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Making the Right Choices

Part one of a multipart series on strategies for building a highly effective senior team.
University Business, Nov 2005

For more than 25 years I have served on teams, occasionally led teams, and, as part of my work at Stamats, worked as a consultant to help client teams.

During my career I've wondered why truly effective teams in higher education are so rare. I have thought about this question for more than 20 years, during which time I tracked down articles, read books, scoured the web, and posed the same question to hundreds of administrators and faculty.

After all this pondering I have teased out three reasons why effective teams are so rare. First, I think many college and university leaders mistakenly believe that it is their job to build the institution and that an effective team is not particularly important to their success. In other words, a team would be nice, but it is not essential. These leaders have fallen for the president-as-hero myth, wrongly believing it's up to them to do everything that is truly important.

The second reason is that these leaders likely never served on a truly effective team. They may not understand why team building is worth the effort, or perhaps they are somewhat bewildered on how to begin the process or fail to comprehend the potential payoff. Leaders who sense that teams are important might read a book or two, but they are wary of any real commitment when their time is better spent building the institution. The desire to build a team gets lost in the day-to-day.

The third reason why so few leaders build their senior teams is the most tragic. I believe they don't have a vision for their institution that is grand enough to require the buy-in of an exceptional senior team to pull it off. These leaders seem willing to settle, as Jim Collins notes, for good--when great is right over the horizon.

This column, the first in a series, is on building the senior team. The basic rules and insights apply to any work group that wants to increase its effectiveness. So whether it's a marketing team, a retention team, or even a team to organize an upcoming 100th anniversary, there is a gist here.

There's no deep mystery about building an effective team--no hidden ritual nor secret handshake. It does not depend on having a cadre of administrative and staff stars. Lots of stars never shine. It is not just about an inspiring vision. Many visions are little more than hallucinations, seen by only one or two and ignored by everyone else. It is not about lofty goals. Goals are powerless in themselves to move a heart.

Of course, talent, vision, and goals are important. But they aren't enough. The key to effective team building rests on a simple decision of how you and your peers decide to work together. Will the group continue as a collection of people with differing goals and agendas who just happen to share a common table, or will you set aside those individual aspirations and motivations and decide to truly function as one?

The decision is that simple, but it's also that hard. The decision to work together is not natural. In fact, it will likely fly in the face of your desire for individuality, control, and territory. You'll have to unlearn years of organizational bad habits, bad habits that have never served institutions well.

Some people will be threatened by the decision and fall by the wayside. A few may take a wait-and-see attitude with a belief that they can simply watch from the sidelines as this initiative, like others that came before it, stalls and fades. Some in the group may try to sabotage your efforts. Others, however, will embrace the decision as the right one. They may not fully comprehend what they are in for, but they intuitively sense that it is the right one.

And as you progress in team building, there will be less "me" and more "we." Greg Carroll, vice president for Marketing and Public Relations at Furman University (S.C.), says that the team, over time, has to imagine lowering all those comfortable individual silos that dot the institutional landscape. "The view," he says, "is better without them."

Andrew Benton, president of Pepperdine University (Calif.), says that it's the rare administrator who wants to be on that kind of team. "One of the things I look for when I hire a colleague is someone who will work to make herself or himself invaluable to the team and who possesses the priceless ability to inspire the confidence of others."

The decision to build the senior team is made by the leader, but it must be quickly seconded by senior administrators who sense the possibilities that a team has to offer. If the decision is not seconded, it will die. Before seconding the decision, however, the senior administrators want to see a handful of very special qualities in their leader.

The leader must be worthy. A team will not follow a leader that they do not trust nor admire. The team needs to sense that the leader has a moral center and is committed to both them and the institution. The team does not expect perfection in their leader, but they do expect honesty and integrity, and they cherish an approachable leader.

The leader must have an initial vision the team is trying to accomplish. This vision must be compelling enough and have such gravity that it is able to overcome the attraction that team members have for their individual goals and agendas. People will not abandon habits and silos without a sense that something great is in the offing.

The leader must demonstrate a bias toward action. Good leaders understand the importance of discussion and decision-making, but they don't confuse talking about something with doing something. Effective leaders value good decisions made, but their heart is in implementation. They want to get things done.

The leader must create an environment that recognizes that individuals on the team are, well, individuals. One administrator with whom I spoke says that an indicator of an ineffective team is the "sameness" of the members. "When I walk into a meeting and see people who think, act, and look like the leader, I know I'm sitting with an ineffective team. The leader has not selected and hired team members; he or she has purchased replacement parts."

The leader must run
interference, settle
disputes, assure the
flow of resources, and
occasionally take an
arrow for the team.

Benton adds, "I try to choose members of the team who will approach a problem from a variety of different angles. In doing so, I hope to surround a challenge with as many different perspectives as possible."

Steve Varvis, director of Business and Civic Relations at Fresno Pacific University (Calif.), remembers a team in which uniqueness was valued. "Our team had been wildly successful. We did more with less than perhaps any other group I have ever known," he says.

"In my judgment it was the eccentric giftedness of the team members that fueled this achievement. The individuals were engaged and drawing on each other's unique insights and backgrounds. When each of those voices was heard, through meetings, impromptu discussions, long weekends together working with experts from the outside, and at times of commiseration or celebration--the team became balanced, rounded, moderate, and judicious," Varis says.

While these team members have gone their own way over the years, when they meet or run into each other, Varis says, "for a few seconds we know we are with a trusted, accomplished, gifted friend."

The leader must show a willingness to work for those who work for him. That is, he must do everything in his power to ensure the team and its individuals succeed. The leader must run interference, settle disputes, assure the flow of resources, and occasionally take an arrow for the team.

Steve Sample, in The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2001), quotes religious leader George Clements: "The leader should spend a small amount of his/her time hiring the senior team, evaluating them, exhorting them, setting their compensation, praising them, kicking their butts, and, when necessary, firing them."

These tasks should come to about 10 percent of the leader's time. The remaining 90 percent should be spent helping the senior team succeed.

If the leader can't commit to the team, there's little likelihood its members will commit to the leader, or to each other.

The leader must never commit the team to a goal or activity without having reasonable sufficient resources available. The time, talent, and treasure that are available must be consistent with the team's goals. Of course, there are never enough resources. But there's a big difference between a leader who continually asks the team to do more and more with less and less, a leader who doesn't know the difference between big dreams and false hopes--for goals without resources are a form of bondage.

The leader must value and reward performance. Talented people value goals and are comfortable having their progress measured. At the same time, team members who do not, or cannot, perform must be removed or replaced. Of course, the effective leader understands that people who contribute at high levels, who consistently meet and exceed their goals and who set aside individual ambitions, must be rewarded.

Finally, effective leaders remember that they are always on stage. Everything they say and do is scrutinized for clues not only by the team, but by the rest of the campus as well. While effective leaders can relax, they can never forget. Everyone is watching.

If a critical mass of these qualities is not present in a leader, members of the group won't step forward and participate in team building. It just won't be worth the risk.

But if a worthy leader is in place, the senior administrators who sit around the table can get a glimpse of a compelling vision. They are in for a wonderful ride.

Bob 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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