How to Build a Winning Team

Mariel L had been the top performer in her tech sales group. According to the organizational logic of many corporate giants, she was rewarded with the chance to head up her own team.

“The problem was, there was no team for me to head up,” recalls Mariel. “They wanted me to build one from scratch. It was the most difficult year of my life. You don’t know how many times I wished I could just go back to my safe old job.”

The challenge thrust on Mariel is one that successful professionals face over and over in their careers. How well they meet that challenge decides whether they move up into the upper levels of management or get stuck in the lower rungs.

The ability to build a winning team is what separates management material from the rank and file. Unfortunately, it isn’t a skill that any of us possesses naturally. Fortunately, it is one that can be learned. It helps to have an overview of the 6 steps that Mariel L used to end up with a winning team at the end of that difficult year.

1. Articulate a Clear and Compelling Goal

A group of people cannot become a team unless everyone shares the same clear understanding of a compelling goal. Here’s where managers learn from studying sports. Most people muddle through their workdays without a clear and compelling goal, but they have no such problem with a baseball or basketball game: score more points than the other team and win. What could be clearer than scoring a run or a basket? What could be more compelling than winning?

Of course, a professional or corporate team deals with more complex issues than a sports team, but to be successful, its goal must be every bit as clear and compelling.

A compelling goal is one that everyone on the team would agree is worth attaining. One that is too modest isn’t exciting and won’t engage the emotions and get the team excited. One that is too ambitious would merely provoke skepticism and undue discouragement. Ideally the goal should be one that can be reached with consistent effort and enthusiasm.

When it comes to articulating your team’s goal, go for clarity and simplicity over poetry and refinement. “1,000 renewals by Thanksgiving” is much better than “Love the client and and they’ll love us.” The goal must be one that isn’t subject to different interpretations by different team members.

Fancy phrases and slogans won’t save a goal that is not compelling or unclear. So rather than wasting time trying to carve out a catchy slogan, focus on the substance of the goal and reduce it down to a simple number or other objective indicator.

2. Structure the Team for Efficiency

An efficient team is one that achieves the goal with the fewest members. Stated differently, an efficient structure is one that lets the team achieve a given result with the least proportion of effort devoted to coordinating the efforts of individual members.

The importance of keeping the team small cannot be overstated.

The amount of communication needed to coordinate a team’s efforts rises geometrically with the size of the team. An 8-person team requires 87% more communication than a 6-person team. That means that beyond a certain size (usually between 5-7), each added team member may increase the team’s coordination time nearly as much as its productive time. That is why a team of 12 or 14 may actually end up being less productive than a team of 5 or 6.

Another key element of efficiency is keeping the structure as flat as possible. In the classic organization, a team members are forced to go up and down the chain of command in order to communicate with the leader or other members of the team. In a flat-structured team each member has direct access to every other, including the leader. A flat structure generally allows the leader — often the most productive and knowledgeable team member — to devote more time to productive tasks. On the other hand, for teams in which every member must be kept fully informed of the entire project (i.e. software development), it may be more efficient to have every member be in on every communication.

3. Keep Individual Responsibilities Flexible

A common mistakes in team building is maintaining rigidly fixed areas of responsibility. Even experienced teambuilders can’t anticipate how each member will settle into new responsibilities. Some highly credentialed team members may have trouble adapting to a role on a new team while an inexperienced worker may come to thrive on taking on new responsibilities.

As team leader one of your most important responsibilities is to make adjustments to optimize the evolving capabilities on your team members. One who finds her responsibilities overwhelming must be shifted to a lesser role and while one who finds little challenge in her job must be given enough new responsibilities.

4. Reward Commitment and Stability

A team’s effectiveness is usually directly proportional to the length of time it has been together. A mediocre team that has been together for a year is far more effective than even the most talented team trying to rebuild after substantial turnover. It takes weeks or even months for team members to adjust to their responsibilities and begin interacting efficiently. The longer a team has been together, the better it knows how to utilize the capabilities of its members and cover for their weaknesses. It also develops procedures to handle sustained or complex tasks with an efficiency not attainable by less seasoned teams.

Turnover of even the most junior member severely compromises a team’s effectiveness. The routines of other team members are disrupted as they take time away from their duties to fill in for the departed member. The orientation of each new member costs the team lost productivity and efficiency as team members take time to make themselves available to the new member for consultation and familirization.

A successful team leader is one who instills a strong sense of commitment and loyalty approaching that of a closely-knit family. But instilling the “One for all and all for one mentality” that marks strong families and winning teams takes more than catchy slogans. Each member of the team must be made to feel that her success depends on the team’s success. All available means must be used to reinforce this message. One important way is to tie a big portion of each team member’s compensation to the team’s success. Another is to have everyone from the team leader to the most junior member sharing the same working conditions. Yet another is to make every member feel that, regardless of mistakes or shortcomings, he is an important member of the family.

5. Be Available to Coach and Encourage

Parents create a sense of security by being available to their children. A team leader must create that same sense of security in essentially the same way — by always showing her availability to encourage, coach and reassure the team members. “I was both mother and father to my team,” recalls Mariel L. “In some ways, that was the most difficult thing about building a team. You don’t realize how important being available is until you make the mistake of putting up barriers between you and them. There should be no “me” and “them”, just “us”.

One step that proved helpful for Mariel in breaking down the barrier and creating a sense of family was making a point of requiring the team to have lunch together on Mondays and Fridays. Those lunches served as opportunities both to catch up with work-related developments and to bond on a personal level.

“Those were probably the two most important hours of the week,” she says. “I would strongly suggest that every team leader do something like that if she wants to build loyalty and cooperation.”

6. Make Teambuilding a Continuing Process

Unlike a bridge or a building, a team is a living organism that is constantly growing and evolving. From year to year or even month to month, everything about the team may change dramatically — mission, responsbilities and capabilities of individual members, the environment in which the team operates. A team leader must constantly recognize, address and even anticipate these changes. This requires setting aside a regular time each month or two to go over an organizational checklist, both alone and in the presence of the entire team. This is when decisions would normally be made about shifting responsibilities, modifying goals or operating procedures, addressing problems or obstacles appearing on the horizon.

“Once you see the team as your family,” notes Mariel, “you start becoming much more sensitive to everything that affects family health and harmony. A lot of times your people don’t want to bring up potential problems because they don’t want to seem like they’re complaining. It’s your job to sit down and make them feel okay about being honest with little difficulties they’re starting to face. If you address them early enough, you don’t really have too many big problems to deal with. You can spend more time being productive.”

By the end of the first year Mariel L.‘s team was one of the company leaders. That earned her another surprise: the chance to build another team.