How to Build a Winning Team

An article in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal about a high-school cross-country coach in suburban Syracuse was fascinating. His teams have won nine national titles in nine years without superstar runners. His success isn’t due to harder workouts, but to his philosophy of training, his inspirational leadership, and the values he espouses. Rather than focus his attention on the best runners, he emphasizes the importance of the team, and each member’s responsibility to fully devote themselves to be their best for the team.

In essence, Coach Bill Aris taps into both internal motivation and group connection, and he leads not by control, but by challenging and inspiring. Companies who want to develop greater “engagement” can learn a lot from examples such as this. It is an exceptionally good example of what Daniel Pink writes about in Drive, and what is proven over and over again in many organizations I see; that engagement comes from internal motivation, not from power, control, or external incentives. In short, if you want people to move and act, power, control and incentives can work well, but they will never engender real engagement, the kind that creates winning teams. That requires a different approach to leadership, values, and techniques.

People Don’t Hate Change

Leaders will sometimes tell me that people hate change.  But it’s not true.  Nearly all of my work involves some amount of organization change.  Sometimes it’s broad, sweeping change in strategy, organization restructuring, or culture.  Other times the change is more limited.  And while it’s true that you can always count on resistance to change — even positive change — it’s not true that people hate change.  What they hate is change that they have no control over, the feeling of surprise when change is sudden, and the helplessness of not knowing what’s coming next.  I’ve found time and again that change can be accelerated and readily adopted by being smart in how the change effort is designed and implemented.  When leaders know how to sponsor and communicate change, and people are involved so that they “own” the change, the results are outstanding. And the approaches, tools, and techniques of successful change leadership are valuable all the time–not just during major change efforts.  What are you doing to make your organization more adaptable and more change ready?

How the best teams work

Many leaders today still subscribe to the idea that everyone reporting to them must conform to the leader’s thoughts and opinions–both before decisions are made, and after.  This slavish devotion was nearly universal during earlier decades, but in the digital age it is a dangerous approach–because it results in less than optimal decisions, and because bright, high-performing people won’t stay long in an environment where their views are not welcomed (or they stay and are dysfunctional.)
Leaders today need the best thinking from the brightest people on key issues and decisions.  Here’s how they do it:  First, create a great team with smart, capable people having deep knowledge in their areas of expertise.  Second, tap the best ideas from all the different perspectives and ways of thinking in order to make the best decisions.  Third, ensure that the whole group, knowing the best decision has been made, fully supports the decision and does everything possible to promote it and make it successful.
The process and tools to ingrain this way of leading are easy to implement because they are non-bureaucratic and well accepted.  (Interestingly, it is often the leader who is the most resistant.)