There is no I in team, there is no F in leader

Teams, as a general rule, are the organisation of individuals and skills typically bound by a common objective, activity or intent. When these teams are assembled in the business environment, there is more often than not a specified goal and this goal, one can assume, can be best delivered by the creation of such a team – no doubt to incorporate a mix of skills and perspectives that is intended to bring more to the potential results than would be achieved by the endeavours of a single individual. This is my own experience of team-working or at least that was the case whilst I plied my corporate trade.

I have worked with teams as a member, as a facilitator, as an organiser and as a leader. There are, in my opinion, common threads through all of these many teams some of which I will expand upon here. These threads have a common feature; that of people and their relationships with each other.

Teams do usually bring a broader perspective to an issue thus providing the potential for more innovative, holistic and integrated solutions. Well, that’s the plan anyway. I have also utilised a myriad of measurement and project management tools from the simple traffic light option (grading the tasks in hand as green if progress is satisfactory, amber if it requires attention and red if it is priority) to the more complex sigma-type methods. All have merit but no particular method or system will work to optimum if the relationships within the team are not optimised. The relationships (and the inherent emotional aspects) are critical not only to the potential success of the activity but usually also to the sanity (motivation, satisfaction, value etc) of the members themselves.

Each member has to whole-heartedly feel that they are equally valued, that their voice will be heard, that their needs will be addressed and that their work will be incorporated into the outcome. If not, then their attention and focus will quickly drift. The team itself usually requires an identity. This identity manifests typically these days with a slogan or acronym which allows for internal and external (from the team) identification. The team members will typically be of a similar ‘status’ or rank which encourages open communication without the feeling that they will be damaging their future prospects. The team has to trust the organisation enough that their work will be recognised. The members should respect each other member and their respective abilities so that input is considered rationally and practically – no preconceived attitudes or corporate positioning. I would like to think that all of this is obvious. If not, then you are probably having problems with your teams. You may be suffering from the ‘I’ within the team – stronger personalities that smother the creativity and communication of the less gregarious members. This can be spotted and managed fairly quickly. If this is not the case then you may not have an ‘I in team’ issue; you may have a ‘no F in leader’ issue.

Even more important than the encouraging and managing of the above, even more important than the measurements, even more important than the open and honest communication for any team is that of the integrity, commitment and support of the leader. If there is no F in leader, then the team becomes a thought group – a group of earnest and like-minded individuals with a common activity. The ship is rudderless, adrift upon the tumultuous seas of corporate politics. You will, I am certain, be aware of the merits of leadership from our previous editions on the same. You will also most likely be aware of the necessity that a successful project/activity requires high level sponsorship. You will also be aware of the need for balancing emotional as well as intellectual qualities (trust, respect, empathy and such like – if not, read Len Foster’s articles!) but the role of the leader within a team environment often gets misunderstood and under-valued in the corporate world.

The team leader is the master of the ship, the captain of the team, the focal point, the icon (maybe) and the informed but detached holder of the wheel. It is she who must remember the overall goal. It is he who must make the final judgement call. It is she who must cut short discussion, bring in additional members if required, manage the egos, face the music, co-ordinate the activities, listen to the heartfelt pleas of individual members, sift politics from practicality, motivate by whatever each individual requires, adapt to changing circumstance, protect and serve the team without taking over or allowing personal bias to surface. In essence, the accepted first among equals.

I have recently been party to a project that displayed an almost perfect example of how not to run a team. No names, no pack drill but essentially there was a strong consensus regarding the intent, the mission, of the group but this was, regrettably, where the coordinated direction ended. The group was made up of mixed gender and a range of background, expertise and, most importantly, cultural environments. Almost inevitably, the older, more battle-scarred commercially oriented individuals dominated the younger, more socially oriented members. As the project proposal submission date loomed closer, these less-democratic members began to control not only the meetings but also the agenda. Once the agenda was controlled then it was a small step to influence strategy and activity. To cut a long story short the group of eight broke into at least two factions. The team leader was not strong enough to manage the personalities and so the project drifted. There was evidence of communications regarding the whole group and the project scope being sent to selected members and on occasion to the team leader only. Finally, when the final bid was dispatched, the content bore little resemblance to the agreed solution of the entire team and more like a single-party proposal.

Inevitably, the bid failed. Ironically, however, those portions that were left unchanged by the ‘inner faction’ scored very well in the assessment process and those amended, cut-and-pasted to the singular, ‘independent’ members scored embarrassingly low. The group that remained true to the governance, content and context of the initial scope was lauded, the group that under-mined the team, the team leader and the agreed mission were left exposed and embarrassed.

A team with a mix of skills and backgrounds is, in my opinion, more likely to deliver broader and more creative solutions. It is important to note, however, that it is not the skills variance that causes potential issues, it is the emotional/personality/behavioural aspects that come with each individual that usually influences success or failure the most. A leader needs to manage culture and communication as much as content and deadlines. In the above instance, the leader could not. I have seen this time and again. The human touch (emotional, personal and behavioural management) being a more important success factor than technical or financial content.

It is very important in any team that each member feels valued and valuable. It is important that governance and communication are open and accepted. It is important that each member accepts the role and responsibilities of each other with trust, respect and deference. There is no ‘I’ in team. It is critical, however, that the team is lead effectively. If there is no ‘F’ in leader there is invariably no f in success.