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!


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.


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.


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.

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