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Winning Teams

Most leaders have experienced problematic team members, which is common with diverse team compositions. It is tempting for leaders to recruit individuals who all think alike, but this is a mistake. A like-minded team might ease frustrations in many ways, but lack of diversity is a major drawback. Research indicates that diversity within a group yields better results.

Each team member should bring a unique combination of skills and experience to the table. To achieve this, leaders should first understand what they would like to achieve with their teams. They can then identify the skills needed to accomplish their goals and recruit team members who possess those skills. An individual can excel at more than one thing, of course, but a leader should avoid having more than one team member who covers a given specialty.

The resulting diversity of perspective will create a number of possible solutions for any given problem. A team should remain small-between three and seven members. Other experts can be brought in occasionally to consult, but having them there for everything might be a waste of time. Diversity of work styles is also important. This means that, in addition to skills and experience, leaders should also consider attitudes, outlooks, priorities, and work habits when putting a team together.


Once team members are identified and assembled, the next step is the launch meeting. Introductions are generally the first step at these meetings, but they deserve more attention than they typically get. Leaders need to take this opportunity to gather personal data about team members in order to better determine what each of them requires to give their best. Members should understand why they are on the team, why the others are on the team, and what everyone’s expectations are. The launch meeting also helps the team understand that diversity is important and highlights the need to work through differences and embrace the value of each individual’s skillset.

When members introduce themselves, they should be prompted to talk about their strengths. Team members should later be encouraged to talk about how they like to work so a plan can be developed that strikes a compromise between different styles to achieve the greatest results. Finally, team members should take some time to talk about their priorities. Everyone should understand their own goals, ambitions, and commitments, as well as those of other team members. If members have work responsibilities outside of the team, it must be understood how they plan on allocating their time. This helps the other members and the leader understand what assignments they can take on and how available they are for meetings, and plan rough timelines for when tasks can be completed.


There are two different types of goals for any given team: task goals and process goals. Task goals relate to what needs to get accomplished, while process goals relate to how the work is actually done. Establishing these goals at the start will help make group and individual decision making clearer and provide a framework for personal accountability.

Task goals can be determined by asking team members to identify their ideal outcomes for the project. Sometimes this can be approached in reverse by defining what it would take for the project to fail. Defining what the customer’s total experience should be can also reveal task goals. From there, the team needs to answer three questions:

  1. What actions need to be taken to achieve these task goals?

  2. What are the deadlines for when each step needs to be taken?

  3. How will the team measure its progress along the way?

Once these questions are answered, the team can move on to process goals. These goals should be laid out with the team’s specific culture and members’ individual goals in mind. There are no set rules for creating process goals because they are determined by many factors. Leaders should stay attentive to how team members are performing individually and as a group to best leverage process goals. Members should be encouraged to discuss their hopes and concerns for the group and identify common themes among them. These themes can be tied into process goals to ensure they are addressed during the span of the project.


Once task and process goals are set, each member of the team should then be assigned his or her own role, including the leader. Individual team members need to understand their roles within the team, and what success means for a particular role. Roles can be defined by structure or by activity, depending on the group. Roles can also be assigned according to strengths, but leaders might want to have growth assignments as well to develop new competencies within the team. This requires more direct attention from the leader because of time needed for coaching and monitoring.

Roles defined by structure rely on the distinction between the responsibilities of the leader and the rest of the team. The leader should work with team members to gain an understanding of what is expected of him or her, and vice versa. Leaders can help team members understand expectations by developing job descriptions, listing obligations, and defining expectations. A team made up of peers should be discouraged from attempting a project without a leader. Even if the leadership role rotates through the team, a leader is necessary for the quality and success of a project.

Roles defined by activity are often divided into two categories: management of tasks and management of processes. Assignments from these categories should be based on each individual member’s strengths and work habits. These roles may evolve or be redefined over the life of the team.


Different people will have different definitions for what makes a good team member. A team needs to agree on expected behavior so that no one ends up frustrated. Unspoken rules of conduct often lead to misunderstandings. These rules can be built based on the team’s process goals. The purpose of developing rules of conduct is not to have one right way, but to have a level of consistency for how the team is run and what is expected of all members.

Well-considered rules reconcile many diverse personalities, styles, and approaches. Team members can select rules they believe they already follow, as well as those they would like to add or discard to create a boilerplate list. They can then check one another’s lists and hopefully agree on a list of the 10 rules that are most important for the team’s success.


Providing feedback can be difficult, largely because most people expect bad news, but it is necessary. Feedback is how a team leader maintains a high standard of work, keeps people motivated, and develops team members’ skills. Team leaders need to measure the progress of tasks against their plans, and check everyone’s roles and behaviors against the established rules of conduct.

Not everyone is comfortable with providing feedback, so an open discussion up front will allow the leader to work with individuals and help develop their skills. The team needs to agree to its process for accountability, such as how members will celebrate success. Periodic meetings should take place where the team can discuss areas of improvement.


A written contract is one of the best ways to secure commitment from the team. This can happen as soon as the team infrastructure has been set. Signing a physical contract is symbolic of the transition from building a team to working as a team. The contract does not need to follow a specific format, but it should include descriptions of the team’s goals, the roles of individual team members, established rules of conduct, and steps for holding team members accountable. Once signed, the contract should be visible as a reminder to the team.


Decision making has long been one of the biggest pitfalls of any team. However, building a strong infrastructure means giving the team the tools it needs to make decisions quickly and effectively. The first trick is for team members to stop thinking of decisions in terms of right and wrong, but rather in terms of what is good, or optimal for the group. Making the right choice invites unneeded pressure to achieve perfectionist results, but striving for optimization allows the team to align outcomes with agreed-upon criteria based on established goals.

It is tempting to try to reach a consensus among team members, but it is only necessary when the outcome will affect everyone. What is more important is that, when a decision is made, all members feel that they have been heard and considered. A majority vote is not generally advised, as it creates winners and losers. Leaders must remember to use experts’ advice to inform decisions, but not to allow experts to assume the decision is theirs to make alone.


A team that truly holds itself accountable strives for improvement throughout a project. This can be as simple as ending every meeting by asking what the team did well that day and what can be improved going forward. Teams should examine what practices they should start, stop, and continue. Discussions and observations should always be recorded in some way. These principles can be applied to the accountability of individuals as well, with emphasis on the constructive nature all accountability conversations should have. Leaders should remember that no one can realistically manage more than two behaviors at a time. Hopefully, the leader will have the authority to remove a team member who is unwilling or unable to hold himself or herself accountable or work on improving.


Recognition is among the top four human motivators. Most leaders will find it easy to recognize a team’s good work, but many leaders have difficulty sufficiently recognizing the individuals within their teams. Leaders should take time to get to know each member of their teams personally and use this information to provide recognition in meaningful ways. Leaders must keep positive feedback a part of accountability meetings. Too many of these meetings focus on weaknesses rather than celebrating strengths. Team members also appreciate when recognition is shared publicly, such as when the team gives a presentation.


Conflict is inevitable on a team, especially one that was built for diversity of opinion. Conflict can arise from differences in work styles, opposing perspectives or opinions, or even anger between team members. Many people’s solution to conflict is to avoid it or ignore it, but that does not benefit the team. When conflict arises, team leaders should first review established rules for managing it, then get to work identifying the cause. When the cause has been identified, the team should then have another look at the rules to see if they were incomplete or unclear. If so, they can be amended. If not, then individuals may have drifted from the rules. If conflict was created by one or more team members falling out of alignment with the rules, leaders can help them by fostering empathy among all team members as well as reframing the conflict to focus on a solution.


Any change in membership within the team will change the entire team. As such, when a team member comes or goes, the leader should take time to revise that team’s goals, roles, and rules. This is something that the entire team should take part in. The team-building process needs to start again to make sure any new members are brought up to speed. Leaders should remember to recognize the departure of former team members, as well as welcome and properly introduce new members.


Good team leaders work well within their teams, but they also manage outside their teams, developing beneficial relationship with others within their organizations. These relationships tend to be with individuals with whom the leaders work frequently. Team leaders need to keep in mind how any decisions their teams make could impact others. This includes senior managers, other teams, or support groups like marketing or accounting.

For a team to obtain the resources it needs to be successful, it needs to establish a reputation within the organization, especially with the decision makers. This is best done by controlling what information gets to those groups. Communication roles should be assigned and defined so all team members know to whom they should be talking and what they should be saying. Generally, the most positive and articulate members should become the communicators. These members can focus on sharing information about early team victories, even if they are small. Teams can also earn support from others by providing value of some kind. People generally feel obliged to repay favors, so if a team is helping others, it will most often find that it receives help in return.


It is normal for team members to grow restless toward the end of a project, but it is important to maintain focus until the very end. Leaders need to help team members deal with any strong emotions they may be feeling. The team’s overall success depends very much on how the project’s results will be handed off, so that component still needs to be carefully managed.

Keeping everyone involved in this handoff is another way to ensure their continued attentiveness. Sometimes teams drift apart at a project’s conclusion because there is no sense of closure. Leaders can provide this in several ways, such as giving out awards, messaging team members’ managers about their contributions, inviting senior executives to the final meeting to express their appreciation, and asking the team members themselves to discuss their accomplishments. Teams should also remember to discuss failures as well, but in a positive light, aimed toward better results in the future.


It is important to learn from the experiences of a team before moving on to the next project. The main point to evaluate is how well the team met its goals, as well as any lessons learned in the process. Leaders should conduct evaluations of all team members, examining how well they adhered to established rules and processes, what they did and did not achieve, what they did well, and what they did not do as well. Another strategy is to ask team members to reflect on their experience as a part of the team. Leaders should speak with the team before this process to make sure everyone agrees to it and to give them time to think of what they will say.

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