May 5, 2023

Great Teams Don’t Grow On Trees

Why am I writing this?

Can you deliver that in half the time? How do we reduce the ramp up time for that new employee to 2 weeks? Shouldn’t we hire a junior so we can save money?

If you work in technology, you’ve heard those pleas, often accompanied by true urgency. I empathize with that, but in the end, those asks are misguided and cause more harm than good. There’s always pressure to go faster, to reduce waste, to actualize revenue… There’s always a search for corners to cut. But when it comes to building highly functioning teams, cutting corners wreaks havoc. And when the creation of the team suffers, leadership suffers, the client suffers, and ultimately, the bottom line suffers.

So far I’ve made several assertions and condemnations without offering any solutions. So, let’s take some time to think about why truly great teams don’t grow on trees and what it takes to build them.

What am I going to say?

  1. What defines a great team?
    • The team knows itself.
    • Understand the task at hand.
    • The team takes ownership of the work.
    • Everyone is a leader and everyone can be led.
  2. How do you create great teams?
    • Foster a culture of safety, transparency, and empathy.
    • The team is supported by the organization.
    • Only accept stellar leadership.
    • Understand the task at hand.
  3. Why is it imperative that organizations pursue great teams?

Let’s lay out my thoughts…

What defines a great team?

The team knows itself.

A great team must have a collective identity. This allows the team to function and react as a whole unit, encouraging efficiency and effectiveness. A team that knows itself comprises individuals who know their roles, responsibilities, and competencies. Importantly though, they understand the broader context of the team’s role, its responsibilities, and its value proposition.

There is constant, meaningful communication. It occurs between appropriate audiences, with empathy, and in pursuit of contributing value. Great teams don’t shy away from conflict. They seek it. They have an understanding of healthy conflict based on mutual respect, trust and curiosity, applied in search of understanding.

The team understands its strengths and its limitations. This understanding comes through experience and applied reflection.

Understand the task at hand.

Great teams have the capacity to sense and react in any situation. They possess discernment in regards to differing approaches for problem solving. This requires the team to be effective at surveying the setting and defining issues or problems. Great teams efficiently determine next steps at a low level, mid level, and high level. Value is well understood and top of mind in the collective consciousness of a great team.

The team takes ownership of the work.

In a great team, every individual takes ownership of their work as well as the team’s final delivery. Taking ownership entails seeing things through to completion. It means being conscientious of the stakeholders and using empathy to understand how and why work needs to be completed. Taking ownership can also mean raising your hand when you see something that’s blocking progress even when it’s uncomfortable; truly great teams root out the impediment, and then raise up the individual/s to help them overcome.

Everyone is a leader and everyone can be led.

Not everyone on a team is a designated lead. On the other hand, great teams are made up of people that seamlessly step up to lead efforts when and if it’s needed. Being a leader might mean having the courage to say no to your boss on behalf of the team. It might mean doing a menial task that’s not always your responsibility because the person that is generally assigned that task is working on a different, more urgent task. Leadership is sometimes boosting morale during a rough period at work with empathy, comedy, or service.

Even leaders must know when to be led. Allowing others to lead gives the team opportunities to foster growth in others. It also acknowledges that others have expertise that you may not possess. A great team arrives at solutions by listening to a variety of voices and utilizing situational awareness.

How do you create great teams?

Foster a culture of safety, transparency, and empathy.

Without the proper setting, a mediocre team will never become great. Teams must feel safe to admit they are wrong or don’t know things without fear of backlash. In fact certain failures must be celebrated (but properly mitigated). Great teams are great at complex problem solving; in order to do that, they must be proficient at dissenting, thinking outside the box, and using empathy to gain perspective. Furthermore, they need the full picture. Organizations must be transparent, so that teams have the power to make strategically sound decisions.

The team is supported by the organization.

Great teams can overcome almost any challenge, but without the support of its organization, it will eventually succumb to fatigue, resentment, or apathy. The organization therefore must recognize and support both the team as a unique entity and the individuals that make up that team. This is no small task. An organization can do many things to support its teams; here are some of those things:

  1. Allow the team to negotiate on its own behalf.
    • Listen and react positively to negative feedback.
    • Allow duties to shift organically between roles or across teams when there is a reasonable rationale.
  2. Growth is an expectation, not a privilege.
    • Time and resources are spent towards this end.
  3. Leadership is empowered to make decisions and empowers the team to make decisions.
  4. Team members are compensated to a degree that takes money off the mind and the mind off the money.
  5. Onboarding is organic, complete, and properly calibrated to individuals and roles.
  6. Defend the team from unreasonable asks.

Only accept stellar leadership.

Great teams require stellar leadership all the way up and down the company hierarchy, even inside the team. Here, I’ll list some overarching qualities of stellar leadership that should be present in a company to lay the groundwork for great teams. This list won’t be exhaustive, but should paint the picture of why stellar leadership is needed to allow for truly great teams.

Stellar leaders:

  • make time to coach and meet 1:1 with team members.
  • practice radical candor rather than ruinous empathy.
  • understand their teams’ value.
  • let the buck stop with them.
  • practice servant leadership.
  • seek and value feedback.
  • challenge their teams.
  • hire the right people.
  • fire quickly, but fairly.
  • have “je ne sais quoi”.
  • delegate effectively.
  • trust their teams.

Sometimes, stellar leadership is making painful or controversial decisions. For instance, it could be saying no to taking on particular clients. An act of bravery such as this would leave money on the table, but it could prevent a number of worse outcomes.

Why is it imperative that organizations pursue great teams?

When a team operates with an understanding of why it exists, what needs it fulfills, and a sense of joint responsibility, good things tend to happen without micromanagement. This frees up leadership to focus on things that matter and gives the members of the team a sense of worth.

Ideally, companies want to find themselves in a place where they can grow and scale. When you’ve done the work to create and foster one great team, the team itself will lead the way for the next one. In other words, great teams beget great teams. But the reverse is also true. So, it’s vital to undergo the painstaking process of creating a great team. The pain and effort up front earns the rewards of a truly great team.

Some of those rewards:

  • Valid trust
  • Thrilled clients
  • Self-sufficient teams
  • Fulfilled team members
  • Lower regrettable turnover
  • No need for micromanagement

Thanks for sticking with me on this little foray into what makes a team great and why they’re worthwhile. So, do me a favor will ya? Don’t cut corners when it comes to building great teams. When you do the work up front to create a great team, the rest comes naturally. And, great teams are full of happy people, which I happen to believe ends up being a good thing for a company. 😉 How do I know all this? I’ve seen it play out time and again on the failure side and the successful side. I’m delighted to say that Acklen Avenue is committed to doing things the right way, which in a nutshell, is why our clients love us.

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