Three obstacles to shaping an effective team (and how to overcome them)

25 October 2016 -

“Obstacles"

Building and leading a successful team is an essential task for any manager, here’s how to do it

Guest blogger Andrew Hill

As a manager, you are running a team, by definition. But even the most imperious chief executive is also part of a team: they are likely to sit on a board, and as head of a group of senior executives, if they behave in a way that undermines the team, they will threaten the performance of the organisation.

Shaping the team - by selecting, inspiring, leading and developing its members - may then be your most important task as a leader.

The demands placed on modern managers mean teambuilding is only getting more difficult.  

General Electric’s chief executive Jeff Immelt laid down a few years ago that he wanted the industrial group’s senior managers to demonstrate expertise - at the time that meant in sectors ranging from jet engine technology to mortgage markets - but also to show external focus, clear thinking, imagination and courage. Quite a stretch.

Here are three key challenges as you think about how to shape your team - and some suggestions about how to overcome them.

1.    Don’t hire too many stars - or too few

Leaders dream of running harmonious teams full of star performers. But this is a largely unachievable fantasy .

Boris Groysberg of Harvard Business School looked at sell-side equity analysts and found that the overall performance of teams fell away as the proportion of stars increased and individuals started to act greedily and selfishly.

It is potentially counterproductive to swing to the other extreme, however, and to try to exclude stars and aim for harmony at all costs.

When England cricketer Kevin Pietersen’s behaviour was unsettling his side a few years ago, one school of thought was that the contentment of his teammates should override the fact of his great batting talent.

As it happens, I still think it was the right decision to drop him. But separate studies - for example, of orchestras - show that satisfaction comes from playing well, not the other way round.

In fact, teams work best with the combination of a few outright stars (provided they are productive) and a lot of competent colleagues.

2. Aim for good culture - and beware of cults

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras famously pointed out in their book Built to Last that “a cult-like culture” was one of the characteristics of enduringly successful companies.

Getting your team to unite around an objective is vital. It could be achieved by propagating lists of values, by confronting a common enemy (think about the historic rivalry between Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, or between Oracle and Microsoft), or even by singing a company song (not a uniquely Asian habit, by the way: the likes of IBM, AT&T and BlackBerry have all issued corporate anthems).

But there is a reason why Collins and Porras advocated “cult-like” behaviour and not the formation of corporate cults.

In companies, as in religions, cults brook no deviation from the norm. That rigidity makes them attractive to overbearing leaders and ultimately brittle in the face of problems.

Shaping a team is a never-ending process that ought to be as open to the input, criticism and challenge of your team members as it is to your own ideas.

3. Pick diverse teams for the right problems

It is easy to assume that diversity is an unalloyed good in team-building. Certainly, a persistent imbalance of, say, one gender across an organisation is hard to defend, both on simple grounds of equity and for business reasons (why would you want to fish in only one part of the pool for potentially talented new team members?)

Diverse teams are generally more creative and innovative, and better at tackling open-ended problems, research shows.

But the reverse is also true: more homogeneous teams do better than diverse ones when directed to implement existing solutions, for example.

So shaping teams is not only about cultivating a series of identically diverse groups. A clever team leader needs to be ready to form different looking teams for different types of problem, switching the make-up of the group accordingly.

There’s another obvious requirement.

Running teams with a similar background is simpler than managing more variegated groups, which are more prone to friction (the very tension that helps them come up with more creative ideas).

It is good management to shape a diverse team, but it requires a good manager to run such a group.

Andrew Hill is management editor of the Financial Times and the author of Leadership in the Headlines: Insider Insights into How Leaders Lead, out now (FT Publishing, 2016)

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