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Tips for team leaders

October 17, 2014 Briana Goldman

I couldn’t agree more with Carolyn O’Hara’s thoughtful piece on What New Team Leaders Should Do First:

“Getting people to work together isn’t easy, and unfortunately many leaders skip over the basics of team building in a rush to start achieving goals,” she writes. “But your actions in the first few weeks and months can have a major impact on whether your team ultimately delivers results. What steps should you take to set your team up for success? How do you form group norms, establish clear goals, and create an environment where everyone feels comfortable and motivated to contribute?

What the experts say

“Whether you’re taking over an existing team or starting a new one, it’s critical to devote time and energy to establishing how you want your team to work, not just what you want them to achieve. The first few weeks are critical. ‘People form opinions pretty quickly, and these opinions tend to be sticky,’ says Michael Watkins, the cofounder of Genesis Advisers and author of the updated The First 90 Days. ‘If you don’t take time upfront to figure out how to get the team working well, problems are always going to come up,’ says Mary Shapiro, who teaches organizational behavior at Simmons College and is the author of The HBR Guide to Leading Teams. ‘You either pay upfront or you pay later.’ Here’s how to start your team off on the right foot.

Get to know each other

“‘One of your first priorities should be to get to know your team members and to encourage them to get to better know one another,’ says Shapiro. To that end, ‘resist the urge to immediately start talking about the work and the task outcome,’ and focus instead on fostering camaraderie. In practice, this may mean holding a retreat or beginning meetings with team-building exercises. For virtual teams, it might mean starting calls by getting updates on how each person is doing or hosting virtual happy hours or coffee breaks. One particularly effective exercise is to have people share their best and worst team experiences, says Shapiro. Discussing those good and bad dynamics will help everyone get on the same page about what behavior they want to encourage—and avoid—going forward.”

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We all know there is no “I” in team, but it can be equally difficult to find the “we” or the “us” too. I’ve found that successful team formation at every stage boils down to establishing a team identity. I also have several things I make clear that help establish team identity in the early days:

As the story suggests, it’s important to share and discuss times you have been part of successful or supportive teams. And I make a point to try and get below the surface and ask probing questions and lay the groundwork for additional conversations.

The most important question is: How are we going to work together and what are going to be our norms? It’s important that all team members contribute, and I make sure to break down any concepts so there’s no confusion about what is expected. For example, I ask my teams to not only define respect, but also to explain what actions demonstrate respect. We take the time to learn about how each member prefers to communicate and what the tone of team interactions should be. And I even go so far as to write down team norms, and give everyone a copy so what’s expected is absolutely clear.

One of the best ways to establish team identity is to create a culture that team members can identify with and participate in. I also try to encourage the teams I work with to get together after work and…wait…have a little fun. We spend so much time at work, and it’s only common sense to make it as positive as possible, right?

And remember, all teams ebb and flow as projects, goals, and even members change. Always be mindful about what the “us” in team looks like and be ready to change as your team changes.

So let’s hear it. What do you think makes a team successful? Please share your thought in the comments box below.

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