Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

Are You Building ‘Best’ Teams?

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Guest post by Bernie Bulkin, author of Crash Course

The central competency of any corporate (or charity or political or sports) leader is the ability to build a great team. But how? What are the key elements? And while sometimes we have the luxury of putting together a team from scratch, where you can pick the individuals you want to have, more often leaders inherit a team that may or may not have a record of performance, that they need to build into a ‘best team’. Here are a few key things:

  1. CRASH COURSE CoverTake the time to get to know everyone in the team, and what their hopes and aspirations are. Some people will be very happy where they are, doing the job they are doing, but don’t want you rocking the boat. Some are at the opposite extreme – they are thinking about the next job and how you are going to help them to get out of the current one. Some are harbouring resentments – to the previous leader, to someone else in the team, to some vague power off in the ether. You need to know about all these things because they are going to affect your ability to get this team to perform. So while your instinct may be to make your presence felt right away by setting the course for the future, you will be more effective if you take time to get to know the cast of characters with whom you are dealing.
  2. Try to get a sense of how well they know each other. Through the right sort of questions you can figure out whether people have any idea at all about the colleagues with whom they are working. And if they don’t, you need to sit with the whole team and do an exercise where they learn something about the person sitting next to them, and tell the rest of the team what they have learned. Or one where everyone puts up something personal about themselves on a post-it note for the rest of the team to read. This is not complex or difficult, but it is a worthwhile use of time.
  3. The team needs to free itself from being stuck in the past. So you need to know and understand what holds them back, and talk this through. Then they need to consciously discard these sticky substances that are holding them, so that they can move forward.
  4. The team will be motivated by aspiration rather than by fear. Sure, there are sports managers and teachers (did you see the film Whiplash?) who try to motivate by fear. It doesn’t work. But if you can convey an aspiration and discuss it, and everyone can buy into this aspiration, then you have a way of moving forward towards a future. The aspiration must be such that it requires exceptional performance, from you, from each and every one of them. Everyone must be convinced that it is worthwhile, and that achieving it will be something in which they take excessive pride. And each of them must see their particular part in achieving that aspiration.
  5. Having an aspiration for the team, I always make sure to see how it is different from current reality. Why? Because the difference between aspiration and current reality creates a tension, and your job as leader is to be sure that tension is creative, and that it is resolved by not compromising on the aspiration. Creative tension is very different from fear; it is exciting and motivating.
  6. Your key skill in building a great team is the ability to give and receive feedback. Take advice from your HR manager, if you have one, as to when feedback is best given one to one, and when it is useful to do it in a team meeting. Some individuals are valuable but fragile, and all of us are fragile to some degree about hearing truths in front of others. So be sensitive, but be direct and truthful. And as I said, it is about giving and receiving You need to convey to everyone that you want to hear from them, once again sometimes in the group and sometimes privately, but you are open to this. Having received it, you damn well better act on what you have heard, just as you expect them to act on what you have said.
  7. And finally, best teams are the ones that believe that they will achieve extraordinary things, and that they don’t negotiate performance. Sometimes it takes longer, maybe that is negotiable, maybe not – it depends on the business challenge. But the level of performance, the specific things we have agreed as a team we will do, that is our promise, to the boss, to the corporation, to our shareholders, and we will get it done.

Bernie Bulkin is the author of Crash Course, published by Whitefox. He is a senior partner with management consultancy Re.fresch, and has served on the boards of 10 companies, four of them as Chairman. He held several senior management positions in BP and in the UK Government.

One thought on “Are You Building ‘Best’ Teams?

  1. Awesome list, thanks, have taken some notes. Point number 1 is so important, just getting to know everyone on your team, and when you do that, you build credibility and trust.

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