Manage a Winning Team

A good bit of leadership today is exercised in the context of teams. There are, of course, the deliberate cross-functional teams so common in business settings. But even when our purposeful groups go by other names — families, parishes, service clubs, or diocesan offices — the chief characteristic they share is that they are teams.

When it comes to building effective teams that serve their mission, leaders have to consider the skills of team members and prospective members — or players, if you’re comfortable with a sport metaphor that implies the importance of action, not just affiliation.

“To perform effectively, a team requires three different types of skills,” says Stephen R. Robbins.* Leaders often stumble in assembling or developing effective teams because they pay attention to one type of skills and ignore the other two types. The three important types of skills are:

Technical skills — Good intentions are not enough. People need to bring various skills to the table for the team to succeed.

Problem-solving and decision-making skills — It’s essential that team members can identify the core challenges that must be addressed, generate alternatives, evaluate those alternatives and make sound choices.

Interpersonal skills — No matter how sound their technical and problem-solving skills, people who do not play well with others will derail a team’s efforts.

Of course, leaders need to be discerning in assessing skills. Unfortunately, a certificate or a diploma is not guarantee of competence. Neither is a long tenure in the field. Some skill sets become obsolete quickly in this digital age. So look for team members who not only appear competent, but who also have a strong commitment to and a track record of constant learning — and then commission them to set time aside every week to freshen and expand their skills.

People who are strong problem-solvers and decision-makers but have poor interpersonal skills can seem to be key contributors when a team gets underway. But if they are so overbearing that they shut down others at the table, in the end they will probably hinder long-term progress more than they help it. After all, if one person’s skills in these fields were sufficient for mission success, it wouldn’t have made sense to assemble a team to achieve the mission.

At the same time, don’t confuse acquiescence with good interpersonal skills. People who always take the position “peace at any price” are not going to contribute to a high-performing team. In fact, creative tension is a key contributor to excellent team performance. What people have to know how to do is disagree without becoming disagreeable, the express differences without igniting personal feuds.

Of course, the leader’s role is to help the team develop into more than the sum of its parts — or the sum of the skills its members bring to the table. That means an effective leader focuses on holding the three types of skills in a healthy, dynamic balance. The father of General System Theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, said it is not a matter of achieving equilibrium, but rather a “steady state of disequilibrium.” A leader uses wide variety of feedback loops to keep the train roaring down the tracks, tipping here and tottering there, without falling off.

There are other things to remember about building effective teams. First, people who are not only competent in all three skill areas but who also are flexible about utilizing their various skills will help maintain that “steady state” in the face of a multitude of internal and external forces vying to knock the team’s train from the tracks. Truly accomplished team players embrace the wisdom in the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. (Look it up. It’s very brief and a great influence for both expanding and grounding our vision of the good life.)

Second — and probably more important from the perspective of a leader — do not expect to be able to simply hire people with all the diverse skills your team needs to excel. If you want a high-performing team, it’s great to hire the very best people you can find. But no matter how wise or imprudent your hiring skills, you will get the team you build, the one you grow, not the one you hire.

People change. They interact differently in different environments. Some will thrive. Some will struggle. Some will slip backwards. Some changes are short-term, in response to life challenges. Others are more glacial and lasting. In the midst of all this disequilibrium, good leaders grow great teams by cultivating the gifts of the people on the team and generating synergy among team members.

It’s not dirty work. But it is difficult work. And yes, if you want to achieve excellence, somebody has to do it.

* Essentials of Organizational Behavior, 5th edition, 1984, Simon & Schuster, NY

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