You have likely said it yourself-maybe while watching your favorite sporting team play: “[Insert Team Name] have so much talent, they should dominate. Why can’t they put it all together and win?” Some will blame bad play calling, others will say it is because of poor refereeing. The discussions will run rampant with speculation: it is the injuries, the bad practice regimens, the star player(s) having a bad game, etc. And all of these could be true. But there are teams that win and continue to win despite all of these challenges. What makes headwinds mere speed bumps for some Teams? It has been called many things: culture, dynamic, spirit, esprit de corps, vibe, and even just the “feel of the place.” No matter what you call it, the infrastructure from which you build any Team ethos is relationships. Which means the strength of the infrastructure and how well it will endure turbulent times is directly correlated to the solidarity of the relationships.
Healthy, mutually-beneficial relationships are hard. No doubt about it. They take emotional, mental and physical energy which can be exhausting. They require us to be open, honest and authentic which can make us feel vulnerable. At times there can be conflict, disappointment and hurt which can make us feel sad. So, why do we do it? Because what we can do together can have far more impact than what we can do alone. And that results in self-actualization.
When Teams slip into a pool of mediocrity it is because they haven’t embraced that this payoff is worth the pain and hard-work to build the relationships. The person singularly responsible for this? The leader. Many leaders will try to defer responsibility by claiming that everyone is responsible for the relationships that define the team culture. And in part, that is true. But the Team members will default to the blueprint and materials provided to them by the leader. It is human nature. So, what should this blue-print and materials look like? Here is what is common among thriving Teams:
1. Each member knows and has embraced the “why”. The most detrimental question to team moral if left unanswered, “why are we doing this?”. As leaders, it is your responsibility to ensure each individual feels vested in the vision and goals and shares in the common pursuit. This creates the solidarity mentioned earlier. The leader can encourage this by taking the time to explain strategy and rationale versus just dictating tactics. In this way, the team can visualize the desired impact and ensuing reward. It becomes the Team’s crusade not just yours. This comes with a sense of responsibility to do one’s part for fear of letting the team down. It also keeps them motivated to push through challenges.
2. Operate with high levels of integrity. Each member is willing to take responsibility for their role and honors the roles others are playing. Basically, do what you say, say what you mean and own up to mistakes. It also means asking for help, input and feedback. A person can only feel comfortable doing this when there is trust. The trust is formed when the leader is the pinnacle of integrity.
3. Practice intellectual sparring. Yes! Conflict can be good! It means you are pulling the talents of the members in an effort to find the best way forward. But there are rules of engagement here which the leader must mandate. This is not an open invitation to be mean or disrespectful. But it is an invitation to be forthright without fear of retribution. This will only work if #1 and #2 above are met and the leader can create a safe space – aka the Team knows the leader has their back.
4. An empowered leader. This is for the managers of the leaders. The corporate structure to support the above must exist for the leader to act accordingly. Without it, very few will persevere. Sure, there will be those who will forge ahead despite lack of support. But why should they have to?
It sheds new light on why the New England Patriots led by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady always find a way to victory when others would fold. Why people believe Pat Summit (of Tennessee Women’s Basketball) and John Wooden (of UCLA Men’s Basketball) could pick 5 random people off the street and probably still triumph. How the 1980 US Men’s Hockey Team led by Herb Brooks did the unthinkable. All of these leaders are experts at executing the blue-print and giving their Teams the materials needed to build the infrastructure.
So the next time your Team isn’t living up to its potential, avoid the temptation to blame the usual suspects: not enough money, unrealistic timelines, lack of skill, bad management, etc. Recognize that it is relationship break-downs that are weakening your infrastructure. Diagnose where your blue-print is weak and why. Instill new operating procedures to reset the relationships and reinforce the infrastructure. Then watch your Team step-change in its success. Still struggling? Call us. We will help you draft your blue-print, amass your building materials and start construction.
Anne Candido and April Martini are the Co-Founders of Forthright People, an On-Demand Marketing Agency focused on helping start-ups, small and mid-size businesses quickly capture the hearts of their customers without breaking the bank. They believe in “real-time brand-building”, which delivers strategically-informed execution, creating immediate business impact while also developing equity for systemic growth. And since their team consists of an extended network of talented freelancers and boutique agencies, they do not require hefty retainers and contracts to do it. Contact them via email: Anne@Forthright-People.com and April@Forthright-People.com.