Creative Leadership

Five Things Leaders Get Wrong When It Comes To Building Great Teams

Building great, creative teams is an art. Like an athletic coach, the key isn’t just maximizing the talent of each member, it’s also about combining that collective talent to do amazing things. Plenty of sports teams with all-star players lose to less talented teams who know how to work together. But there are five key mistakes I see leaders make over and over that keep them from building a legendary team. Look over the list and let me know what you think:

1. We don’t understand what teams are for.  Leaders make decisions, and teams execute decisions. Don’t get them confused. I consulted with a large nonprofit once with a leader who was uncomfortable making decisions, so he embraced what he called “team leadership.” That meant he had a team of 14 people who would literally have 8 hour meetings 2-3 times a week to make the smallest, most insignificant decisions. The organization was in chaos, all because the leader was afraid to make decisions. I love working with teams, but their greatest strength isn’t making decisions, it’s executing those decisions. Leaders – don’t delegate your authority. Make sure you’re using your team for the right thing.

2. We don’t fire enough people.  I love the quote from CEO Jack Welch – “When you don’t fire underperforming members of your team you’re not only hurting the organization, you’re hurting them – because you’re giving them a false sense of what success is.” It’s not about kicking people to the curb, it’s about helping them find the place where they can contribute and grow. Ultimately you have to get them out of the job they’re failing in right now. And while you’re at it – don’t confuse “loyalty” and “competence.” I love loyalty, but just because an employee is loyal, doesn’t mean they’re actually good at their job.

3. We think an “open door policy” is a good thing.  Actually, I imagine whoever invented the idea meant well. But the truth is, even with great teams, there comes a time when you should shut the door and get to work. We’re finding that the trendy “open spaces” office concept simply isn’t working. It’s too loud, people don’t have privacy, and it’s incredibly distracting. Plus, some research indicates that when someone walks into your office and interrupts you, once they leave, it takes up to 40 minutes to get back to that same level of focus you had before you were interrupted. How many interruptions like that will wreck your entire day?

4. Our teams are too big.  Numbers can be relative, but once a creative team gets past 8 or so people, it doesn’t accomplish much because there are just too many opinions. Plus, in a large group it’s too easy for side conversations to happen, people start checking email, and distractions increase. I’ve always liked the advice from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos about the size of effective teams: “If you can’t feed your team with two large pizzas in a meeting, you’re in trouble.” Never forget that.

5. Finally, team meetings are too long.  I’ve been in all-day marketing meetings and brainstorming sessions, and after a couple of hours, wanted to pull my hair out. Never forget that people are really good for about 40 minutes or so and then need a break. So when it comes to meetings, get creative. Find an interesting location, lower the distraction level, help them focus, create an agenda, and perhaps most important – end on time. When it comes to long meetings I’ll defer to Thomas Sowell who said: “People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.”

What advice do you have for building great teams?

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

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One Comment

  1. Great points Phil. Particularly in Churches and NFP’s we are reluctant to have the hard conversations with staff that leads to better performance or fit. Ultimately it is better for the person to be trained, coached or redeployed rather than ignored, underperforming and knowing they are not doing well. In a small team, it only takes a few underperformers to pull down the whole team. Other pick up the slack and eventually move on. Leaving you with the underperformers. Being a Christain leader does not mean ignoring underperforming and shifting the burden to competent high performers.

    I also think you’re right about team size. A good leader can manage a team of 8 but the skill level needs to go up greatly even when it hits twelve. Managing dozens of people leave gaps and leads to failures.

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