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Team Leadership: Don't Wing It

6/21/2011 --

Leading high-performing teams takes more than charisma and a skill for assembling a talented group of people.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Getting everyone on the same page. Inspiring team members to think of the greater good beyond themselves. Making wise, informed decisions. Helping smart individuals act even smarter in teams. These are the responsibilities of a team leader and they're not easy to handle. There's a science to it. So why do so many leaders wing it when they're put in charge of teams? That's a question professor Paula Caproni often ponders, especially in the wake of recent catastrophes like the 2008 financial crisis and the 2010 BP oil disaster. Her new Ross Executive Education program, Leading Teams: Creating a Culture of High Performance, aims to help practitioners digest the latest research on what makes effective teams, and then implement best practices to produce extraordinary results. Next offered Oct. 31-Nov. 2, the program provides tools and strategies that leaders of all teams—high-performing, low-performing, and virtual—can use to create an inspiring work culture.

In this Q&A, Caproni addresses some of the myths around leading teams and shares some of the special challenges facing leaders of virtual teams.

What makes a good team and a good team leader?

Caproni: We tend to take team leadership for granted. We think if we put a bunch of smart people in a room, they're going to act smart. Based on our experience we know that's not true. If you look at the economic meltdown, BP, and many other examples you'd love to know what the people involved were thinking and doing when they made critical team decisions. After all, these were smart people. I'm always curious when I see these things. I want to know how that decision was made. Or when people do amazing things, what was said when and to whom? How did they get people on board, how did they make sure everybody was looking at the greater good rather than their own interests, and how did they line up everyone's interests?

The essence of a good team comes down to two things. One, how do people make good decisions? This can be done face-to-face in formal meetings, virtually over Skype, in the hallway, the copy room, or the elevator. Team leaders need to create a context so those interactions happen and decisions are made well.

The second thing is the implementation. How do you turn those decisions into actions that get results that matter? One of the best pieces of advice I ever received is to not think of decision-making as something that is fixed. Rather, think about decision-making as part of an ongoing learning process. So when you make a decision, you always know you're going to learn more based on the consequences of that decision. Furthermore, tomorrow the world is going to be different and you may have to adjust.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see team leaders make?

Caproni: One myth is that smart people will make smart decisions in a team. Another is that smart people can make good decisions without a plan. We explore these myths and discuss how they can lead us astray. We then replace these myths with the practices that can really bring out the best in teams. For example, we now know from decades of research that the team leader's job is to be the designer of the team context, the designer of the decision-making process. We often assume our personality will carry us. One person may be charismatic, someone else may be a data person, and they'll both wonder how to use their personality to bring out the best in their team. Knowing your style is important because people react to the personality styles of leaders, but people react even more strongly to the environment in which they work. It can be motivating or demotivating. It can help them get their work done or block them from achieving important goals.

Even more important than the leader's personality is the leader's ability to create this context that inspires and enables teams to do their best work. The Leading Teams program helps you understand yourself and how your teams are likely to react to you, but also helps you rise above this focus on personality to understand how leaders create great team designs. As we all know, charisma can lead people down the wrong path at times. I'd rather work for a person who creates an environment in which my teams can thrive than someone who has great charisma any day.

So there's no such thing as a natural team leader? People of all personality types can lead teams?

Caproni: Yes. Self-assessment is key. But that's only a piece of the puzzle. You need to put that knowledge into how to design the team. You'll learn about the characteristics of good team design that will help you throughout your career on any kind of team with any kind of problem. There's a science to high-performing teams. But a lot of people don't put it into practice and they wing it. That's too bad because they could get better results in less time using fewer resources with more learning, more enjoyment, and less stress if they had a plan. The cost of winging it is so high. We're all paying that cost right now as a society.

These days, we see a lot of focus on virtual teams. Can you explain what makes leading a virtual team different than leading one where most team members are physically present?

Caproni: A virtual team is one that uses technology all or much of the time to get its work done. It can be communication technology or information technology. The basics for bringing out the best in a virtual team are the same as those for bringing out the best in a face-to-face team. You need clear, engaging goals. You need a team structure that gives team members the boundaries of their work, such as performance standards, milestones, and feedback. Within these boundaries your teams are able to do the work in a way that leverages their strengths. To help them leverage their strengths, the best team leaders provide coaching. They ask their teams what the team needs from them to do their best work and grow professionally within these boundaries.

The difference with virtual teams is that they tend to be more diverse because they also tend to be global. So you need to pay attention to that. You have to understand cultural diversity, and that means everything from differences in time zones to the way you write emails. Can you be blunt, or does it pay to use email to build a relationship? When is it okay to say, 'Im in a hurry and I need this now.' When a team member in a different culture says, 'Yes,' does this mean they will do the task? Or does it mean, 'Yes, I understand you,' rather than a agreeing to do the task as you expected?

You have to spend more time on building trust in virtual relationships early on. How can you do that? You might put up personal profiles on a team website. Not just a resume, but something personal so people can say, 'Oh, you like that sport? You do that activity? So do I.' Try to find ways to connect personally. Your initial meetings and emails have to be more relational in a virtual team because it's more difficult for team members to get to know each other. You're building confidence, trust, and enthusiasm. It's important to discuss why these particular people are part of the team. If you're face to face in the same location, you discover those things naturally. But with a virtual team you have to take time to establish that early on. If you do that, then you can send the email that says, 'Im in a hurry and I really need this now,' without people trying to read between the lines. They know you just need something in a hurry. In a virtual team, it's harder to build the assumption of goodwill.

There are a lot of complicated technologies for virtual teams. But you don't need to complicate matters. There are so many free technologies online. I think virtual teams especially tend to overcomplicate things so people shy away from working virtually. I'm doing some coaching through Skype with teams in our Tauber Institute for Global Operations. It's free and we'll get to see each other when we're meeting. Seeing each other is important because of the body language. That's something you can't get from a conference call. Right now, Skype is free. When leading teams, I'm a fan of design, design, design and simplify, simplify, simplify.

What if someone already has a high-performing team? What value is there in more education?

Caproni: There are several best practices based on research that people may not know about. We can make their lives a lot easier and help them get better, measurable results in less time with less stress by providing them with these best practices. One of the advantages of participating in a Ross Executive Education program is that we're at a research university, so we're among the first to hear of the latest best practices and we can share that information. Knowing the latest best practices is undoubtedly a competitive advantage for those who attend our programs.

So this course is for a person who wants to learn best practices to enhance the performance of their teams, regardless of whether these teams are currently low- or high-performing. Not that we're all things to all people. But leaders who get the most out of high-performing teams are golden. This course allows them to learn something that will give them measurable results that will enhance their careers. The best team leaders are able to have a life outside of work because they get the best results in the most efficient way, and they enable their teams to have this as well.

Great teams tend to get too comfortable, too excited, and too insular over time. That's a classic formula for groupthink. They've had so many successes that they get less critical of their behaviors. They use the same formulas even when the context changes. But then a problem comes up that's outside of their expertise and they use what worked in the past to solve that problem. But what worked in the past might not work now. So they miss the mark and miss it big.

Another thing we focus on here at Ross is positive organizational leadership. Sometimes organizations settle for 'good enough.' In this program we focus on the difference between a high-performing team and one that does extraordinary work and offers extraordinary experiences to the team members. What do we need to do to make that happen? Well, one thing is that we tend to look at a team or a person and say 'Lets figure out the weaknesses and fix whats wrong.' But to get extraordinary results and experiences, it means every team leader needs to look at the strengths of team members and the unique output of that team. Then you find out how to leverage these unique strengths. Do that and you have a better chance of making extraordinary contributions. It's not going to happen all the time. We'd be exhausted if we were always extraordinary. But it's great to be able to shoot for it. If you at least try, then it will happen more often than not.

How do you ensure people come away with something tangible?

Caproni: Everybody who comes to this program will develop an action plan that they'll apply to their own team with the intent of getting better results. Then we follow up with personalized coaching three months later to see how they're doing. If you don't take the time when you're in the program to work on a development plan, it's going to be hard to implement any of these new practices when you get back to work. You won't have the time. People may not think like you because they're stuck in old ways of thinking, so the coaching gives you some support and helps you with strategies. You need to make a commitment at the program to do something different. You should not be the same kind of leader you were before the program and you should not go back and lead your teams in the same way you did before.

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,