I do a lot of work with teams. Teams and working groups are an important part of my personal as well as my professional life. I work on project teams as part of my consulting and I participate on boards and commissions as part of my community service. For me, the quality of the team determines the quality of the result no matter the context. A strong team is a joy to be a part of; a weak team means misery. I have had cause of late to reflect on the characteristics of a strong team and how they enable success.
Six Characteristics of a Strong Team
There are six essential characteristics that I look for in a robust and successful team. While it is not reasonable to expect that all team members will have these attributes in equal measure, recognizing how individuals and their personalities align with these aspects makes assembling a high quality team more likely.
- Diversity: There is nothing worse than being on a team where everyone thinks alike. The greater the diversity of background and viewpoint the healthier the team. Not only does diversity expand the available idea pool, it also increases the likelihood that some arcane aspect or lurking issue won’t be overlooked.
- Skill: Having the appropriate skills on your team is a no-brainer. More important is having team members with the capacity to pick up new skills quickly. Situations arise frequently where unforeseen circumstances demand new or enhanced skills. This also has the benefit of creating cross-trained teams.
- Flexibility: Flexibility allows a team to adapt to change, which is at the heart of every endeavor we undertake. Flexibility makes it possible for teams to harness their egos and consider alternative or conflicting perspectives. It enables a team to adapt templates to fit new and unique situations. It empowers teams to improve and mature.
- Integrity: A good team has integrity on both the personal and group level. Personal integrity assures the team that each member will put forward his/her highest quality effort for the team and the project. The collective integrity is the team’s bond with the stakeholders.
- Motivation: Hand in hand with integrity is motivation. The members of a strong team are motivated to do the best possible job, whatever it takes. This might mean long hours or extra effort, but the shared objectives of the team are paramount.
- Respect: Respect builds trust both within the team and without. Respect for fellow team members fosters strong and trusting relationships. Similarly, respect for stakeholders fosters rapport between team and customer. Disrespect is a disease in any team.
In many ways, these characteristics are interrelated. There is overlap between them and the boundaries are indistinct. Nevertheless, all six are necessary for a team to be successful whether it is a project team, a civic commission, or a nonprofit board. There is, however, one essential element without which none of these characteristics really matter. That element is commitment. Team members must have skin in the game.
Commitment is the spark that ignites the six characteristics. It is the catalyst that brings the team together in action. Team members without commitment drag the team down. Team members without commitment can seldom be counted on when the going gets tough. Commitment is more than a mere promise. Commitment is doing. Commitment requires management.
Commitment requires management because very few of us – that is, very few who truly commit – commit to merely one interest or pursuit. Because of the deep commitment, they rapidly find themselves a commodity; someone sought after by teams and enterprises. All too soon if they are not careful, they become overcommitted.
I wish to differentiate commitment from a mere promise or agreement. Agreement without commitment is just the occupation of space (and not always even that). Commitment (or the lack of it) drives the quality of the actions we take.
- Preparation: committed team members come to meetings prepared. They have read any pre-read materials and are ready for scheduled discussions.
- Follow-through: committed team members complete their assigned tasks on time and follow through on action items they have taken.
- Ownership: committed team members take ownership of their ideas. It is not enough to raise the problem or offer a solution during a meeting. The team member is not committed if he/she expects someone else to pick the idea up and run with it.
- Respect: committed team members respect the time and effort of the others. By way of example, if there is important business to be transacted at a scheduled meeting and one of the team has a conflict, the committed team member calls this out in time to change the meeting to accommodate everyone’s availability.
- Engagement: committed team members are engaged. They work continually to achieve the purpose and objectives of the team/board/commission. Their membership in that body is not passive.
Individuals with multiple commitments will invariably encounter conflicts that can affect their engagement in one or another commitment. Of course they will need to set priorities. But if it is the case that they cease to add value to one or more of their lower priority commitments, it is best that they should step down and help the group find a replacement who can meet the commitment. Otherwise, they should do what they must to remain engaged and involved.
Skin in the Game
Commitment, understandably, is difficult. Sometimes we don’t know how much work a commitment will require. We do not know how our personal priorities may change or need to change in the future. We certainly never know in advance what new challenges life may set in our path. At most, we must be ready to assess whether or not we have the bandwidth to truly commit each time we are faced with a new opportunity to make the world a better place. Sometimes it is difficult to say “No.”
I mentioned earlier about having “skin in the game.” Strictly speaking, the phrase refers to having a financial stake in an enterprise, which means that we have something to lose if the enterprise should fail. This represents an incentive to do everything possible to ensure success. It has also come to mean having a strong commitment in an endeavor even if a financial stake is not specifically involved. Personally, I do not like to see the original meaning of a good word or phrase diluted. So what is the “stake” in this usage if it is not monetary? It is personal integrity. One’s integrity is one’s gold. Personal integrity is our stake in commitment.
What are other characteristics of a strong team? How do you and your teams manage commitment?