The Myth of Teams

Earlier this week I was a podcast guest and frankly, I wasn’t at my best. The host of the show – a very well respected coach/consultant and generally all-around great guy – did everything he could to make the show go well. But we got stuck.

Oriented to helping business leaders be more successful, we were discussing my new book (Tandem Leadership – How Your #2 Can Make You #1) and strategies for small business owners and entrepreneurs to lead and manage their company. I work with fast growth companies and their leaders to understand and develop successful working relationships with their “#2” or “second-in-command.” For many, it will be their first important hire or partnership, and for most, they have no idea what they need in that person to be successful. And here’s where we went off the rails, my host wanted to discuss the need for leadership teams – as in several team members.

And for me, I fell in. Because I love teams. Who doesn’t? We love seeing a group of people band together for a greater purpose, to achieve a goal they could not manage alone. I know as a coach there is nothing more rewarding than to help a group to do the hard work – to bond, to brainstorm, to create camaraderie, and develop new skills. So what went wrong?

I had to think back. Early in my career, in the first years of continuous improvement, we would attend plant tours to learn more about the latest and greatest in employee involvement and work teams. I can vividly remember one of my first experiences. It was a presentation where each of the teams from the factory floor provided project presentations on scope, output and ROI that would give Warren Buffet a run for his money. Not only were employees engaged, manufacturing throughput and quality was at an all-time high.

But to put effective teams in place – in both large and small companies, new and well-established, this is what I have discovered. Having teams because we think we must doesn’t always work. Creating teams before a company is ready to support them can be a recipe for disaster; and in fact, can be worse than if they hadn’t been created at all.

Teams work best when at least one or more of the following are in place:

  • A crystal clear vision or objective. You may not know how we’re going to scale that mountain, but we do know which peak is our target.
  • The team members have clearly defined roles or skills specifically designated for that team. Team members are included for their individual expertise or skills. But they also have training and support on necessary team skills like communication, problem solving and conflict resolution.
  • Teams are allowed to make decisions based on the team objective. The team fully understands the scope and boundaries in their decision making. Similarly, leadership trusts the team to make good decisions and givies timely feedback when they are off track.  
  • The environment supports all opportunities for learning – both in failure and success. Considered equally meaningful, failure and success are used as data to continue the growth of the team and the organization.

Frankly, in many new or entrepreneurial companies the ability for the leader to support any one of these tenets, let alone all of them, is challenging and most often impossible. And here’s why. Even with a concrete vision, there are often too many unknowns and the need to pivot can be critical. The course change can be sudden and result in a completely new product, service or market. This may require new strategies or even a new team. It then becomes difficult to change out your resources and maintain a stable team environment with any success.

And that’s why I advocate entrepreneurs put significant effort into that first strategic leadership hire. Getting this relationship correct will create a foundation to grow the company successfully until there are enough elements to build a team based environment.

The idea of Tandem Leadership is simple. Two wheels attached to a platform with distinct functions and responsibility to move the organization forward more effectively than the leader could do solo. Tandem Leadership will not save a business from the challenges associated with having no products, customers, or cash. But fully implementing Tandem Leadership will keep an entrepreneur moving their company forward and improve their chances for success because they can focus their time and talents on being the leader their organization needs. It will reduce the chance of squandering those fleeting opportunities, leveraging scarce resources, and providing a better journey.

Once the “bicycle” is running smoothly, it is easier, and even preferable, to add people to your team. There can be an entire leadership team made up of #2s and the CEO/Entrepreneur. In fact, this was what my podcast host was suggesting and successfully advocates as he works with his clients. In looking back at our conversation – we were just describing different points in a company’s leadership life cycle – each requiring different solutions.

If you are looking to add the first key hire to your team, you may find of interest the following posts on each of the four types of “second in command” hires I list in Tandem Leadership:

Each is unique and can provide the balance to the strengths of the CEO/Entrepreneur and his/her #2 along with the needs of the organization. Learning more about what a #2 can do for you and your company will help you understand your own leadership style and how you can successfully lead as your company grows.

Happy Riding!