BOOK REVIEW: Six ingredients to get a great team

Stronger Together: How Great Teams Work, by Simon Hartley

HARTLEY is a sports psychologist and performance coach, with 10 years’ experience coaching Olympians and international athletes and top-rated football, rugby, cricket and motor racing teams. He has also worked with large corporations.

Just as most elite-level athletes have a support team, which includes coaches, sports scientists and sports medics, so do sole practitioners, those in the regulated professions, and others who think of themselves as working alone. I make this point because I believe this book will be useful to a wide range of readers.

SAS major Floyd Woodrow said: “I’ll never succeed without a team,” and neither will anyone else. Teamwork is simply too important to too many areas of life. If your ‘team’ is merely a group of talented participants, it is in all probability performing beneath the level of the sum of its parts.

Egos, fear, social discontent, jealousy (fill in the rest) sap the group of its potential. It is because groups of people, assigned a task, don’t become a team all by themselves that books like this one are so important.

“The National Transportation Safety Board found that 78% of the incidents reported in commercial aviation, occurred with teams flying together for the first time,” Hartley reports. Conversely, NASA discovered that fatigued crews that have a history of working together make half as many mistakes as crews who are rested, but have not worked together.

In tough economic times, not getting the most out of the people you are paying to perform is to overlook money lying on the table.

All this being the case, what makes a great team and how do you build one? Hartley’s conclusions come from his study and experience of exceptional teams.

Hartley noted six common characteristics in the teams he studied. They are:

1) highly focused;

2) have shared standards and expectations;

3) have a genuine appreciation of each individual;

4) they draw strength from their differences;

5) are brutally honest; and

6) are always learning.

If you asked Olympians what they are focused on, the answer would be simple. However, none of their extensive and dedicated support teams will ever be awarded an Olympic medal. To be totally committed, the whole team needs something more than a common goal; they need a strong a strong, clear, shared purpose.

The shared purpose in any team must answer: What are we here to do? What does it mean? Why is it important? Why does it matter? What would happen if we didn’t do it?

An example: To manufacturers of a domestic dishwasher the purpose may be to ensure that people can sleep soundly, knowing that they are not going to wake up to a flooded kitchen.

Harvard University researchers found that less than 10% of senior executives agreed on the job of their team. However, when team members share the purpose of the team, personal agendas and collective agendas become aligned.

The second characteristic of the best teams is that they must all have an acute understanding of the standards that they expect from each other.  

Twice-Michelin-starred chef Kenny Atkinson tastes the food with his chefs, so that they have a shared understanding of what constitutes under-seasoned, over-seasoned and properly seasoned food. At that level of culinary excellence, this chef does not rely on each chef’s own opinion as to whether it tastes ‘right’ - standards need to be clear to all.

Appreciate each individual

The third characteristic of the best teams is a deep appreciation of each individual team member and the contribution they make. No team member is perceived as more important than another. “Great teams know that the machine doesn’t function unless all the cogs turn together – however big or small they might be,” Hartley explains.

I recall being told of a woman who introduced herself as a member of the hospital’s heart team. When asked what she did, she said she was in charge of the sterilised linen.

A good question for team leaders is: “How valued and valuable do your people feel?” When people know exactly how others are relying on them, they will go to incredible lengths to play their part. Olympic swimmer Chris Cook realised that his job was to swim two lengths of the pool as quickly as he could. Each team member needs to know, just as clearly, how they contribute their ‘two lengths’ to the team.

The fourth characteristic of great teams is that they draw strength from their differences. This requires that they manage those differences to gain the greatest strength. It starts with the leader recognising and, for example, deliberately getting input from everyone, before making decisions - no exceptions. “Great leaders and teams manage the diversity to ensure that they draw strength from the differences rather than allowing cracks to appear.”

World-class teams have as their fifth characteristic the ability to be completely, and if necessary, brutally honest with each other. If the team has a ‘Great Unsaid’ to preserve harmony, it will crumble when stress is applied. What is needed is goal harmony, and there’s a big difference between that and team harmony.

Brutal honesty requires that everyone in the team takes complete responsibility for his or her own performance, with no passing of blame - ever.

The final characteristic of superb teams is that they have a united desire to be better today than they were yesterday. They are always learning.

The value of this book lies in a characteristic I admire in all things, simplicity on the other side of complexity. Simplicity on the other side of complexity is profound and useful. Read and apply this book. It is a gem.

Readability:    Light --+-- Serious
Insights:        High +---- Low
Practical:        High +---- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

Brent Crude
All Share
Top 40
Financial 15
Industrial 25
Resource 10
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes morningstar logo
Company Snapshot
Voting Booth
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
I'm not really directly affected
18% - 2177 votes
I am taking a hit, but should be able to recover in the next year
23% - 2782 votes
My finances have been devastated
35% - 4215 votes
It's still too early to know what the full effect will be
25% - 3020 votes