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The Cost of Team-Building Is Much Lower than Not Having a Team

Lessons learned from Olympic coaches, the military and more.

A military unit must mesh from top to bottom. It must run with synchronized perfection, like a well-oiled machine. One missed assignment, one selfish action or distracted moment can mean failure; and in the military, failure can mean the difference between life and death.

In my line of work, when a company is under assault from all sides and in danger of being overrun by economic forces, I often find that the company leaders failed to engage in proper team-building. I have often come in and quickly seen a leader who has failed to recognize the importance of a well-oiled, engaged, and excited team of workers. When I was in the military, I was chosen to lead a team made up of wildly varying personalities through a challenging course. It did not look good, believe me. This was a team doomed to fail in such a physical test.

But the thing is, we didn’t. In fact, we won the challenge because we worked together to win. We each dropped our individualism and worked as a unit with a goal.

So, what is it about forming productive teams that will help your business move forward? How on earth do you build a good team? They do not grow on trees. It is hard work to be sure, but well worth the effort.

Team-building is an evolution; but no matter what stage it is in, it needs a leader. It is not a theater, it is real life and as the leader you must make team members feel like they are a part of what’s going on. If your people get upset along the way, let them. Emotions are good. Make sure everyone is accepted as they are and team performance is built on individual qualities. There are plenty.

A few years back, I had the chance to serve as interim CEO for a medium-size company. The owner did not have much faith in the skills of his workers and did not foster a culture of team-building.

The owner, let’s call him Mr. K., did not think employees knew enough to be left alone and never gave them power. He micromanaged everything. There was no team. People didn’t care about their wingman. Soon after I took over, I began to talk to the workers. They complained that they had never been asked any questions about their specific jobs or their ideas to improve operations. Any suggestions they might have had were killed immediately.

After a few weeks, I made a test. I promoted a production employee, a worker who was constantly offering suggestions to improve operations. I decided to give him a chance. Very soon, we saw him flourishing, active and working overtime to improve production flow. The simple act of paying attention to him and in essence saying, “we respect your knowledge” transformed him into a highly motivated and creative member of the team.

A much more feeble way, superficial and temporary, is the company day set aside for “team-building.” Usually, it is a full day devoted to games intended to build esprit de corps. Most people look at these gatherings as nothing more than a day off from work.

Usually, at these things you will see a mix of enthusiasm from the truly interested to those wishing they were somewhere else. That’s what you would expect.

Typically, employees are divided into groups and given a challenge—something to solve together while competing with the other groups. Typical tasks might be rock climbing or building a raft to carry the entire team across a lake. Maybe it is a cooking contest, where teams are given only certain ingredients, or a softball or basketball game. Whatever form the event takes, the lessons and the enthusiasm fade quickly. Games are not real life.

For a company leader, team-building is hard daily work. It does not come through games. Team-building starts with challenges, leadership, and an ability to make people feel determined to be part of a team.

Team diversity is the key. The best teams I have worked for are truly international, with members from various countries and diverse backgrounds and with different types of education. And that comes down to the leader. In fact, I would go so far as to say that team-building should be one of the CEO’s primary tasks. He should constantly try to improve teamwork and make sure all company leaders understand its importance.

Building a team is a continuous process, requiring, at times, the need to change team members.  A successful team needs a lot of attention and coaching from the team leader, and that includes the CEO. The strongest teams usually have the broadest capabilities and backgrounds. Putting them together as a highly motivated working group is the trick. This differentiates the winners from the rest.

***

When talking about team-building, it is easy to turn to the world of sports for the best examples. As a hockey player, I am reminded of one of the best success stories about team-building, literally:  the 1980 Olympic gold-medal-winning American ice hockey team. This group of young college kids upset the Soviet juggernaut, a team that simply crushed its opponents. This U.S. victory over the Soviets in a semifinal game is often called the “Miracle on Ice.”

The Soviets were not an ice hockey team; they were a machine. The Soviets were almost guaranteed to win.

The U.S. ice hockey team was basically put together from college ice hockey players, coached by the legendary Herb Brooks. A CEO would do very well to study Brooks and his motivational skills, if not his methods. Brooks was a very tough coach with what seemed like an insurmountable task ahead of him and his team. One of the first things he did was pick a team that did not include some of the best American players. He had a reason for this.

“I am not looking for the best players. I am looking for the right ones,” Brooks would say.

He stressed team unity over everything else, noting that all-star teams fail because they rely solely on individual talent, not teamwork.

It is not about people sitting in boardrooms and competing with each other. This is where the CEO, the leader, must make everyone understand that success is possible only through true team effort.

Brooks had to build a team that included members from two rival college teams who fought hard whenever they met. He wanted to mix different playing styles. He knew one thing as well: The Soviets were successful because their superb physical conditioning allowed them to play at full speed the entire game.

The Americans would be in better physical shape, Brooks decided. And he made his players meet that demand. Brooks knew that tough physical training—together as a team, often involving crushing workouts and psychological agony, then doing it over and over—would weld the group together.

***

This proves two other lessons about corporate teamwork. First, know your competition. Second, understand that we human beings like to relate to something and we feel great if someone else has to run the difficult road with us. It is about sharing; even if it is a grueling workout, it is a fundamental thing for us.

Quite often, war veterans who have shared tough battles with fellow veterans who have different educational backgrounds and social statuses, still feel like a team after they are back at home. I do not think this is something that needs more elaboration. It does raise the question about how this kind of unity can be reached in a more peaceful environment and where the real threats are non-existent.

Sports are entirely relevant when thinking about team-building in business.

The Finnish national ice hockey team coach Jukka Jalonen faced a similar situation with his 2019 world championships roster. Finland did win gold, but nobody outside the team thought that they would. It was a collection of less famous players, mainly from Finnish and various national leagues. But this team decided to stick together, for better and worse. And they did fight, and they had difficult times. Nobody, not even the coach, made a lot of noise about themselves; they worked only as a team. After games, the coach, even in interviews, did not mention any player specifically. There was no bullshit from him. He only talked about the team, over and over again.

The “Miracle on Ice” example has happened before and after many times in every sport. How often have we seen sports teams that were a collection of supposed misfits or middle-of-the-road players who came together and beat the odds and won a championship? How many times have we seen the underdog teams evolve slowly during a tournament and gel into one tight team?

I have seen that a team that has shared some failure often becomes tighter. Because of these failures, the coach and team members are ready to move ahead to success in a constructive way. Stress is an essential part of team-building. Members need to feel the pressure together and work together to live it.

‘Cut the Bullshit’ Team-Building Lessons

  • Celebrate success, even small success. This leads to strong teams.
  • Show that you are a team player by asserting that you are the alpha dog, the leader, and then demand that everyone is treated equally and that no disputes are allowed to linger.
  • Explain clearly and often where you want the team to go, what you want to achieve, and what lines people are not to cross.
  • Involve everyone in the discussions but make it clear that you are the final decision-maker. This is not a democracy, after all.
  • Never lose touch with the team, and always make sure members know you support them.
  • Set mission-impossible goals. They stress the team in order to develop the team.
  • Listen to your team. If they get the attention of your ears and brain, they know they are important and want to put even more effort into reaching common goals.
  • Discuss problems but let the team members solve them. That empowers them.
  • Thank them.
  • Criticize them.
  • Celebrate failures. It is the learning and boldness that matters. Without them, there is no team development.
  • Hence, let them be bold.

R. Paul Vuolle has a Master of Science degree from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zürich). He looks back at a long and successful career in various global corporations, reaching the executive vice president position. Since then, he has been a start-up, industrial and consulting entrepreneur, advising SMEs in Europe as well as stock-listed companies in highly challenging business situations. He has been an IndustryWeek contributor and a keynote speaker at U.S. business conferences.

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