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Anatomy of a Successful Team

Part Two in a series on creating the effective marketing team
University Business, Jan 2006

Just as today's leader must have a handful of essential qualities and characteristics, the members of the effective marketing team must possess these qualities. The first, of course, is the desire, like the leader, to orbit a worthy vision.

Without vision, people and organizations perish. And in today's sometimes cynical organizations, visions are even more important. Burt Nanus, in Visionary Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 1995), defines vision as "a realistic, credible, attractive future for your organization." He notes that there is no more powerful engine driving an organization toward long-range success than an attractive, worthwhile, and achievable vision of the future that is widely shared.

Karl Albrecht uses a metaphor, "the northbound train," to describe how important vision is to an organization and says that the image of a northbound train conveys an unwavering commitment to a particular direction.

As noted in the November issue of University Business, the leader is responsible for the initial vision that guides the formation of the initial team. But it's up to the team members to refine that vision so they are all engaged, understanding their role in achieving the vision, and what their individual and collective futures will look like once the vision is achieved.

If the members can't see how the vision will impact them, either the vision is not appropriate or those people should not be on the team. Visions galvanize, empower, and excite the team, its members, and the larger organization.

Margaret Drugovich, vice president of Admission and Financial Aid at Ohio Wesleyan University, notes, "Some people say that 'vision' is over-emphasized as key to organizational success. I think this criticism about where vision fits in the hierarchy of leadership skills misses the point." Every member of an organization needs to know what he or she should be aiming at in order to maximize organizational effectiveness. In an ideal world, the question "How does this get us closer to our goal?" should lead every decision.

David Sallee, president of William Jewell College (Mo.), notes, "The more I talk to people at all levels of the organization, the more I am convinced of the need for and value of organizational clarity. Any amount of fuzziness in vision and goals will create an inordinate drag on the system."

My favorite vision does not come from a college or university. It comes from a black minister who died a generation ago. The first words of his vision still provide hope and direction. Some 25 years ago, Martin Luther King had a dream.

Fewer, More Important Goals

Goals are essential. However, too many goals can crush a team's spirit. If you are dealing with more than four or five major goals, you are more likely wallowing than striving. At the end of the day, when the lights are down low, the team members must ask themselves:

What matters most?

How do we define institutional success?

What will it take for us to be successful?

These questions will spawn four or five truly significant goals that capture the imagination of the members. The goals must be obvious and relate directly to the vision. They must be strategic. And they must be clear ... and vague.

Clear goals offer essential direction. They are the essential "what." But good goals must also be vague on the "how" so that the senior team has latitude on how the goal will be accomplished. It is this latitude that allows team members to draw from their unique strengths and experiences. Over time, this is what will keep them engaged.

Says Steve Varvis, director of Business and Civic Relations at Fresno Pacific University (Calif.), "Leaders who tell the team 'how' to get it done, almost always get it wrong. The leaders are not close enough to the actual work to know how to get it done. This has two negative effects. First, it demoralizes the team because it conveys a lack of respect for their experience, knowledge, and effort. Second, it tells those middle managers and staff that the senior team is not really a team."

Trust is the oxygen of teams. Without trust, the team, like most organisms, dies. In almost all cases, it is a mistake to assume that trust automatically exists in a team environment. The savvy leader knows that trust must be built and that it will take time.

Sallee at William Jewell College says, "The leader must trust and be trustworthy and the players must trust each other, both individually and as a group. There are several kinds of relationships involved: leader and each individual on the team; leader and team as a whole; each member and each other member; and the team relationship. Each needs to be strong.... A key foundation for trust is vulnerability. If one erects barriers and cannot be vulnerable, it will be hard for others to trust that person." Candor also plays a role in these relationships, he adds: "I am not interested in 'brutal honesty' but rather in candor that allows full discussion of issues and concerns."

John Roush, president of Centre College (Ky.), observes, "Truth must come first in leadership. Without truth, there is no trust, and without trust, leadership is impossible."

Drugovich believes technology can sometimes get in the way of trust. She says, "A truncated message on a Blackberry will never be a meaningful substitute for face-to-face communication when it comes to building trust. Like receiving a postcard when you hoped for a long, juicy letter, e-communications cannot satisfy the need for constructing the connective tissue that binds organizational members together."

Building trust takes time--often a long time. In fact, there's a direct relationship between how much time a team spends together and the level of trust felt on the team. There are no short cuts here. As leaders and team members you must be willing to take the time.

While spending time together is an important ingredient in building trust, it is not the only ingredient. There are a number of things that the leader can do to help instill trust. For example, a leader must:

Be trustworthy

Insist on clear, important, and consistent goals

Be open, fair, and willing to listen (a trait that must be shared by all team members)

Be decisive

Support all team members

Give credit

Respect the opinions of others

Empower team members to act

Understanding the importance of trust is not a new insight. What is new is an understanding of how trust is further developed by three critical issues. First, the roles and norms of the team. Second, how the team communicates. And third, how the team is rewarded.

All groups develop norms that govern how the members interact with one another. Teams often formalize this code into a written document that explicitly spells out team behavior. These codes address such issues as meeting attendance, discussion participation, and keeping team confidences. They commit members--and their teams--to cooperate and collaborate with one another. Carroll reminds us, "The sign of a truly effective team is one whose written norms are internalized and become part and parcel of the culture, the nature of governance, and leadership."

Most of us believe we are pretty good communicators. Our peers, however, might say we are not. We often don't take the time to communicate. Because trust depends so much on that, solid interpersonal skills are essential. An understanding of how to listen, when to speak, how to assure input from all members without domination by a few, and how to attack an idea without attacking the idea giver, are essential. Without a commitment to effective communication, trust will wither.

Carroll, expanding on a theme introduced by Drugovich, says, "Many leaders and managers today rely on e-mail as a communication tool in which the nuances of voice and tone are lost. This can cause problems. While the majority of my team contacts are e-mail contacts, I seldom rely on electronic communications when discussing critical issues. For those issues, I want face-to-face dialogue."

Effective teams also have an effective reward system. For trust to take root, the leader must make sure that the reward system is tied to both individual and group goals--goals that stress cooperation rather than competition. The goals and rewards of one team member must not conflict with the goals and rewards of another. As I write these words, I am visiting a school with conflicting goals: The VP for Enrollment is rewarded for getting the class while the VP for Finance is rewarded for reducing the discount rate.

There is another issue. For trust to occur, team members must realize that their first responsibility is to the senior team, not to the departments or divisions they lead. This sounds contrarian, but think about it. The academic VP who more clearly identifies with her faculty will seldom view team goals as more important than her own. This divided loyalty has the potential for great conflict. It will take a great team vision, and a high degree of trust, for the VP to subjugate her goals for those of the team.

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

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