There's one essential team quality that's often misunderstood: conflict. Many leaders mistakenly believe conflict among team members is bad. Actually, it is one of the best indicators of a healthy team.
Conflict means that team members trust each other enough to disagree. Conflict means all ideas are valued and aired. Conflict means ideas are aggressively debated. And conflict means that decisions, once made, are adhered to with a passion.
"If you are at that stage where conflict is acceptable, then you are at the stage where the best idea wins," says Greg Carroll, vice president for Marketing and Public Relations at Furman University (S.C.). "No matter who brings it up, no matter whose area is impacted, the best idea on the table wins. Sometimes you may not have the best idea, and if you and others, including the president, can accept that, then you've embraced the positive affects of conflict."
While conflict is essential, it is only allowed while the team is debating and only within the confines of the meeting room. Once the issue is aired and decided, the conflict ends. If every team member has a chance to air his or her opinion and possibly influence the decision, then everyone must commit to using the resources at their disposal to support that decision.
This support is not a passive "OK," but an active, "I am committed to this decision and its execution." If a team member doesn't commit to a decision made by the team, he or she will signal that lack of commitment, and the team will signal that lack of commitment on down the organizational chart. Here's the takeaway, and it's a harsh one: If a team member cannot support a decision made by the team, then that member must leave the team.
University of Southern California President Steve Sample, in The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2001), writes, "At USC, the five senior vice presidents who report directly to me ... comprise the core of my inner circle of advisors. Each of these persons is free to say, and willing to say, 'Steve, your proposed approach to this situation is just plain wrong!' We frequently have no-holds-barred discussions among two or more of us. But all of the senior vice presidents understand that once a decision is made, we will carry out that decision as a team."
Members of senior teams are generally highly talented and opinionated. They are leaders of their respective departments and divisions. They are used to running things. And their first inclination, likely, is not to collaborate. This lack of collaboration is one reason why so many teams are marginalized and seldom achieve greatness.
Interestingly, some presidents (note that I am not calling them leaders) actually create an environment that stresses competition among senior team members. Decisions are made, and unmade. Resources are not equitably distributed. Power is given and then taken away. It is no surprise, then, that nothing significant happens.
Let's be blunt: There is no such thing as friendly competition. At any level, competition is toxic and it undermines trust. Colleagues become competitors, and eventually opponents who withhold information and resources from one another. Rather than cooperation, they seek advantage.
Effective teams collaborate, and that will only occur when there is a high degree of trust, when the norms are followed, and when ideas and perspective are vented so everyone understands the rationale for the decision that is made.
Collaborators are practically family. They share rather than hoard, relying on one another's experience and expertise to support team outcomes and advance individual goals.
If you think you are a collaborator, ask yourself the critical question: Have you ever volunteered resources from your area (people or a portion of your budget) to help another member who is in a crunch? "It is unreasonable to expect colleagues to extend themselves further than we extend ourselves," says Margaret Drugovich, vice president of Admission and Financial Aid at Ohio Wesleyan University.
As noted elsewhere in previous articles, this collaboration must extend down through the middle managers and beyond. It is not enough that the VPs work well together. Their staffs must as well.
A seasoned president once told me that good decisions done are actually really great decisions. Her insight is a rallying cry of effective teams who treasure pretty good decisions made in a timely fashion. Rather than striving and delaying for perfect, they understand the value of just deciding, with the best information at hand, so they can focus on execution. Their interest in getting beyond the decision, however, should not be considered impulsive. Remember that these pretty good decisions occur only after a thoughtful, even aggressive vetting of the issues by the senior team.
Some presidents believe that if they are ultimately responsible for a decision that they must be the ones to make it. Let me give you three reasons why this is a mistake. First, if the team is not involved in the decisions that are made, they will quit participating in the discussions that led to those decisions. Second, if the team is not involved in the decision they will not feel responsible for any activities that flow from the decision. And third, because team members grow when they make and are held accountable for tough decisions, the institution loses an opportunity to help individual team members grow in their abilities.
Effective leaders will not duck the decisions that only they, as presidents, must make. But neither will they usurp decisions made by the team or by individuals on the team if the decision only affects their functional areas. Says John Roush, president of Centre College (Ky.), "You can get sideswiped and sometimes surprised by the decisions of others on the team, but if you have good people, you must let them do their work. You will never move forward without investing capable people with authority. Good leaders develop a capacity for and come to understand the wisdom of handing off authority."
The seasoned president who gave me advice on decision-making had another insight. She said presidents and teams should focus on the "what" and the "why" and that individual VPs, as they lead their teams, should focus on the "how." Good advice.
It's not how many ideas you have; it's how many you make happen. That's the tag for a former ad campaign for the consulting firm, Accenture. The ads in the campaign all followed a similar theme:
I am your idea. One day you'll look for me and I'll be gone.
I am your idea. Competitors may be closer than you think (words in a car's rearview mirror are shown).
I am your idea. I won't stay hot forever (a cup of steaming coffee is shown).
I am your idea. Drive me (this is imprinted on a golf ball).
I am your idea. How far do you want to go? (this is a highway sign).
Accenture's ads were all about execution.
Some time ago I spent time with some people from the Sloan School at MIT. During the course of reviewing their marketing materials, I noticed a fascinating quote from a graduate student. When asked to summarize what he had learned while completing his degree at the business school, the student replied, "Think Daringly. Execute Steadily."
On my desk, where I can see it, and in my briefcase when I travel, is a three-ring notebook with a list of my primary goals broken down by quarter. At the bottom is a note to myself that says, "If I did not work on one or more of these things today it was likely a waste." John Maher, a consultant friend of mind, has a similar sign on his desk. It says, "I have two oars in the water. One is labeled drive. The other is labeled focus. I need to pull on both oars at the same time or I will go in circles."
Recently while cleaning out some old files, I ran across an old article from the September-October 1986 Harvard Business Review. Written by Amar Bhide, it was titled, "Hustle as Strategy." Bhide writes, "Strategy, its high-church theologians insist, is about outflanking competitors with big plays.... [However], it is questionable whether this proposition is sustainable.... While they preach strategic planning, competitive strategy, and competitive advantage, they overlook the record of a surprisingly large number of very successful companies that vigorously practice a different religion. These companies don't have long-term strategic plans with an obsessive preoccupation on rivalry. They concentrate on operating details and doing things well. Hustle is their style and their strategy. They move fast, and they get it right."
One of the military leaders involved in the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is Lt. General Russel Honore. During one meeting he said to a subordinate who was a bit slow, "You're looking at your calendar and I'm looking at my watch."
The next column in this series will wrap up our discussion of essential team qualities and conclude with a bibliography of leadership and team-building resources.
Robert Sevier is a senior VP at Stamats Communications, and is the author of Building a Brand That Matters: Helping Colleges and Universities Capitalize on the Four Essential Elements of a Block-Buster Brand, available from www.strategypublishing.com.