We were sitting down over a good cup of coffee when he shared that he had been hired years ago by the Board to transform the organization. “I was tasked to change the structure, quality, focus and culture.” Years later, we were discussing recent successes and I pointed out that many of them reflected back to the commitment by the Board to four transformational strategies. I noted that these recent successes also reflected that he had brought in people of high quality and experience who became the team to lead the entire organization through the process. As he continued to share about how current projects would build on recent successes, I was reminded of the following phrase: “Better people make better All Blacks.” James Kerr in his book, Legacy: What The All Blacks Can Teach Us About The Business Of Life (Constable, 2013) wrote about the transformation of the All Blacks, the New Zealand national ruby union team, into a champion level team. The leaders of the All Black during this transformation noted that better people create a better team.
Upon reflection, I also remembered a conversation I had years ago with an insightful leader. He asked me the question, “What comes before you build an effective team?”
I responded, “I don’t know. That’s a good question. What does?”
He explained, “I think it is having a healthy community at work. A healthy community is the foundation upon which teams are built. And once a team is done doing what it needs to do, the members will return and strengthen the community. I wonder if we need to be focusing on community building as much as we are focusing on team building?”
I have pondered this insight for years. It reminds me of John Maxwell’s insight in his book, The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork: Embrace Them and Empower Your Team (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001) when he wrote “The Law of the Bench: Great teams have great depth.” As Maxwell explains, today's bench players may be tomorrow's stars. Furthermore, the success of a supporting player can multiply the success of a starter. Therefore, there are more bench players than starters and a bench player placed correctly will at times be more valuable than a starter, In short, a strong bench gives the leader more options
With the above in mind, I think leaders make a big mistakes when they compose a team. First, they assume “the more the better” and therefore put too many people on the team. As Patrick Lencioni writes in his excellent book, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business (Jossey-Bass, 2012), “Becoming a real team requires an intentional decision on the part of its members…. teamwork is not a virtue. It is a choice - and a strategic one.” As he continues, “A leadership team is a small group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving a common objective for their organization…. anything over eight or nine is usually problematic.” As he points out, “a large numbers of people cause communication problems.” On a team, Lencioni notes there are two forms of communication. The first is advocacy communication, i.e. the stating your case or making your point, and the second is inquiry communication, i.e. the asking of questions to seek clarity about another person’s statement of advocacy. As he explains, the main problem when teams are larger than 8-9 people, they tend to do advocacy communication more than inquiry communication.
This week, sit back and think about your team. Are you seeing more advocacy communication or inquiry communication? And are you building your bench strength? These questions are important and worth the time you invest in finding the answers.