How Great Leaders Build Great Teams

The first time I needed to build a team in my career, I was in my late 20’s at a tech firm in Boca Raton. Money was thrown around like snicker bars on Halloween night and it was easy to buy your way out of most mistakes. Of course, we didn’t see it that way as it was the dot-com 90’s and I masterfully exemplified the belief that we were successful because of how smart we were. Solving most problems was a financial exercise and required little innovation. It’s no wonder the house of cards came crashing down.

Early in my tenure, we signed a customer that did document management solutions and we sold billing and customer care software. They needed our software like I need snow shoes in Boca but they bought it and I was tasked with implementing it. The team I assembled was less NY Yankees and more Bad News Bears. The only difference between us and the Bears was that the Bears ended up winners. We did not. 

Fast forward 20 years and I have assembled many teams from a few individuals hired to implement a specific project to well over 100 tasked with supporting clients on 4 continents or growing revenue by 3000%. I have failed and I have succeeded.  But what I am going to share with you is the process I have formulated over many years that maximizes the chance for success in building a great team.

That being said, this is a good time to provide my definition of a great team: A great team is two or more individuals that consistently wins. Period. End of story. A great team has nothing to do with how much they like each other or work life balance. That’s not to say that those things are not important. And one can certainly argue that without those things winning is next to impossible. But sometimes conflict is good and creates for better decision making. So, harmony and kumbaya aren’t included in my definition of a great team. A great team knows how to win. Every time.

The truth of it all is that a coach’s first and most important job is to field a winning team. If you can’t do that, than you can’t coach. You are not a leader. 

So, here is my process for building a great team. All of this in the leaders control. None of it can be delegated or outsourced. The leader has to visualize it and execute upon it. Always.

1.       Define winning. Put it on paper. Make it your elevator pitch. Be able to recite it in your sleep.  Believe it not to be possible but believe it to be probable. Tell it to your wife, your barber, the bag boy at the grocery store. Practice it endlessly and recite it with passion. If you can’t believe it than no one else will either. So you MUST get this right.

2.       Next answer this question: Why should someone else give a shit? Be noble. Be inspiring. Be great. But if your answer to this question is self-serving than you will not win. The key here is that it’s all about them and nothing about you. Do you think Bill Belichick would be able to field a great team by telling his players how they are going to help Bill get to the HOF? Of course not. 

3.       Define the process to achieve this goal. There are two very important and often forgotten aspects to building the right process. First, build the process to provide visibility into how the process is going – at all steps along the way. Building a process is relatively easy assuming you have the domain expertise to know how to get something done. But the key is to incorporate the warning signs into the process so that you have visibility at all steps along the road to success – even when you aren’t present. Secondly, and of equal importance, if these tracking agents in the process are contrived or create extra steps, they will not be done as they will quickly be relegated by the team as busy work. For example, if I hire you to conduct payroll for my company of 200 people the last step of that process is to pay 200 people. If once a week, I have you manually put a list of the people you paid and send it to me than it’s only a matter of time before it’s wrong or late. Build steps into the process so that you can see 200 people getting paid without relying on someone to remember to put it together and send it to you. And build steps into the process to obtain visibility every step of the way.

4.       Put people in roles to fulfill a part of the process. Of course, you have to explain what winning looks like, why they should give a shit and what they are going to do to execute the playbook to achieve the results. Where most people get in trouble here (and again I speak from experience) is in one simple word – assume. When you put someone onto a team you can assume nothing.  John Wodden, the famed UCLA basketball coach, started each season explaining how players tied their shoes the UCLA way. Can you imagine starting off the season with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and telling him how to tie his shoes the right way? That’s exactly what John Wodden did. Every season. Assume nothing and expect everything.

5.       Next, endlessly teach the process. If a sales person should “always be closing” than a leader should “always be teaching”. If you field the best team on the planet and don’t teach them how to perfect the process of winning – then you are about to lose. Great leaders see everything as a teaching moment. If someone does something wrong, then it is an opportunity to teach. If something does something right then it is an opportunity to teach others. 

6.       Don’t fix the problem, fix the process. Always resist the urge to fix the problem. When you fix the problem, there will always be more problems. Allow others to fix the problem. Your job is to fix the process. Fixing the process results in problems going away.

Happy Leading!