In his excellent book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni asserts that the first foundational dysfunction teams must face is the absence of trust. He discusses trust essentially as being confident in each person’s role and value to the team and being sure that each person is striving for the good of the team. We’ll add one nuance to Lencioni’s trust factors: ensuring everyone on the team is aligned toward the same purpose.
In a memorable project, the top performing team leaders in a high-stakes global sales role spent a significant percentage of their time focused on creating and sustaining team alignment. One place that was most evident was in client communications. The normal practice was to funnel all sensitive client communications through the team leader. This fairly standard procedure is designed to ensure the client always receives the right message in the right way without any confusion. But the top performing team leaders took a completely different perspective.
They first met with their team and aligned everyone to all aspects of the client situation, including goals, constraints, and preferred communications modes. Then, once the team was completely aligned, the members invited the client to communicate freely with anyone on the team at any time. That offer could be made with total confidence that all communications from the team to the client would be focused and purposeful. The result: more team bandwidth, more communications flow to each critical client, and stronger development of individual team members.
All this resulted from a focus on team alignment.
Questions to ponder:
- Are your teams aligned toward common goals, both large and small?
- Do your team leaders spend sufficient time focused on internal team alignment?
Students spend twelve, sixteen, or even more years being taught “do your own work” and “don’t look at anyone else’s paper.” So they graduate as solo performers and then head off to find their way in an increasingly team-based world.
Somewhere along the way, top performers have figured out that the winning formula almost always includes a team. They seem to be better at building teams, aligning teams toward common objectives, and working together to achieve those objectives.
It’s remarkable how many standout top performers excel at mastering team dynamics. One top performer in particular comes to mind. While studying the performance of top financial professionals in a global organization, we quickly realized that the best in the role were highly dependent upon leading and working with a team. The organization, however, designed and managed the role as one of an individual performer.
We didn’t realize just how impactful the team aspect was until we sent out the draft list of outcomes for review. Our standout top performer not only reviewed it but also pulled his team together for an all-day working session. The purpose of the session was to review his role outcomes with him. He wanted to make sure the outcomes correctly captured all the team dynamics and how the work was shared among the team members. After the team members finished reviewing the outcomes, they then spent time reviewing their own operating procedures against this model of excellence to see what improvements they could make to their already best-in-the-organization performance.
This makes us wonder why working successfully in teams is not emphasized more in our education system.
Question to ponder:
- How do you encourage team collaboration?
Soccer, at its core, is a very simple game: the players on one team try to kick the ball into a goal while the other team tries to stop them. If you’ve ever had the joyful opportunity to watch little kids play soccer, you understand how maddeningly simple yet frustrating that concept can be. When little kids play soccer, they usually just swarm around the ball, all trying to kick it at the same time. Occasionally the ball will pop out of the throng and the kids will all chase it.
Watching professionals play makes soccer seem like a different game altogether. Same number of people, same two goals and one ball, same simple objective: kick the ball into the other team’s goal. But everything else is different. The players spread out across the field, the ball is passed crisply from player to player, and players are always moving—with or without the ball.
The same comparison can be made of teams in organizations, except age is not the defining characteristic, role clarity is.
In corporate teams, just like in soccer, playing your position on the team makes all the difference. Of course, to play your position, you must know your position. In soccer, there are forwards, midfielders, backs, and goalies. Each position has a unique and critical role to play for the team to win. In organizational teams, knowing what role each member is playing is critical for the team to win.
Unfortunately, too many corporate teams operate just like kids’ soccer teams: swarming around without any clear roles. Make sure each team member has a clearly defined role, knows that role, and understands how to execute that role with excellence.
Question to ponder:
- Do all your team members know their roles, or are they swarming?
Butler recently had the great pleasure of going to an athletic reunion at the small high school he attended in Norlina, North Carolina. The invitation simply stated, “Open to all who participated in athletics from 1915 when the school opened through existing freshmen in 1981 when the school closed.” Over 300 people, showed up and many old relationships were rekindled. Top athletes from every decade reminisced about championship teams and standout coaches and players.
Though Butler had heard of the last speaker of the night and knew he was from his county, not until he was introduced did Butler realize that the speaker was a junior at Norlina High when it closed. David Henderson had been a basketball superstar at Norlina for three years and then at Warren County High School during his senior year. He went on to play for Duke University, serving as a cocaptain his senior year as the Blue Devils made it all the way to the final four.
David’s message was excellent. Let’s paraphrase the key points:
- The best teams have clearly defined roles and match players to those roles
- Some coaches only coach—the great ones also teach
- He remembers where he’s from and takes his community with him as he travels the world
- All of us should reach out and help raise up those in our community who may be disenfranchised
All four key points are powerful and relevant. Given our work with the TOPS model, the first two bullets were especially germane for us. As we have reflected on them, their applicability to the business world couldn’t be more pertinent.
The first point, the fact that best teams have clearly defined roles, speaks exactly to what Aimee discovers from her brother in our book. Role clarity provides great insight on every aspect of performance. It points to whom to recruit to fill the role and what skills to focus development efforts on, and, most importantly, it defines the specific outcomes the role must successfully produce for the team to win.
Defined roles lose much of their power, however, if they are not followed up with the subtle distinctions David points out about coaches and coaching. Some coaches focus solely on the game plan and the tactics required to carry it out. They are good tacticians. The best coaches also focus on teaching individuals how to be great in their specific roles. The teaching transforms a collection of individuals from a group of talented athletes into a high performing, winning team.
Butler is very proud to have grown up in the small rural town of Norlina, and, like David, he takes the community with him wherever he goes. Butler found it uplifting to hear David’s message and refreshing to witness the humility with which he delivered it.
Questions to ponder:
- Are roles clear on your team?
- Are coaches as teachers prevalent in your organization?