Here’s some savvy team building advice from Rich Karlgaard, author of “The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success” (Jossey-Bass, 2014), and publisher of Forbes magazine.
1. Choose passionate people. These are the ones who will spend extra hours on a project, will think about that problem or product on weekends and wherever they go. You can recognize passionate people by what they do, not what they say. Consider the approach taken by Mike Sinyard, founder of Specialized Bicycles. Sinyard hires only employees who love biking and watches to see who does lunchtime group rides to separate the “talkers” from the “riders.” Is this fair? Why not? It’s a bike company!
2. Look for grit, too. Grit is the ability to overcome adversity. Look for individuals who have proven they can do so — those who don’t shy away from a challenge. Avoid those whose first move is to look around for someone to help them when they’re in a jam. Remember, a big part of what makes small teams tick is an intrepid, entrepreneurial spirit that isn’t daunted by tough issues.
3. Avoid prima donnas and self-aggrandizing MVPs. Yes, “team players” has become a business buzzword, but there’s a good reason for that. You really do want to build your team with individuals who are willing to share, serve, and give credit where credit is due. You can also borrow the strategy of Eric Edgecumbe, COO at Specialized Bicycles, who asks, “Did you play any team sports in high school or college? Tell me what you liked about being on a team and what you didn’t like about being on a team.” The answers can tell you a lot.
4. Aim for cognitive diversity. In other words, go beyond “shallow, legalistic” definitions of diversity. Cognitive diversity encompasses a broad range of variables — generational differences, educational and skill variation, and social and cultural elements, including, of course, race and gender. Cognitively diverse teams will come up with ideas and tackle problems in a variety of ways. Some are analytical and logical; others are creative and intuitive.
5. Encourage tough conversations. Easily-won consensus isn’t always the hallmark of effective teams. Sometimes, arguments need to happen. Tension needs to be addressed. It may be messy, and there will likely be misunderstandings. But stay the course and urge people to speak up and have difficult conversations. In the end, their differing opinions and interests will sharpen the company and result in better products and services.
6. Set high expectations. Don’t be afraid to drive people and push them to find that last ounce of performance. This motivates them far more than vague or easily met goals. When a team leader has high expectations, he or she is paying the team members a compliment. And when those expectations are met, the feeling of success not only becomes normative, it begins to grow and multiply.
7. Be clear on goals and boundaries. Leave no room for doubt. Don’t be passive-aggressive. When team leaders are as clear as possible in setting boundaries, people actually feel freer to express thoughts or make mistakes than when boundaries are vague.
8. Lead with real-world optimism. Great team leaders simultaneously drive and reassure people. Base this reassurance on the genuine belief that good things come from working hard and following a system. This kind of real-world optimism is more than hope — it’s the ability to approach your task as an opportunity. Let your team know that if they stay positive but alert and a touch paranoid they’ll have a shot at achieving something bigger and better.
9. Keep a loose grip. Valuable team members will want some control over their own environments. If they have to run every detail by you, they’ll lose initiative. Provide support and mandate accountability, but leave the lion’s share of the decision-making with them. Don’t sacrifice productivity for the sake of bureaucracy.
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