With the summer Olympics saturating every social media site, news outlet and water cooler conversation, there's one thing every business leader is wondering: “How do we create Olympic-level teams in our company?” Andrew Neitlich, the founder and director of the Center for Executive Coaching and author of the new book, Coach! The Crucial, Deceptively Simple Leadership Skill for Breakaway Performance, offers these eight strategies for leaders:
Understand the type of team that’s right for you
Many leaders talk in vague terms about teams, when sometimes they don’t want a team at all. Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith’s book The Wisdom of Teams notes the huge differences between a working group and a team. In a working group, people come to work, do their jobs, and go home. They don’t go out of their way for their colleagues, and basically want to get the job done and be left alone.
A team can increase performance exponentially compared to a working group, but it takes a lot more time, commitment, and effort to become a true team. In a team, people care about each other, go the extra mile, and figure out how to work closely together to perform at the highest levels. Many leaders set up incentives and structures for people to come together as working groups, yet they talk as if they really have a team.
At the same time, there are many different types of teams. In a symphony, everyone works together in perfect synchronicity, following the exact score. Contrast this to a jazz band, which encourages improvisation and creativity and sometimes creates the music on the spot. Getting back to the sports analogy, a winning basketball team has specialized roles for each player, and works fluidly to find openings, pass the ball, and make baskets.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of coordination, there is the swim team or track team, in which players compete more or less individually in order to help the overall team win. If you don’t define what kind of team you expect, and support people to create that type of team, you won’t get the kinds of results you need.
Ask yourself: “What changes do we need to make in order to attract Olympic-level talent?”
Olympic-level teams have Olympic-level talent. If you want to attract Olympic-level talent to your organization, you need to be the type of organization – and have the type of leaders -- where Olympic-level talent would want to work. For instance, hospitals strive towards the designation of Nurse Magnet by putting in place systems and structures that attract the best nursing talent. Every year certain companies make the ‘Best Companies to Work For’ list – and some of them make the list every single year without fail. Whether you are a Fortune 500 company or a smaller business, you can put in place the kinds of incentives, career paths, management team, and culture that encourage people to do their best and also tell others about how great it is to work with you.
Foster a challenging culture of continuous rewards and recognition
Olympians love challenge. They love the rewards that come with winning. They want the best coaches to develop them. They thrive on autonomy and the opportunity to keep improving and being the best. While a lot of their passion and drive is internal, they still need the type of environment in which they can thrive. Does your company help people provide this, or does it cause people to feel stagnant within a year or two? If you want your people to realize their potential, provide initial guidance and then loosen your reins. Encourage coaching and ongoing development at all levels. Give everyone a path to keep moving forward and up in the organization.
Develop and share clear and inspiring goals that people can believe in
For most Olympians, the goal is to win a gold medal. In organizations, many teams have fuzzy goals, too many goals, goals that overlap or conflict with other teams, or goals that aren’t terribly inspiring. Many studies have illustrated that having a clear goal is the most important thing that a team can have to reach success. It is even more important than the team’s leadership.
After defecting from the USSR and coming to the U.S, the coach of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team Martha Karolyi and formerly her husband Bela, set the expectation that the USA could win team gold at the Olympics. Though it was a long shot at the time, the Karolyis put the pieces in place to make it happen. One major strategy was developing a huge talent pool from which to draw, feeding everyone up through a centralized team.
After accomplishing their goal in previous Olympics, Martha taught her gymnasts to soldier on despite sky-high expectations from the global gymnastics community, the media, and the public. As Martha noted, it would have been easy to feel pressure and buckle under it. Instead, she has taught the team to thrive under this pressure and be even more intimidating. She made her gymnasts – and us – believe!
Master situations in which individual goals appear to be in conflict with team goals
A leader finds a goal that offers everyone on the team common ground, and that allows both individuals and the team to succeed. In gymnastics, swimming, and track and field alike, you can have athletes competing individually and for the team. The common ground can be hitting a new individual best time, because that supports both the individual and the team.
Sadly, there are examples in professional sports in which athletes can’t or won’t find that common ground. For instance, in football and basketball, there are cases of highly-paid and extremely talented players who focus only on getting the ball or showing off. Usually the coach releases these players because they become detrimental to the team. The same is true in business. The best leaders realize that it is better to have a universally strong and aligned team than to focus energy on a superstar whose negative behavior derails others.
Create an environment that emphasizes coaching, practice, and self-discipline
Olympic-level athletes have a clear routine and specific habits that they know will lead to success. They practice and then execute on these habits relentlessly. Swimming legend Michael Phelps never missed a workout while he was developing as a youth swimmer. Members of top teams are extremely disciplined in their own routines – whether it is providing consistent customer service, trading stocks, or reducing error rates to zero.
At the same time, Olympians spend about 95 percent of their time practicing, training, or getting coaching and the rest to executing. In many workplaces, it is the opposite. Executives, managers and their teams spend 99 percent of their time executing and devote almost no time to practice, training, or being coached. To develop great teams, build in more time for team members to practice, train, and get coaching.
Show that you, as a leader, have the ability to overcome negativity and setbacks
Neitlich has interviewed both Olympic and professional athletes. One common theme they mention is that they all have had coaches, mentors, and other teammates who were incredibly positive. They always saw possibility, even in the face of setbacks or conflicts. As a result, they kept moving forward and expected others to do the same.
A leader gets the team on track by using a setback as a way to have open communication, learn, and get better. Venus Williams is a good example. She was upset in the first round in both singles and doubles. In her first round of mixed doubles with U.S. teammate Rajeev Ram, they overcame two match points to win in a tie breaker. In tennis, the mental game is a huge part of winning. Players learn how to release frustration after a mistake or lost point, to visualize the next point, and to set up their mindset and body language to jump into the new point completely ready to go. You will see doubles partners touch hands after each and every point, win or lose, to reset each other and keep moving forward.
Venus and Rajeev ultimately lost the gold medal, but in that first round in particular, they stayed calm even when facing defeat, culminating in an amazing rally at the net and great shot by Rajeev to overcome another match point by their opponents. After that shot, Venus was quoted as saying that she took it as a sign that they were meant to be there. She also said: "What can you do but keep on playing?"
Don’t underestimate the importance of in-person rapport
Organizations have employees scattered all over the world. Often, to save money and time, they insist on meeting virtually rather than in-person. In contrast, Olympic-level teams realize how important it is to get to build chemistry. We are human beings, wired for in-person contact. Even if it costs a bit more money and time, Olympic-level teams need to make time to bring everyone together and spend time getting to know one another. Otherwise, trust in the virtual environment won’t be as high as it otherwise could be!
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