Working Together, Not Against

by Ron Potter

Leaders at all levels grapple with the challenge of getting people to pool their talents and work with, not against, one another.

Often frustrating to leaders is a team that consists entirely of “stars” who can’t or won’t play together as a team to “win the championship.” In an era of knowledge workers, leaders find themselves with nonfunctioning teams of all-stars who can easily undermine them. (Peter Drucker defines knowledge workers as those who “know more about their job than their boss does and in fact know more about their job than anybody else in the organization.”)

Chuck Daly, the first coach of America’s Dream Team, found himself needing to take basketball players like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird and build a team of champions, not just a group of incredible superstars. Coach Daly used all his coaching experience, leadership ability, and basketball knowledge to mold this group of all-stars into a team.

The team dominated headlines as well as the competition. Everywhere they went, the media followed. And the animated, trash-talking practices were sometimes bigger news than the games. In their first Olympic game together, the Dream Team trounced Angola 116-48 and never looked back, going 8-0 en route to the gold.

They were the only undefeated team in the tournament, averaging an Olympic record of 117.3 points a game. They won their games by an average of 43.8 points, and the closest any opponent could come was 32 points (Croatia in the gold-medal final).

“You will see a team of professionals in the Olympics again,” said Daly. “But I don’t think you’ll see another team quite like this. This was a majestic team.”

Coach Daly could not mold these incredibly talented basketball stars into the successful team they became by keeping the focus on himself. On the other hand, he could not surrender the basic basketball concepts he knew would help the team win a gold medal. He was a builder and a success at developing teams.

Teamwork doesn’t just happen. A winning team is not formed by a miracle of nature. You cannot just throw people together (even knowledge workers or pro basketball stars) and expect them to function as a high-performance team. It takes work. And at the core of team building is the desire to develop people and create a calm environment in which productive growth and seasoning can occur.

When leaders tolerate poor teams or even promote them through their own leadership style, organizations find themselves misaligned. Employees use this out-of-plumb structure just like children who play off each quibbling parent to get their own way. Leaders need to stop this behavior and get teams realigned. Leaders sometimes empower direct-reports to perform tasks or projects that are actually opposed to each other.

When team members come to us, they also have questions. Typically the questions team members ask are about themselves: “How do I deal with difficult team members?” or “How do I get heard?” These are self-directed questions. The team members are concerned about themselves—getting heard, getting ahead, getting along, and getting their jobs done.

In most cases the leader has not developed the team to the point of understanding the full value of synergy. The team members do not understand that the sum of their collective output will be greater than the work they could do individually.

Worse, many executive teams are not convinced that synergy can happen at the leadership level. “Authors Robert Lefton and V. R. Buzzotta, long-time counselors to top management, systematically examined 26 top-level teams, ranging in size from six to 20 people (usually a CEO or president and vice presidents); 20 of the firms are in the Fortune 500 club. In a nutshell, the authors found little teamwork, virtually no ‘synergy’ from these collections of wise heads, and a lot of wasted time and childish behavior.”

It falls on leaders to get teams excited about working together—about creating synergy. Many of the team members’ questions and wants can be overcome when they feel the power of working together and achieving the goals of the team.

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