Getting the most from your team

Take a bunch of rag-tag underdogs, some wise cracks, a dollop of Hollywood pizzazz and hey presto, a cult classic is born. An early 1990s movie about ice hockey might seem an unlikely place to draw inspiration for leaders and managers, but stick with us.

In The Mighty Ducks, actor Emilio Estevez takes on the role of Gordon Bombay. Once a star ice hockey player, Bombay finds himself, courtesy of enforced community service, coaching a low-ranking local team. He teaches them a few tricks, learns a little something along the way and so on and so Hollywood.

Schmaltz aside, there’s some wisdom too. “A team is something you belong to, something you feel, something you have to earn,” Bombay told his motley crew.

The power of the team, aside from being fodder for movies a-plenty, is something that business leaders recognise too.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said that great things in business are “never done by one person”. “They’re done by a team of people,” he said.

What makes a good team?

Building, motivating and leading teams is an integral part of the challenge faced by business leaders. In a 2017 article, management consulting firm McKinsey explored the elements required to turn a good team into a great one.

Building the best team you can, and getting the most from that team, is about more than the feel-good factor; it makes business sense. “The value of a high-performing team has long been recognised,” McKinsey’s article notes. “It’s why savvy investors in start-ups often value the quality of the team and the interaction of the founding members more than the idea itself.”

Based on its research, McKinsey identified three key elements that it believes are required for great teamwork:

  • Great teams pull in the same direction, with a “shared belief about what the company is striving toward” and a clear sense of the team’s role in achieving that goal.
  • The best teams have “trust, open communication and a willingness to embrace conflict”.
  • The best teams feel energised because “they feel they can take risks, innovate, learn from outside ideas and achieve something that matters”.

Tips for better teamwork

There’s a plethora of studies, surveys and advice on how to motivate your team, how to work together and how to get the best results. Boil it all down and two things bubble to the surface: focus and respect. This echoes the points made in McKinsey’s analysis: the best teams know what they are working towards and have a culture of respect.

Respect can mean a lot of things in the context of a team. Think of respect as the enabler for a better culture – a culture that allows a team to flourish. It means listening. It means asking for help. It means having the ability to make mistakes without fear and it means much, much more.

If teams are ships, leaders are the captains, steering the course. Leaders need to set out clear objectives, foster the right culture and listen to what their teams are telling them (and change course, if necessary).

Listening to your team really is crucial. If you don’t listen – and we mean really listen – it sends a message to your team that what they say isn’t valued. Active listening is crucial to the effective functioning of any team. Leaders need to “listen carefully to the message the other person is delivering and retain the information they share”, according to jobs website Indeed.

“This can help you better understand each team member’s personal needs, challenges and concerns, and be proactive in addressing them. It also helps you build rapport and leave a positive impression,” the website notes.

Setting the tone

Leaders set the tone for their teams and, if they genuinely want to create a collaborative culture, they need to structure work projects to make this a reality. Ask yourself honestly, when you think of your team, do you think of a collaborative group or a siloed bunch of people working away individually?

If it’s the latter, you need to work on bringing people together to tackle projects. “The more opportunities people have to work together, the more likely it is they will begin to function as a close-knit team,” notes careers website Monster. “If handled well, an intense group effort can be the bridge that brings a team to an entirely new way of working together.”

According to Monster, bringing people together for a key task is only the first step. Building on that requires leaders to take a close look at how the team functions when it works as one and encourage staff to see this as the norm rather than something that happens for occasional projects.

Tackling teamwork challenges

Even with decisive leadership, clear goals, a collaborative and respectful culture, and a sense of purpose, teams can encounter performance problems along the way. Whether that’s a staff member who’s having a tough time outside the office and not on their A-game or a new hire who turns out not to be a good fit for their role or the team, it’s crucial to address performance issues quickly. Problems left to fester will breed tensions and resentment, and drag down team morale.

According to a survey published last year in British magazine HR, almost three in five managers see tackling poor performance within a team as “highly important”.

Speedy action is key, but you also need to get to the bottom of the problem, according to HR. “Is it about lack of motivation or lack of capability? This is where empathy and proper understanding of what makes your people tick comes to the fore,” the article notes.

Changing teams

When it comes to managing their teams, leaders need to keep pace with their environment. In an era where work boundaries are ever-evolving, the traditional idea of a team of colleagues is shifting. Remote working, increasingly global companies and a changing work culture mean that your team is less likely to be sitting together in the one building and made up of a consistent bunch of people.

So do the same rules apply?

Back to where we started, the sports team. According to Harvard Business School leadership expert Amy C Edmondson, the new type of teamwork is more akin to a “pick-up game in the park” than a well-practiced team that has had time to gel together.

In her Ted Talk, Edmondson explores the idea of “teaming”, her term for “teamwork on the fly”.

“It’s coordinating and collaborating with people across boundaries of all kinds – expertise, distance, time zone, you name it – to get work done,” she says.

“It’s the way more and more of us have to work today. With 24/7 global fast-paced operations, crazy shifting schedules and ever-narrower expertise, more and more of us have to work with different people all the time to get our work done,” Edmondson says. “We don’t have the luxury of stable teams.”

Showing humility

For this sort of team to work well together, leaders need to make it clear that they don’t have all the answers. This display of vulnerability by a leader, or “situational humility” as Edmondson calls it, creates a culture that allows a transient team to function effectively.

“It allows you take risks with strangers because, let’s face it, it’s hard to speak up, right? It’s hard to ask for help. It’s hard to offer an idea that might be a stupid idea if you don’t know people very well,” Edmondson says.

As the cliché goes, there’s no ‘I’ in team. But there’s definitely a leader in every team and it’s up to them to be brave: to lead decisively, to show vulnerability, to listen actively, to foster collaboration and to encourage respect. Leaders also need to roll up their sleeves and remember that, as well as leading the team, they are a member of the team too.

As Gordon Bombay put it in The Mighty Ducks: “Ducks fly together.”

If you’d like to build a better team, get in touch with us to book one of our fun and insightful team-building days. Contact or ring +353 87 207 0495.