Oswald Letter

What Makes a Team, “a Team”?

Team in SyncRecently, the Miami Heat won the NBA championship. It was the team’s first title since the “Big Three” — LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh — joined forces, with great fanfare, predicting a multitude of championships for the Heat a few years back.

This year’s championship silenced a lot of critics who, after a couple of years passed without a title, started to openly question whether the famous trio and those around them were a team or just a compilation of talented individuals.

That brings me to my question, “What makes a team, ‘a team’?”

By all accounts, the Heat have as much or more talent than any team in the NBA. Yet, until this year, they hadn’t been able to win the ultimate prize. That implies it takes more than just pure talent to field the best team. So what are the other elements, beyond talent, that make for a great team?

I can think of four.

Mutual respect. The first building block for a great team is mutual respect. Teammates don’t have to be best friends to be successful, but they must respect one another both personally and professionally. Members of a team must know that each person is capable of successfully fulfilling his or her role so that the team can ultimately succeed. And, it’s mutual respect that causes the individual not to want to let his teammates down. Without respect, it’s difficult for a team to succeed.

Trust. A team must have trust to be successful. It’s crucial that teammates trust one another to do their jobs. It’s one thing to know someone is capable of fulfilling her role, but it’s another to trust she will actually do it. Of course, trust takes time to build among teammates because it requires a demonstration of consistency. Trust also comes from the knowledge that the team, regardless of outcome, will share the blame or the glory. This knowledge is also something that is gained over time.

Self-sacrifice. Basketball great Magic Johnson, borrowing from JFK, once said, “Ask not what your teammates can do for you. Ask what you can do for your teammates.” It takes that type of self-sacrifice from every team member to make the team truly successful.  Each person on the team must exemplify the attitude that Johnson advocates — the willingness to put the team and your teammates before yourself. Self-sacrifice doesn’t come easily for many, but without it, it becomes very difficult to build trust and respect among the team. People must know that the team comes before any individual.

Common goal. The fourth ingredient of a successful team is a shared goal, that common purpose each team member embraces and is willing to strive and sacrifice for. It’s something bigger than the individual, something that only the team can achieve. If you can find the goal everyone buys into, the team will coalesce around it and a group of individuals will become a team. The other three elements are critical, but without the common goal there is no team.

The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” To achieve the individual commitment to a group effort, you need mutual respect, trust, self-sacrifice and a common goal.

It’s your job as the manager, coach, or leader to create an environment where all four of these elements exist. That means hiring people with the right capabilities and attitudes — and the willingness to rid the team of those who do not demonstrate the skills and traits necessary for the team’s success. It takes time and effort on your part to find all the right pieces to build the strongest possible team.  And when the pieces are in place, it’s critical that you articulate a shared vision that the entire team can rally around. Without it, there is no team.

3 thoughts on “What Makes a Team, “a Team”?”

  1. No surprise. I have seen the same thing happen in hockey in Canada where the coach made all the difference between a solid team and a group of individuals. And, where constant changes in the line-up threw the not-so-good team even further back. It is not all about the players who yes, need to be able to pull their weight and show their passion. It is also about the leader who needs to see, understand and follow-up with the appropriate intervention as required by each individual.

  2. All these factors must be kept in mind all of the time. If we forget one or more, then achieving the team goal becomes that much more difficult. Meet in a staff meeting and reinforce these points.

  3. Having a well organized leader makes a big difference as to how the team operates. I have had organized and not so organized managers; it definitely affects my attitude towards projects and goals. I am a dedicated, hard worker but when the leader lacks vision and direction it makes for poor execution and causes friction and frustration within the team.

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