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How To Build a Strong Team: Guiding Principles From Famous Business Leaders

Posted by Brandon Evans
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When Indra Nooyi stepped down as CEO of PepsiCo in 2018, a position she’d held for over a decade, it didn’t take long for her to share the many business insights she’d acquired after such an experience. 

Her lesson is that “the success of an enterprise usually comes down to one thing: the team.”

Though there are of course many ways to build a strong team, the underlying principles of cooperation and collaboration remain unchallenged. 

Behind every successful team, there is a strong communicator: the leader. 

Regardless of particular leadership style, a high-performing team needs the same fundamentals: clear guidance, appropriate reaction to efforts, and an opportunity to flourish.

1. Choose Well with Diversity in Mind

“I’m not the smartest fellow in the world, but I sure can pick smart colleagues.” -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Diversity is crucial not only for cross-team collaboration but effective teamwork as a whole. When you’re building a team, it’s unhelpfully convenient to pool people from a common area, either geographical (departments) or expertise (job, skill-set). Although having like-minded people is important for general pleasantries, it’s not everything for a strong team.

Diversity is the name of the game, especially if you’re looking for groups with high adaptability and the most informed judgements. Seeking out the best of a wider range will almost always give a team greater opportunities for success. 

As Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd US President, once quipped, “I’m not the smartest fellow in the world, but I sure can pick smart colleagues.”

As each member is brought to a team, you should reconsider weak points, which could be gaps in experience, an unrepresented viewpoint or unbalanced traits. It’s vital to choose members that can supplement each other’s shortages, where the strength of one member negates the weakness of another.

Collecting complementary members in this fashion minimizes the deficiencies that negatively impact the overall performance of a team. There is no substitute for diversifying, whether that’s different backgrounds, experiences, abilities or personalities.

Of course, don’t get too carried away with a rampant roster. 

Though it’s useful to bring in people from many places, keeping a team somewhat intimate is crucial for effectiveness. “If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas,” warns Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, “it’s too large.”

It’s impossible to compile a team that showcases everything, though there’s no reason why a smaller team cannot be exceptionally diverse. Cover as much ground as possible when deciding on team members, but always assess how well people link to the central purposes of the project or work.

2. Explain Your Expectations Immediately

“High expectations are the key to absolutely everything.” -- Sam Walton, founder of Walmart 

Complacency in the workplace is age-old, though that doesn’t mean it should be tolerated. Setting high expectations and outlining procedures of work explicitly go a long way towards cultivating hard-working team members.

New employees often arrive in a tabula rasa (blank slate) state. Their minds intuitively open to receive information and guidance on both working practices and organizational ethos. For a finite time, they are fully responding to the stimulus of a new working environment.

“High expectations are the key to absolutely everything,” proposes Sam Walton, founder of Walmart. 

It’s true that unless expectations are known, it becomes all too easy for members to coast, whether inadvertently or intentionally. To combat this, set ground rules that relate not simply to productivity, but also interconnectivity.

You can frame expectations in various ways, but everyone should be able to quickly understand and adopt the team attitude. It may be beneficial to ask a few questions to determine what the expectations of your team are:

  • Does the job description accurately portray expectations? If not, you won’t be able to source the most relevant applicants.
  •  Are work expectations qualitatively or quantitatively-driven? Explain your preferred metrics to minimize confusion.
  • In what ways are employees accountable for their actions? If they aren’t, work engagement may suffer.
  • How do certain roles within the team relate to the set tasks? If certain tasks belong to set roles, ensure everyone knows this. Head over to the daily task reports guide to set up a quick and easy report-feedback system in Friday.
  • How is success/failure recorded and turned into feedback? When feedback is provided, long-term performance is enhanced.
  • Is the team model individual-in-unison or collaborative? Team dynamics depend on whether the focus is on individual efforts in unison towards a common goal, or several collectives with shared responsibility and tasks, towards respective goals.

Not everyone shares extraordinary levels of initiative. While it’s the philosophy of many business titans to leave their highly-skilled employees alone, teams are one exception where continued close attention is required. 

“The speed of the boss is the speed of the team,” advises Lee Iacocca, the legendary American automobile executive, so you’d better keep things moving with high expectations.

All in all, team leaders need to have new members fully on board, aware of what they’ve agreed to and fully cooperative in terms of the rules set. 

3. Have a Vision with Clear Goals

“Chase the vision, not the money. The money will end up following you.” -- Tony Hsieh, former CEO of Zappos

The best company cultures, the most powerful businesses across the globe, consider passion and vision to be far more integral for long-term success than shady tactics and quick cash-grabs. This vision-centered approach is praised as innovative, but it’s not a new way of thinking at all.

“A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business," expressed Henry Ford, almost a hundred years ago. 

The implication being that people soon get wise of those with less favorable motivations, and that a lot more goes into business than simply finance.

In much the same way, a team won’t work to the best of its ability without a vision, considered worthwhile, to unite them. A unanimously agreed-upon direction keeps everyone on track, but also elicits the best performance from individuals.

If you’ve never sat down to define that vision, whether that relates to your team or an entire company, ask can yourself fundamental questions:

  • What are you trying to achieve by building this team/company?
  • What was the original need/reason for this team/company in the first place?
  • What do you want this team/company to be known for?
  • Which principles are most important to this team/company?

Once you’ve encapsulated the vision, it must be communicated clearly and often. A central vision is paramount to goal-setting, whether you’re talking about personal or professional goals.

People need to understand what they are working towards and why they are doing it. It’s not just that people should understand how their distinct tasks contribute towards particular objectives/targets, but also to the overarching company mission.

“Chase the vision, not the money,” suggests the former CEO of Zappos Tony Hsieh, “the money will end up following you.” 

When team members believe their actions are part of a meaningful vision – a genuine interest in the lives of clients/customers, or enhancing the larger business landscape – they invest more effort into the project.

Foster a company culture that cares about value other than just monetary to unlock the full potential of your team. Helping people to understand how they fit into the bigger picture of the organization, and what their role is in achieving those goals, is essential for building a strong team that self-sustains.

4. Assign Roles to Hold Members Accountable

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision.” -- Andrew Carnegie

With a team of diverse members unified by one vision, each member understands that they’re working collectively to pursue a shared aim. However, as important as that clearly is, it’s also vital that you assign roles within the team, ensuring that responsibilities of each role are known by all members.

This means having regular meetings to discuss progress, challenges, and opportunities. It also involves some manner of feedback system, as everyone needs to see how their tasks, which may seem negligible on their own, have made measurable impacts on the overall progress.

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision,” teaches Andrew Carnegie, giant of the American steel industry, “[but also] the ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives.”

Even back at school, there was always the risk of lazier students taking full advantage of a group average grading system, where the hard-workers support the unworried. Similarly, employees who view their individual actions as part of the communal work feel fairly impervious to criticism or reprimands.

The Ringelmann Effect dictates that more people committed doesn’t necessarily equal more work done. 

In fact, quite the opposite: the productivity of individual members is progressively weakened as the size of the group increases.

In Maximilien Ringelmann’s 1913 experiment, participants were tasked with pulling a rope as hard as they were able. The French professor promptly found that individual effort decreased – at quite a scary rate – when he added more team members.

This psychological tendency may explain Bezos’ two-pizza team limit over at Amazon, but it also exposes a serious issue within groups. Assigning roles makes sure the right people are deserving of praise and culpable for mistakes, inclined to perform to the best of their abilities. 

However, don’t go too crazy with it. A robust team environment blossoms when individuals are honored and respected for their unique gifts, idiosyncrasies, and ability to contribute towards a project or endeavor.

Obviously, you want your employees to be part of the team, but team leaders still should respect members as individuals. Treat team members not as though they’re bodies who perform tasks, but as individuals with stories of their own, leading rich and varied lives that go beyond the team, and company.

5. Create a Work Environment that Motivates

“If we win the hearts and minds of employees, we’re going to have better business success.”  -- Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors 

So comes the last crucial component, a team-lead responsibility that is absolutely essential for building an effective team: motivation.

Teams are prosperous in an environment where people feel valued and free to express themselves, particularly in the long-term. In 2020, leadership Institute Trust Edge found that 85% of people believe trust to be important for high-performing teams, yet consulting firm Tolero, in the same year, had 45% of people saying that a lack of trust in leadership has the biggest negative impact on work performance.

By creating an environment where people feel they can share ideas uninhibited, you’re not only getting the most benefit from a diverse team, but building the trust necessary for productive relationships. This in turn increases motivation, a matter that should appear top of the list on a team leader’s to-do list.

Various research shows that incentives lead to greater effort than would have been the case in their absence, yet even the mere acknowledgement of good work will have a positive impact on motivation. Immediately recognize and express gratitude for hard work whenever you can – do it with the Friday add-on Kudos, if you dare!

A team that receives no feedback, whether it’s positive or negative, will lose motivation faster than a cat lapping chain lighting, to borrow a Southern idiom. Diminished morale seeps into other aspects of the job, disassociating the worker from their work and hindering self-efficacy, to name a few.

To be an effective leader, to maintain a successful team, you must fully understand each member of your team, so that you can situate them in the best position to succeed. It requires strong emotional intelligence, a skill perhaps less talked about but important nonetheless.

Success is practically guaranteed when a team is content with its leadership. Ultra-productive teams aren’t as common as we’d hope, but in the hands of an experienced leader, the process can be made remarkably simple. Value people for who they are, not solely the work they achieve, and you’ll see just how easy teamwork can be.

How Friday Helps You Build a Strong Team

Friday has devoted itself to being the premier cloud HQ for teams that glues together your most important things at work. Your team will be on the same page with regular check-ins, while limiting time spent in meetings so individuals can perform at their peak.

Friday integrates with several collaboration tools, like Google Calendar, Outlook, Asana, and Trello to make your work life organized and super easy. It allows you to hit goals consistently and efficiently. 

It’s an all-in-one home for your most important tasks at work that keeps you on top of all team meetings and tasks you’ve set out to achieve. 

Create a strong team with Friday. Start for free.

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