How to build a successful team: Six core approaches

Why should we worry about how to build a successful team?

While a good portion of work does get done in teams these days, there has been academic research that a lot of managers simply fall back on the superstars of a team, give them the work of other people, and essentially burn them out. 

The Atlantic once summarized all this in an article called, sadly, “Being A Go-Getter Is No Fun.” That research found that high-performing team members felt overburdened, stressed, resentful of the rest of the team, and that the organization as a whole was missing out on crucial learning opportunities for the non-high-performers. 

That’s one reason to focus on how to build a successful team. If your model is all about the “A-Players” or superstars, you’ll heap too much on them and burn them out -- and they’ll leave, leaving you with a team of non-superstars that haven’t been contextually trained or developed well. 

We know that 75% of employers rate teamwork and collaboration as “very important,” and that 86% of employees and executives cite lack of teamwork and collaboration as the primary reason for workplace failures. We also know that 37% of employees say working with a great team is their primary reason for staying at a job.

Think about your experiences at work. If the team isn’t successful, or runs in circles, or doesn’t communicate, or you feel like you can’t rely on them for core projects. . . how much do you like the job? How willing are you to stay? 

You can frame the question of how to build a successful team as a productivity question, as in less-successful teams will hit less goals. You can also frame it as a turnover question, as in less-successful teams will drive away some of their best people. However you choose to frame it, though, we need to understand how to build a successful team.

So, how do we do that?

How to build a successful team: Recognize each team member

The goal of this blog post is not overtly to discuss recognition or appreciation, but we do need to discuss it for a moment. (Related: here are 37 unique employee appreciation ideas.)

Now, we know from research that the best managers tend to focus on employee strengths and developing those, as opposed to over-focusing on weaknesses and attempting to course-correct. A few years ago, Gallup did some additional research on managers who focused on the individual strengths of employees; the research covered 49,495 business units spanning 1.2 million employees. Some notable upticks included:

  • 10%-19% increase in sales
  • 14%-29% increase in profit
  • 3%-7% increase in customer engagement
  • 9%-15% increase in engaged employees
  • 6- to 16-point decrease in turnover (in low-turnover organizations)
  • 26- to 72-point decrease in turnover (in high-turnover organizations)
  • 22%-59% decrease in safety incidents

In order to focus on individual strengths and give recognition to “the one” (each employee) instead of “the many” (the entire team), you need to know how each employee likes to be recognized and developed. A simple chart like this can help:

If you work at developing each team member individually around their strengths, you can start building out a successful overall team. And it’s a bit of a “Blue Ocean” strategy to boot, because only 34% of managers report being able to name the strengths of their direct reports. If you can, and move them towards a common goal, you’re on the right track for how to build a successful team.

Sometimes we call this process talent development as well. That’s the broader umbrella term for making sure each employee is in a position to thrive. Sometimes we attempt to build our successful teams by “hiring for cultural fit,” although over time that approach has been proven to have flaws.

The role of priority

Jim Collins, who is quoted in seemingly every management advice article written in the last 25 years, has several famous quotes on working, including “If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.” 

There are several major roles for a manager that play into how to build a successful team:

  • Hire well
  • Develop and recognize your people
  • Bring your team together when possible
  • Articulate which work is priority and which isn’t
  • Have a shared scoreboard/scorecard
  • Resolve issues quickly when they arise

A manager that accomplishes the majority of those will build a successful team.

For now, a quick second on priority: we know that it’s not always great inside companies, and very often other senior leaders cannot name the priorities of the CEO, who is often their boss. It can feel like a giant game of “telephone,” where the message is set at the top but by the time it filters down to customer-facing employees, it’s completely garbled. 

Setting clear priority is obviously important. There are a lot of different ways to do this, including weekly stand-ups, daily stand-ups, more check-ins, shared planning documents/boards, and one-to-one check-ins. You do want to be careful not to “meeting people to death,” especially if all the meetings are check-in and deliverable-related, which makes it harder to find time to actually get work done. 

Have regular, quick check-ins of 15 to 30 minutes and articulate “These are the main three priorities for the team this day/this week.” A priority-aligned team is also a “Blue Ocean” strategy, because only about 8% of leaders can align priority and execution.

How to build a successful team: Shared metrics

Even within teams in the same department, there are competing priorities and incentive structures. People can play from different “scoreboards,” i.e. tracking some metrics and ignoring others, even though the holistic picture of metrics would be most important to the overall team. Good managers build scoreboards that showcase everything the team is focusing on, often broken out by the individual owners of different metrics or projects.

Adam Nash, the former CEO of Wealthfront, used this approach and admitted metrics are a great way to “harmonize” large groups of people around common goals and understanding the business, noting “they can be empowered to make decisions on their own because now they’re aligned with the rest of the company.” 

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself

Work can be a confusing place with a lot of different priorities coming from different people, and projects can pivot on a dime sometimes. Employees often need to hear something 5+ times for it to “stick” for them. 

It can be tedious, and sometimes even awkward, and might make you feel like a micromanager in parts, but repeating yourself and being clear and consistent with your communication and expectations (such as start time, dress code, dress code for Zoom calls even, etc.) is very important in how to build a successful team.

How to build a successful team: The “Most Respectful Interpretation” and your side of the net

These are related concepts.

“Most Respectful Interpretation” is taken from fashion company Thread Tales, and can be a good way to model communication on your team. Whenever a teammate says something to you, attempt to take it with the most respectful interpretation possible. You can even lead with “Can you help me explain what your process was on this?”

“Staying on your side of the net” means only acknowledging your perspective on an issue, not assuming the employee’s perspective. For example:

  • Jumping the net: “You’ve been late to a few team calls during COVID. You don’t seem to care anymore.”
  • Your side of the net: “You’ve been late to a few team calls during COVID. It makes me feel like you might not care anymore.”

That’s a reference to your feelings and an invitation for them to respond to both the fact and the emotion, instead of simply assuming something about their work approach. 

It can seem small and semantic, but it’s a quality aspect of how to build a successful team. 

Hiring and culture are developed and grown over time

Obviously hiring well and developing a strong culture are important discussions within how to build a successful team, but these things happen over a long period of trial and error. Hiring is rarely perfect, although you can make hiring managers focus more on why they need that specific role by having them prepare a brief before they’re allotted headcount. 

As for culture, this topic is discussed a lot in business journalism (and rightfully so, as it’s very important). In reality, though, the only two approaches are top-down, where the senior leadership team sets the mission and values and others try to follow them, or bottom-up, where the employees are involved in the process of setting and defining the culture.

You should continually strive to revisit your hiring practices and culture as you attempt to build the most successful team possible.

The bottom line on how to build a successful team

It’s not easy, fam. We understand and we’ve worked with hundreds of teams on finding the secret sauce. It’s a mix of successful hiring, managing to the one instead of the many, accountability, respect, priority alignment, and understanding your team well enough to determine People-Project Fit. 

It takes time, and there will be setbacks, but if you continually revisit some of the items and ideas above, over time you’ll be a master of how to build a successful team.

Measure your team’s work style and optimize for people project fit — sign up for F4S for free today.

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