How do great leaders build strong teams?

25th October by Mark Powell

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I was recently asked: “What are the qualities of the best team leaders I have worked with?” It was a question that led me to this article. It also made me reflect over my experience in coaching and facilitating teams.

Having been around business teams across different cultures, different industries, and organisations for over 30 years, one of the distinguishing truths that I observed about great teamwork is the importance of the leader and his or her approach. The commitment of the leader to team, the quality of the leader to share the success with team, and the intellectual and emotional capacity of the leader to have an appeal to variety of personalities, are all critical ingredients.

There are many strong leaders who don't build the team very well. They probably don't appreciate the importance of a team. It may be true, that there are situations that could require a hub and spoke model, or even a working group model rather than a true team. However, those who have experienced a high performing team, or even powerful small group collaboration at its best, know the true power of the collective. Great teams deliver high performance consistently and keep challenging their team members to bring the best to their work with each other. Teamwork tackles complex change much better than silos of experts, and it accelerates innovation to transform the organisation. When working well, a strong team will significantly amplify strategic impact.

However, a great team needs a great leader. Our experience and research point out to a few ingredients possessed by leaders of high performing teams.

  • Team leaders have the drive that is needed to lead, but not so much that it squashes collaboration.
  • They want to win. But they are playing a bigger game beyond short term outcomes.
  • They give up many execution decisions and even some strategic ones and allow these issues to be dealt by the team. This liberates them to take on bigger and ultimately more important challenges.
  • They are focused. They understand the strategic priorities of the broader organisation and don't get distracted.
  • They don't fight ego wars. They realise that their strength comes through the performance of others.
  • A key task of theirs is keeping the team connected into the broader purpose and vision.
  • They sort through data to attend to areas for greatest leverage and impact.
  • They realise the dangers of being overly dogmatic. Their experience has taught them that many truths exist side by side.
  • They genuinely celebrate diversity of sense making and perspective without feeling challenged.
  • They have strong self-awareness and present themself as an authentic personality.
  • They appear to have positive experience of either good teamwork or strong collaboration. They know it works either through their own experience or perhaps through what has been demonstrated by the past mentors.

This list of attributes could be further reduced to a cluster of critical areas. We came up with four capabilities that both bring alive the longer list above and provide the greatest impact:

1. Getting a clear collective purpose and direction, together with clarity about roles and goals

2. Building an environment of integrity and trust so that less time and effort is wasted on “politics” and in fighting.

3. Having the important and tough conversations within the team and in helping to connect the team to the broader organisation’ context.

4. Bringing out the strengths of each team member so that diversity is fully utilised to everyone advantage.

    Finally, it is worthwhile highlighting that there are moments in the life of any senior team when the leader needs to try something different. These moments present as critical point of the team’s journey. And these moments are often best supported by the input of a third party. Great leaders know their role, and the dangers of diluting their impact by trying to be take on too many roles. They instead will invite a team coach to help shift the dynamics of the team, or to help on board new team members, or to uncover the new systemic challenges they are facing, or to reveal hidden barriers to performance that have been constructed over time. Great team leaders are humble and wise enough to know when external support is needed.

    Picking these moments for coaching support will propel the team forward. Ignore these moments, and the team may stumble and become somewhat trapped into a pattern of resistance and reaction.