised once in my career, but if you get it, it's beautiful, for the manager, the business and the players.

metzgerbusiness
metzgerbusiness

I'd like to classify our workforce into 3 groups to help clarify why you may be thinking that the only way to build "team" is to meet in person. Group 1 People who are over 45. People in this age group are only now beginning to get involved in the social networking communities and probably have not spent much time thinking about how to use the tools in business. Where they have thought about the business use of the tools is where there has already been much success in the branding and marketing of product. Group 2 This group consists of 30 - 45 year olds. Most of the users in group 2 have come to social networking in the past 4 years. Statistically this group has rapidly embraced the technology ie. I saw a graph where this group makes up close to 40% of Facebook's users now. This group has been making the branding and marketing efforts happen over the past 5 or 6 years and will be responsible for leading the way to implementing social tools in the corporate environment. This will be the group that must realize the opportunities to leverage community and human capital to it's fullest by creating collaborative teams and platforms for sharing knowledge across an organization. Group 3 This group consists of college graduates to 30 year olds who have been using social networking since they started high school. It is second nature and they don't consider it cheating to ask a friend for help on a project via the network. This group will demand and provide there best work in an environment that fosters the social collaboration by enabling social tools in the work place. This group does not have problems getting to know someone via their social profile and will provide updates to project the persona they want to be associated with. This group will actually lead the way in the use of the social tools that will allow the rest of us not the group to fully grasp and understand how to build teams virtually. As for team building the article was obviously written by someone in IT who did not think about team dynamics, diversity, the need to have varying skill sets. Do you really want a team of people who think exactly like you do? Follow the advice provided in the article and you'll get exactly that. Have you ever tried to win an argument with yourself? It's no fun and no one can win.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Traditional hierarchical management structure labelled to look progressive. Leaders pick themselves, by getting people to follow them. To make one person in a team accountable, is to have someone to pass bucks to, ie make everyone else unaccountable. You aren't ever going to get a team out of that. It's trite but there is no I in team. That means not only that you can't take credit for the team's success, it also means you aren't individually to blame for it's failure either. If you ever really want a team, communal and equal accountability is a pre-requisite.

kevaburg
kevaburg

But although the concept as you lay it out sounds great, I unfortunately have yet to see it work. I was formally an electrician before my IT-life (OK, not as a civilian so the circumstances change slightly) and as the most qualified on-site, was "unofficially" the one in charge. This unclear leadership status led to some heated discussions about even the most basic of tasks and who thought who should be doing what job. Maybe the fault was mine; I was no experienced leader at the time, but the lesson I took away and use even now, is that a clear line of accountability that sits with one person, the team "guide" if you like, needs to be drawn. I have found this approach helps define accountability, improves communication in general, and helps give everyone in the team a sense of individual purpose that is strengthened through encouragement. This encouragement can only come from the leader that knows what they are talking about, and this is the point where the stereotypical manager steps out and a more appropriate person steps in. I would love to work in a team as you describe it, but unfortunately human nature makes yor case the exception rather than the rule.

kevaburg
kevaburg

I agree in a greater part with what you have written but group 3 has an inherent flaw that I have witnessed far too often. A lack of ability to communictae with people face-to-face. I don't mean separated by a camera. I mean the warm handshake, the confident tone of voice, the application of practical experience while someone looks over your shoulder. Your group 3 lacks REAL communication skills and I believe this is in greater part due to the development of social networking. If teams are going to be built and held effectively together, then the team needs to effectively communicate using ALL communication mediums and not just one or two. That is the reason why I would select candidates from group 2 and instill the need for them to pass and nurture those communication skills to those that will suceed them. The "Playstation generation" needs to adapt their skills to embrace the requirements of the traditional team while effectively utilising the tools available to them.

Editor's Picks