Some things I know about teams

There are lots of memes and cliches about teams. “Teamwork makes the dream work”… “There is no ‘I’ in team”… Blah blah blah. All of the glib phrases and sayings have some semblance of truth of course and come from the same place and perspective.

Over the space of my career I have built (and re-built) a lot of different teams. I’ve adopted a fair few teams which I didn’t build myself and had to manage. Whilst I will agree that no two teams are the same, there are a few things which I have found to be true across all experiences.

Teams take time to build.

There is no rushing it or you don’t have a team, you have a group of people. Groups of people tend to go off in different directions and form their own smaller teams or clusters of like minded individuals and their own priorities. Whether building a team from scratch or adopting a team its important to communicate from the top- enough, but not too much and also LISTEN. Set the course of direction but don’t get drunk with power if you lead a team. There are many times I have changed course as a result of listening to the ideas and thoughts from the after previously going in a particular direction. The team are employed to presumably be good at what they do, so let them get on with that!

Get the road blocks out of the way

I have said to many people I worked with that my main job was the get the **** out of their way, so they can do their job better. My job wasn’t to tell them how to do their job, but to enable them to do it to the very best of their ability and probably better than they might initially think they could have done it. A leader of a team should focus on getting roadblocks out of the way of the team, so they can perform to the very limit of their potential. Help people be better than they thought they could be.

Be a buffer

As a team leader you should be the buffer between the upper management above you, and the team working with you. (Note, I didn’t say ‘under’ or ‘beneath you’- Yes there is hierarchy in organisations but lets try and think of teams as flat as possible). Share the praise and good news fast (and publicly) and protect them from any negatives- that’s why you are paid the big bucks. Distil the feedback and pass it on in a way that is constructive and progresses the work momentum. You don’t want to have ‘sloping shoulders’- with a “its not my fault, but those above me think xxx”. If you are a team leader then that means LEADING the team. The buffer runs both ways too and the team need to know they can complain about things and know it doesn’t get fed back up the chain. Its not ignoring the issues, it balancing, managing and making progress rather than all out open warfare and bun fight.

Teams change

I have had the immense pleasure to work with some truly talented people and every time I have held in my head that I’m only borrowing time from them whilst they worked with me. The period of time they are working with me is precious and they will move on at some point and so you should both enjoy the time, but also be prepared for what happens when they leave, because they will. I became almost paranoid about it at one point, always looking to have a succession plan for members of the team, not because I was looking to replace anyone, but I knew that they were all good and would move along to another career step at some point and I needed to be ready. They should move on, and its a good thing. I’ve worked with people who have said, “we should keep this person at all costs” and whilst I know what they meant at the time, and of course its good to have important, critical people who are excellent, but you just can’t keep people if they don’t want to be there. You can very quickly turn someone who is an asset into a destructive force if you try and keep them beyond their reasonable limits. Don’t risk having a sour taste in everyone’s mouth by trying.

Teams are made of people

I’ve worked with organisations who have sometimes talked about a team within an area of the business as a collective term. Its natural and understandable of course, but you HAVE to remember that all teams are made up of people. Individual people with thoughts, emotions, feelings and needs. They work in a team but the team is nothing without the individual people. They are not a collective and they don’t think and breath as one. Treat people as individuals and as you would like to be treated yourself. Its not a big ask surely?

Share the glory, take the blame

Success is the team’s success. Failure is yours. It is absolutely vital that you ensure that you credit the team with the successes that you have. Its THEIR doing and as a result of THEIR hard work and diligence. Things are not always successful of course but when they go wrong, take ownership yourself, don’t blame the team. If you are leading them successfully then they will do that for themselves and you don’t need to make them feel worse. Don’t take credit for someone else’s hard work (the team) and don’t shirk the blame for your own leadership failures. I have worked with many examples of the opposite of the above, if it went right it was down to them and if it went wrong it was your fault. It didn’t foster a great energy to bust a gut for them and make things work. I’ve also worked for people and groups who did it right and the difference and trust level is immense.

Teams Flex

Just in the way that you are only borrowing someone for a while when they work with you, all teams flex and change over time. Often when I’ve adopted teams I’ve been told that this or that individual ‘doesn’t fit’ in the team and probably needs to move on. Sometimes its been true and other times I’ve found it to be a byproduct of poor management of the individual or the entire team as a whole. I have always taken on board the advice given and not ignored it, but also wanted to make my own judgement in these situations. All too often, far too many times I can recall actually, people identified who ‘really need to move on’, actually turn out to be central to what goes on, critical to the work, and at historically found themselves at the sticky end of some poor decisions or misunderstood experiences.

Nothing in the above is earth shatteringly new. Nothing is too hard to do. There are always going to be ways in which things can improve and ways in which sometimes things don’t go as well as they might due to circumstance. If you are a team leader your success is inextricably linked to the success of the team. What else do you have to do thats bigger than that?

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Published by Dick Stone

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