For many business leaders, effective teamwork is viewed as the ultimate competitive advantage that can deliver excellent results. Imagine what you could accomplish if you could improve the performance of your teams: increased market share, enhanced employee involvement, continuous improvement, innovation and reduced waste.

However, true teamwork, with skillful members working towards a common goal, is very rare. We’ve all learned from first-hand experience that not all teams are created equal. So why do some teams produce more excellent results than others?

“It takes more work than just grouping people together and calling them a team,” says Meghan McHale Bilardo, director of Organizational Effectiveness for Corporate College, who cites “The Wisdom of Teams” by Jon Katzenbach and “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni as valuable resource tools.

Smart Business spoke with Bilardo about critical components for developing effective teams, common challenges and best practices.

What are the critical components to having an effective team?

There are three critical components. The first is that people working on a team need to have complementary skills. Hiring or selecting the ‘right’ team member is crucial.  Members should all be able to relate in terms of their technical proficiencies that they bring to the table. Think about the best performing teams in professional sports, each member is highly capable and well trained. Selecting skilled team members and maintaining their skills over time is essential.

The second critical component is that they have a clear and compelling set of goals. Winning teams have a defined purpose that members rally behind. They break the broader purpose into smaller goals and align each person’s efforts to specific tasks for which they are individually responsible. At Disney, for example, the mission of each employee is aligned with the mission of the larger organization — ‘Make dreams come true.’ This goal underlies all decisions made by teams at each of the Disney resorts.

The last critical component is mutual accountability. These are the promises that team members make to each other, starting with the leadership. Leaders should demonstrate accountability and respond to the lack of it on their teams. It is important to create a culture of responsibility, obligation and support to foster accountability. The best teams define who is responsible for what and track individual and group progress. Productivity is rewarded and celebrated. When individuals are struggling, the team provides support. The team creates a positive pressure to deliver results and members do not want to disappoint each other. Southwest Airlines has collective responsibility to ensure flights depart on time and to identify the root cause of a problem when flights are delayed.

What are some of the common challenges teams face and how can these challenges be overcome?

Even the most talented teams face obstacles. The first challenge has to do with building trust, a necessary foundation for a high performing team. With high levels of trust teams are more productive, have a great sense of unity and are supportive. The difficulty here is that trust requires time. In order to speed up the process an outside facilitator can guide your team through activities that help people gain new insight into each other, which builds trust. The second challenge that many team members face is conflict. It can be difficult to disagree with and debate members of your team. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model, which we use at the college, helps members build assertiveness skills and understand how conflict can be productive and useful to a team. The third hurdle is a lack of accountability. The more ambiguous leaders are about goals and progress, the easier it is for people to be unaccountable. The best way to foster accountability is to be S.M.A.R.T when setting goals, to publicly post progress on goals and promote ongoing team dialogue on accomplishments and setbacks.

How do you know when you have a high-performing team?

Members of a high-performing team produce excellent business results. When you observe them you will see open-ended dialogue and group participation in meetings. You will witness ongoing and public tracking of their performance, regular evaluation of their processes, innovation and continuous learning. You will observe public rewards and group support for team members that aren’t able to deliver. At the end of the day you will see a collective result.

What are some common best practices to promote team development?

All teams move from forming, storming, norming and performing as they develop (Bruce Tuckman’s Stages of Team Development). Their needs are different in each stage.

  • When ‘forming’ a best practice, hire an outside facilitator to establish the team’s purpose, set performance goals and lead strategic planning. In addition, the facilitator can create a team charter, which helps members understand how they will work together.
  • ‘Storming’ is when teams most often struggle with conflict. Group learning in communication and social style workshops help people build their assertiveness and conflict resolution skills so they can have productive debates and ongoing dialogue with their new teammates.
  • The ‘norming’ stage is when a team begins to build a sense of unity so it’s best to review their progress and revisit their ground rules in the team charter. Professional development workshops for leaders are also recommended to help them learn proven strategies for increasing employee ownership and pride.
  • ‘Performing’ is all about productivity and knowing how each member can best contribute. Evaluate performance and reward members who are delivering the biggest results.

Meghan McHale Bilardo is director of Organizational Effectiveness for Corporate College. Contact her at (216) 987-2800 or Meghan.Bilardo@tri-c.edu to learn how you can build an effective team that delivers business excellence.

Published in Cleveland