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How to Make Successful Teams “Click”

October 27, 2012

By The Linkage Editorial Team

After decades of research and practical experience working with leaders, teams, and organizations, Linkage Inc.’s founder and CEO Phil Harkins knows what makes successful teams “click.” In nearly every case, a skillful and effective leader employs the following techniques to get the most out of every team member.

  1. Define a clear picture of the future—a vision for the team.
    This is crucial, because teams search desperately for specific targets. Consider the old expression: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Trips without a clear destination leave groups feeling flat and lost. Keeping teams informed about where they’re headed and how best to get there requires leaders to be prepared to acknowledge and adapt to changes in operational conditions and even objectives. Leaders cannot sit back and watch, but instead must create and recreate the vision and team spirit that stops people losing heart and becoming lost.
  2. Be genuine, even if it means lowering your guard.
    Leaders who create teams that “click” have an uncanny sense about how and when to express their inner selves. They will even reveal their own vulnerabilities at the right time to gain the respect of those around them. They are not so concerned about projecting a perfect image: they know that high-impact leaders get results by laughing at their own flaws. They don’t play make-believe, knowing it’s more important “to be” than to “seem to be”.
  3. Ask good questions.
    Effective leaders use enquiry and advocacy to keep abreast of what’s really going on. They often use a simple formula (the 70-20-10 rule—70 per cent listening, 20 per cent enquiring with just the right amount of advocacy, and 10 per cent tracking (i.e., summarizing and synthesizing information, and providing possible courses of action)—in all their conversations.
  4. Talk about things – even the hard things.
    A leader who gets their team to “click” is not afraid to talk about the tough stuff. They find ways to have the difficult conversations because they know that burying problems doesn’t make them go away. They also know that if they, as the leader, don’t talk about things, no-one will and, pretty soon, a culture will develop in which too many things are left unsaid. “I can always tell when teams are dysfunctional,” Phil says, “by measuring the amount of stuff not talked about, or what I call the ‘let’s not go there’ issues.”
  5. Follow through on commitments.
    Leaders of high-performing teams find ways to build trust and maintain it, especially by making teams hold to their commitments and keeping the team’s view of its goals clear. However, they also know how to distinguish professional trust from blind loyalty.
  6. Let others speak first.
    In high-performing teams, members see themselves as equal in terms of communication. Leaders should therefore encourage this by putting the other person’s need to express their agenda ahead of their own.
  7. Listen.
    High-performing teams comprise people who have mastered the art of listening without fear, of allowing others to speak without reacting strongly or negatively to what is being said, or what they anticipate will be said. A leader fosters and honors this attribute within the team by quickly putting a stop to bad conversational behavior that cuts other people off and implies that their ideas are not valued. A leader also knows that achieving higher levels of innovation requires team members to be unafraid to express unusual ideas and advocate experimental processes. They emphasize this by publicly thanking those who take risks—and by making sure that sharp-shooters put their guns away.
  8. Face up to non-performing players.
    This brings us to a very important characteristic of high-performing teams, which is that their leaders do not tolerate players who pull the team apart. Interestingly, experienced leaders frequently maintain unity and discipline through third parties in the form of people we call “passionate champions”. A leader may surround his or herself with several passionate champions, who have established an understanding and close working relationship with one another, and who are totally focused on, and committed to, the team’s objectives. They are capable of getting the job done—and not afraid to remove people who are failing to help them do so.
  9. Have fun, but never at others’ expense.
    High-impact leaders steer clear of sarcasm: they always take the high road. If they do make fun of someone, it’s usually themselves. They have learned the lesson that reckless humor can be misinterpreted and backfire. They know that critics of the organization can turn inappropriate remarks back on a leader who makes them.
  10. Be confident and dependable.
    Somehow, over and above the daily struggle, leaders who get teams to click project confidence. They do this by preparing their conversations and not backing away from, or skimming over, real issues and problems, even difficult or confronting ones. They always address ‘What’s up?’ and ‘What’s so?’ in the organization. They don’t try to be spin doctors because they know that, ultimately, it doesn’t work. Rather, they are known as straight shooters—people who play hard, fight fair, and never, never give up. At the end of the day, team members know that, whatever happens, their leader will be left standing. This gives them confidence that they will be standing, too. They also know that, should things get really bad, their leader will not desert them or try to shift the blame, but seek to protect them, even if it means standing in the line of fire.

So, what’s the leadership technique you have the toughest/easiest time following through on? Are you a good listener? Are you able to have the “tough conversations” with sub-par performers? Does your boss set a clear vision for your team and follow through on commitments?

About Phil Harkins
Phil Harkins is an internationally-known author and expert in the areas of organizational development, leadership, communications, and executive coaching, as well as the founder and CEO of Linkage, Inc. Through his work at Linkage, he has led hundreds of organizations toward better performance, strategic advantage, and routine excellence. Along with leadership expert Warren Bennis, Phil is also co-chair of Linkage’s Global Institute for Leadership Development which has trained and developed over 4,000 leaders worldwide. He has also facilitated over 800 meetings and has been a principal speaker at over 400 conferences, symposia, and retreats throughout the world.

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