Five Elements to a Real Team

If you want to go fast – go alone.  If you want to go far – go together.  This African proverb is a great place to start as you consider building real teams in an attempt to go far.

Not every group that gathers around a conference table to share weekly updates is a team. A real team is made up of a small number of people with complementary skills, committed to a common purpose. They have common performance goals and a common approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. Let’s take a closer look at each of the elements, that when they all come together, make a successful team:

Small number: Numbers can vary, but generally, two to twenty-five people constitutes a team. More than twenty-five becomes too unwieldy; people have trouble interacting and agreeing on details. One side note: Even with a smaller number of members, your meetings will still need to be organized and run smoothly. Don’t just tell people to show up. Tell them why they are coming, how they should prepare, and what they should bring. For example, sending out an agenda with action items a few days prior is an effective way to achieve this. People need to see the purpose of a meeting, otherwise it will feel like a chore to them.

Complementary skills: These are really important because it’s how the work gets done—or, in the worst case scenario, how the work doesn’t get done.  A team will, for the most part, need three different types of skills:

  • Technical or functional expertise: Every project has technical requirements that need to be met. Leaders must be able to assess the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to meet those requirements.
  • Problem-solving and decision-making skills: Many times, teams consist of great technical people that struggle solving business issues. If no one can make a decision, whether it is at the task or project level, then nothing gets done:  “The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it’s the same problem you had last year.” – John Foster Dulles (1888 – 1959), U.S. Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • Interpersonal skills: Teams need people who are willing to help, willing to ask for help, and willing to be understanding and empathetic. The lack of these skills is the most likely cause of teamwork failure.

Common purpose: Organizations need a higher purpose to inspire passion. This is true for teams as well. If the members are there just for a paycheck, then you’ll have to find a common purpose and meaning for the project. This will be the glue that coheres them into a successful team.

Common performance goals: Having these goals are very important. We also need to tie these goals to the project’s purpose and the overall performance of the organization. Being able to see that is motivating; it’ll make people work harder. Goals that lack purpose are hollow and uninspiring.

Common approach: There is no need to reinvent the wheel with every work process. As the leader, you need to establish a common way of working from the outset and making sure your team understands and commits to it. To establish this, ask yourself the following questions;

What are the specific jobs to be done and is there a common way of doing them?  

How are schedules going to be kept? With a master schedule or a specific tool?

How are decisions going to be made? Collaboratively? Dictatorially?

How are people selected for team membership? As a team leader, do you have control of this or are people placed on your team without your input?

How will any modifications be made?

If you don’t instill a common approach for your team, seeds of discontent will be sewn amongst your team members. It will then become more and more difficult to manage and lead them.

Focusing on the elements of real teams give you more than a fighting chance to “go far.”


3 Reasons Why People Quit? How About a 4th?

Guest Post by Denise O’Neill, Owner, CEO, Executive Coach, Peer Advisory Business Solutions Strategist – The Alternative Board – Baltimore Washington

Recently FAST COMPANY shared a new study from Glassdoor about the reasons people quit their jobs. Based on analysis of resumes of 5,000+ workers who changed jobs in the last 9 years, researchers identified several trends. Some seem obvious, such as people quitting to work at another company or getting a raise. The much talked about “Work Life Balance” didn’t make the top three!

After examining these trends, Glassdoor’s statistical analysis surfaced the 3 factors responsible for employee retention:

1. Company culture

2. Employee salary

3. Getting stuck in the same job for long periods of time

Last week I was reminded that there’s another reason good employees resign. Career Mystery! In an exit interview I held for a growing mid size company, a star salesperson shared that he wouldn’t have entertained leaving the company had he understood the long term vision the company had for him. He hadn’t appreciated the salary growth, management options and career opportunities available to him. It is critical management ensure key employees understand their value to the company and that regular career pathing discussions are held. In a low unemployment environment, holding on to valuable employees by building and sharing a long term career path, can be an important differentiator when hungry future employers “ come a calling”!


How do you Communicate a Vision? It Takes Both Leadership and Management

Leadership and Management are two different functions, but must be aligned. Why?

Leadership is about having followers – getting people to understand and believe in your vision and to work with you to achieve your goal. Warren Bennis, accomplished author and leadership scholar, echoes this: “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” How do you get there? By managing. This is more about making sure the day-to-day activities are progressing as they should.

Here are some great examples:

  • When you challenge how things work as a leader, you then have to implement any change you’ve made to that process as a manger.
  • While you can inspire a shared vision as a leader, you must institute plans and budgets as a manager. For example, you can be a visionary and say, “We are going to be a $100 million dollar firm,” but you still need to plan and budget for that if it’s going to happen.
  • As a leader, you need to create alignment and as a manger you have to direct and organize your resources. How can you accomplish this? Aligning your team means ensuring people are on the right teams, teams moving in the right directions, directions that are focused on the right customer and so on. Managers are then responsible for ensuring that company resources such as labor and equipment are organized and pointed in the right direction.
  • As a leader, you need to create a model for the way people are to follow you. “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” – John C. Maxwell. As a manger, you will find yourself solving problems, controlling projects and making sure everything is on schedule and in line.

Good Leaders will motivate with their vision but good managers will make sure the job gets done. Almost everyone is naturally better at one than the other. A balance of these is rarely found at the individual level, but is a requirement at the organizational level.

Stephen Covey says it best; “Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline, carrying it out.”


Discipline is the Key to Tackling your Biggest Challenges

There’s an old world proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Fast is fun – for a time. You can cover a bunch of territory on your own, but what happens if you break down? If your objective is big and will take you far from your comfort zone, you simply can’t get it done without a team to support you.

Teams present great opportunity because they hold within their ranks a number of ideas and a variety of skill sets. They also have a special production capability: they have the size, the scale, and the scope to tackle a large volume of work, and they benefit from a division of labor. So we use teams to conquer big projects and challenges within the organization.  Team success requires a strong performance culture. You want a team that is committed to accomplishing goals and meeting milestones.  This is a team that other talented individuals will want to join. We all know of teams that don’t get much done but have fun and go to happy hour together every Friday, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. With successful teams, fun follows form: a team that achieves success is an engaged and happy team.

Certainly our Western culture, with its bias toward individualism and going fast, can undermine the idea of teamwork and a team culture of performance, but it doesn’t have to. The team should find a way to embrace individual talents. For example, if you have an orchestra, you want the most accomplished musicians. If you interview someone for a technology team, you won’t say, “This person’s brilliant in a particular technology, but we can’t use her because she’s not going to fit well on the team.” You’ll find a way to make her brilliance work for the team.


As a team begins to work together, discipline becomes critical to getting the best from every individual. We see this in sports teams all the time; the members are all talented athletes in their own right, but they have the discipline to work together to run plays well. The same goes for teams in the workplace. Discipline creates the environment for team performance—an environment in which everyone on the team accepts that a project must start and end on time, stay under budget, and satisfy the stakeholder base.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together … and stay disciplined!”


He’s a Leader – But Can Tim Tebow play baseball? Who cares!

This is my favorite time of the baseball season.  For the next few weeks, every pitch and every at-bat is amplified.  As I’m following the playoff run of my Baltimore Orioles, the New York Mets are signing former NFL quarterback, Tim Tebow.  Everyone seems to have an opinion on this young man.  Baseball people question his skills.  Can he hit a major league slider, can he even compete for playing time at the higher levels of the minor leagues?  If I were a baseball exec, I’d sign him because of his work ethic.  I don’t have any inside knowledge, but everything I read and hear indicates he is legendary worker and he consistently models the right behavior. He is a Leader!

Leadership gurus Kouzes and Posner call this “modeling the way,” and it’s one of the most powerful leadership practices.  In the business world we live in, it’s about setting examples for your team for everything from workplace procedures, dress, and meeting times to e-mail responses, deliverables, and product releases—in other words, everything that you may deal with as a leader and manager.

I attended a meeting recently where a very experienced leader showed up with a written agenda, written action items that had come out of the previous meetings, a written introduction for the new players on the team, and a specific list of outcomes that he wanted from this meeting. He was modeling the way. He had done this a hundred times before and would continue to do this, and it would eventually become part of the culture.  He was modeling behavior that others would emulate.

Who is “modeling the way’” in your company?  Tim Tebow may never play an inning in the big leagues, but I’ll bet you every minor leaguer in the Mets systems will be positively impacted by his leadership practice of modelling the way.  Worth the investment?


Forget the Elevator Pitch- You need a Wheelhouse Pitch!

Guest Post by T.E. Clifton III, CEO, Eastport Analytics, Inc.

Business people hear a lot about the critical need for an “elevator pitch” for their business – a short and persuasive sales pitch. I’ve sat through countless peer advisory meetings where CEOs struggle to express their company’s value in 2 minutes or less. Invariably, this exercise degenerates into a version of “selling the pen”. The CEOs in question usually try to come up with the perfect 100-words-or-less that describe their “pen” – their company, product, service, offering, whatever. And like the actors in “Wolf of Wall Street”, they’re missing the point.

Selling isn’t about describing your product/service/offering; it’s about understanding a prospective client’s needs enough to enable you to tell the story of how their needs will be satisfied by your offering. The same point is made by the old business school mantra “sell holes not drills”.  So ditch the “elevator pitch” – what you need is a “Wheelhouse Pitch” – a way to climb in to your prospective client’s wheelhouse, and understand enough about what they’re doing there to be able to tell the story of how your offering could help.

To get started on your Wheelhouse Pitch, first you need a clear idea of who your idealized client is, and how to quickly establish what if any part of their “wheelhouse” enables you to tell your story. Second, you need some process for identifying likely potential clients & how to get to them. And finally you need the story – how is your idealized client’s need satisfied by your offering.


The Best Interview Question of All Time

What is the best interview question ever?  Let me tell you a story.

In the late 90’s, I took over as President and CEO of a company named CTX.  A small $6M technology services company.  As an outsider, I went on a bit of a listening tour and sat down with every manager in the company.  When I met with our head of Human Resources and began talking about my view on the importance of company culture and some of the ideas I had around engagement and empowerment, the response was very negative.  She made it very clear that my kinds of ideas would never work in this company.

All of us have to learn to challenge the status quo. How many times have you tried to roll out a change of some sort, only to hear “That will never work here” or “That’s not how we do it around here”?  As a leader, you have to be comfortable standing up to that attitude. Moreover, you should always be looking for opportunities to change things up, experiment, and take some risks. That’s how your business will improve.

Possessing and developing certain innate strengths helps you become an effective leader. But you also need to use specific leadership practices that have been proven over time to increase your ability to lead people.   Challenging the status-quo is one of those practices.

You may be wondering what happened to my subsequent conversations with the Director of HR.  Turns out they were very short.  She came in the day after we met and offered her resignation – I was happy to oblige.

We went on to interview twelve candidates for the job.  For each candidate, I asked them if they received the Society of Human Resources (SHRM) magazine – the periodical of their profession.  Each did.  I then went on to say that my expectations for this position was that within two years, “they would be on the cover of the SHRM magazine with a tagline of “how to attract and retain in the high tech industry.””  “Can you embrace that challenge”?

Of the twelve candidates, eleven figuratively crawled under the table – the twelfth embraced it.  We hired number twelve and never looked back!

Challenge the status quo.


Intent plus Action measures Integrity?

Integrity.  We can all identify truly high-integrity people. For example, Professor Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank and Mother Teresa are two people whose work has received widespread acclaim for having high integrity and improving the lives of people. But for most leaders, integrity is measured by the alignment of their intent with their actions.

Just by reading the daily news feed and meeting with customers and partners, we are flooded with a wide array of intentions to interpret.  But the actions taken by the characters that fill our lives gives us great insight into their intent and potentially, their integrity.

What was the intent of Donald Trump when he made a political contribution to the Attorney General of Florida?  What was the intent of that same government official when she took that contribution?  What was the intent of Hillary Clinton when she set up a private email server?  What was the intent of the young technology professional tasked with the job?  What was your intent when you gave a raise to a high performer?  What was your intent when you lowered your price of your product or service?

Of course, most people approach their work with the intent of doing a good job, but generally, when people focus on the outcome of their work rather than the performance of their duties, the results are better. Focusing on positive outcomes means working with integrity. We might say that these leaders are “customer focused,” but what drives them is their integrity and not their interpretation of their job responsibilities.

As you build your team, ask yourself if each member of the team really understands what you are trying to accomplish.  Can your team focus on a positive outcome for the client, for the customer, for the partner, for the employees?

In his book Noble Intent, Fran Landolf suggests the decisions we make at work set events in motion, the outcome of which can be unpredictable.  Your focus on a positive outcome along with a noble intent will go a long way in assuring a predictable outcome and ensuring your perception as a high integrity leader.


Does Your Fitness Level Impact Your Ability to Lead?

What if you were in better shape?  Would it have an impact on the kind of leader you want to be?  Would you work longer and harder?  Would you make better decisions at the end of the day?  Would you stick with some of your initiatives longer?

In The Leadership Factor, Kotter identifies traits that we have had since we were children that may have an impact on what kind of leader we are now and what kind of leader we’re going to turn out to be. His view is that these traits are shaped by our education, the exposure that we have to different leaders, and our career experiences, whether they’re trial-and-error experiences or learnings from formal training programs.

The very first trait Kotter presents is “drive and energy level.”   Kotter says a leader needs this trait to deal with the difficulties of producing change over a long period of time. Drive keeps a leader focused on the finish line, while energy is the modality to reach that goal. I worked with entrepreneurs in a previous role as an advisory board member at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), [email protected] Research & Technology Park, and one thing these entrepreneurs have more than everybody else is drive and energy. They can generally see the finish line and outwork anybody, plus they have a tenacity that helps them make things happen, no matter the challenges they face.

Juilan Hayes’s article in Entrepreneur suggest that “entrepreneurs have a tendency to lose focus and place their health on the back burner in pursuit of achieving profits.”  Beyond the obvious of getting more sleep and eating better, he challenges all of us to “prepare” for workouts, just as we would prepare for sales calls and meetings.  Finally, the “drive” that pushes you to meet every customer commitment can also be repurposed to consistently meet more of your fitness goals.

So will you become a better leader by increasing your fitness level?  There seems to be no downside in giving it a shot!


A View on Admired Leaders

Just as we can learn from what successful CEOs have to say, we can also study and learn from the attributes of successful leaders everywhere, not just in the business world.

In 1999, the Gallup organization decided to create a twentieth-century most-admired-leaders list based on polling it had been doing since 1948, in which Americans were asked which man or woman they admired the most. The resulting list was fascinating in its diversity. It included social-justice crusaders such as Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr., who changed the shape of history; political leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill; people who never held elected office, such as Helen Keller and Eleanor Roosevelt; religious leaders such as Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II; the scientist Albert Einstein; and many others.

It makes you wonder, What’s the common ground among these diverse leaders? What makes them so successful at inspiring others? Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, probably two of the most impressive leadership writers we have today, have some research-based answers to those questions. In their book The Leadership Challenge, they list the characteristics of admired leaders based on a series of worldwide surveys. While the list is long and each of the characteristics received some votes, what’s really striking is this: in thirty years’ worth of surveys, only four characteristics have continually received more than 50 percent of the votes:

  • Honest. In almost any survey that Kouzes and Posner conducted, being honest was selected more than any other leadership characteristic. So it’s pretty clear from their research that people are more likely to follow someone—whether in the battlefield or in the boardroom, in the front office or on the front lines—if they believe that person is worthy of their trust.
  • Forward-looking. People expect their leaders to have a sense of direction and a concern for the future of a project and their whole organization—in other words, the ability to envision the future. Leaders themselves usually cite this as one of their own best traits.
  • Inspiring. We all expect a leader to be a bit of a cheerleader. (Who really wants to follow a Dreary Dan?) Leaders need to communicate their vision in a way that encourages and inspires followers so that, whatever the circumstances— even, for example, if expected deliverables are overdue or looming project deadlines seem unreachable—the leaders can breathe new life into the effort and get people to keep following them.
  • Competent. Most of us see this characteristic as critical to leadership. I’m not talking about technical competence here. This refers to the leader’s track record of accomplishment: in the past, did the leader deliver what was promised? This type of competence will inspire the confidence of followers.

These are the most valued leadership characteristics, say Kouzes and Posner.  How do you and your leadership team compare to this veritable list and how can you improve in the four categories we all seem to find so compelling to strong leadership?