Oswald Letter

“Team building” requires much more than a weekend retreat

by Dan Oswald

We talk a lot about teams in the workplace today. When we recruit to fill a position, we say, “We’re looking for team players.” When the team achieves success, we say, “We win as a team.” When we consider whether we have the right people on the team, we say, “The team is only as good as its weakest player.” And we hold rah-rah meetings, hand out T-shirts and buttons, and go on retreats all in an effort to build a sense of unity and camaraderie.

But do we have it all wrong? Maybe. You see it takes more than wearing the same uniform or spending a weekend together on a ropes course to make a team. Look at any professional sports team, and you’ll see that the talent difference between most of them is insignificant. Yet certain teams are consistently better than others. Those teams have something intangible that is often referred to as “chemistry.”

If you want to be an effective leader, you must understand how teams work and how to develop “chemistry” among your team members. Here are some key aspects to consider as you try to develop a team that can successfully work together.

Each team member plays a different role. Just like on a sports team, there can be only one quarterback or one shortstop. As the team leader, you must assess and understand the individual strengths of each member of the team. You must decide where each person’s unique talents best fit within the team to contribute to the group’s overall success. And let’s face it—some roles aren’t sexy, but they’re absolutely critical. The quarterback can’t throw a touchdown pass without the 300-pound behemoth in front of him preventing the opposing team from sacking him. It’s your job to put the right people in the right places. Understanding how each position contributes to the team’s success is paramount if you want a winning team.

Some roles are more important than others, but every role is critical. Anything other than admitting this obvious truth is a practice in self-deception and a failed attempt at either deceiving or placating others. Why is it that the quarterback is often the highest-paid player on the team? Because his role is the most important. He touches the ball on every offensive play. That doesn’t mean he can succeed without his teammates and that they don’t contribute crucial elements to the team’s success. As the leader, you must understand the importance of each role.

The leader must create a sense of mission for the team. It’s your job to make sure everyone understands the team’s goals and what each individual member’s role is in achieving them. That requires you to have a vision and the ability to communicate it effectively to each and every team member. This is the only way you will be able to build a sense of commitment in the group to achieve those common goals. Whether you’re trying to win the Super Bowl or complete a project on time and on budget, all team members must know what they’re trying to achieve collectively and what their individual role is in contributing to that success.

It may be all about the team, but a team is made up of individuals. It’s those individuals and the interaction between them and with you that ultimately will determine the fate of the team. You can never lose sight of who those individuals are, what they do, or what motivates them. It’s your job to treat them all fairly, but you don’t have to treat them the same way. You need to know what makes each of them tick, and then go about getting the best out of each one.

It takes time to get the right mix of players on your team. No championship team is built overnight, and the same goes for a successful business team. Just like a professional sports team is constantly evaluating its players, bringing in new blood, and parting ways with those who don’t fit or haven’t produced, you must do the same. No one gets it right the first time, and you must be open to changing the mix of people to arrive at that ideal blend of talent and chemistry.

Building a successful team takes discipline, patience, and hard work. Having a true understanding of what really makes a team and what it takes for a team to be successful is critical if you want to be successful. Wearing the same uniform or participating in so-called team-building exercises won’t make a team. It takes much more than that, and it’s your job to figure out exactly how to turn the group you manage into a real team that works together, understands the team’s mission, and knows what each team member can do to help the team achieve success. It’s not an easy task, but it certainly can be a rewarding one.