Creating great teams is hard work

By Dr Marianne Broadbent*

How would you describe the attributes of the team of which you are a member, that is a peer member, not the team you lead? Would you use words like ‘effective, cohesive, supportive and committed’? Or would descriptions like ‘lacking in trust’, ‘not really a team or truly collaborative’ and ‘engaging in conflict avoidance’ be more appropriate?

If we asked the same question of the team you lead, how would your team members describe their experiences as a member of your team?

Great teams are the result of a lot of effort from the team leader and each team member. They don’t just happen. They are usually the outcome of a conscious and deliberate effort to understand what makes teams work well, and learn what matters to the individual members (and acknowledge this in tangible ways). This is complemented by good linkage of individual aspirations and roles to the remit of the organisation.

The path to achieving truly effective teams is not ‘rocket science’ and it is quite well documented. So why do so many of us have experiences of mediocre, frustrating, or just plain bad teamwork?

The answer lies in the simple failure to do the work to build genuine trust amongst team members. To build that trust the individuals need to really get to know one another as people. They need to know what matters to each other, to deal with conflict constructively, agree on commitments and then hold each other accountable for delivering agreed results.

This sounds simple, and at one level it is. But first each of us needs to be willing to come to terms with two things: the first is to understand ourselves, and the second is to really get to know, and understand, our colleagues as people rather than as just another officer, peer, executive, manager or service provider.

About six months ago we were in conversation with a newly appointed executive responsible for a large team of smart people providing services to many significant government departments and agencies. He was thrilled with his appointment, but aware that he had inherited a competitive and challenging group of smart individuals, focused on achieving their individual goals.

He had heard comments that it takes at least 18 months to build a really great team, and wanted to know if this was true. We explained that is about the usual time period, but you can certainly accelerate this process with a sound grasp of the importance of building trust, modelling trusting behaviour, personal focus, real consistency and commitment.

That consistency and commitment starts with the leader of the team, and starts with their own ability to share their strengths, weaknesses, development needs and experiences with the team they lead. But there are risks here, but without some informed risk-taking, the rewards don’t come.

When we take on our first executive or management role, we often want to show ourselves to be strong, truly capable, and lacking in vulnerabilities. But some of the most powerful and effective leaders adopt a different stance: they share what matters to them as people, as individuals, not just as an executive; they know their strengths and where they need help and are not afraid to share that with their team members; they are willing to share their failures, what they learnt from them, and areas that they continue to work on.

Their real strength is their ability to build trust by trusting their team members with information about their own vulnerabilities. They are modelling the behaviour that they want their team members to demonstrate. This is not necessarily easy and can be misunderstood. Our perceptions of gender differences and different cultural expectations complicate this situation. But the ability to model real trust, and through that, have other team members trust each other, is the firm foundation of great teamwork.

We have worked with, and observed, a significant number of executive leaders and their teams who have taken that journey in different ways. The experience can be challenging at first, but it is all part of continuing to learn and grow, and then contribute and participate at a higher level.

Some years ago I was part of global team where we managed to get together face to face about every three months (remembering too that this was years before Skype, Halo or Telepresence).

My youngish boss had a very keen focus on us getting to know more about each other, which at the time I felt was quite enjoyable but perhaps a bit ‘diverting’.

However, I came to appreciate how we were quickly getting to know and appreciate each other, be comfortable with how we each got things done, and our various differences and quirks.

The experience of that team remains with me today, as we were able to then more readily deal with conflicts, have very direct discussions, agree on commitments and then expect that these would be delivered as agreed with each of us doing our parts.

We held each other accountable for what we had agreed to do. It was demanding, but very satisfying and that is what most of us look for in our everyday work.

We used to talk about ‘hero’ CEOs, Secretaries or Directors-General but this time has now passed (mostly…). Great leaders create great teams and deliver sustainable and sustained results. Creating effective teams is hard work, but it ‘delivers’ on so many levels.

Again, it is worth reflecting, how would your team members describe their experiences as a member of your team? Do you know? Have you asked them?

*Dr Marianne Broadbent is Senior Partner with Leadership Consultancy, EWK International.

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