Alumni share how to build strong, productive teams—whether you’re on the front line or in a corner office.
We’ve all heard the clichés (and seen them printed over pictures of sunsets): There is no “I” in team. Together Everyone Achieves More. Teamwork makes the dream work. But it takes more than poster-sized platitudes to build the team of your dreams: one that is efficient, productive, accountable, and successful. Consider this your playbook for building a winning team.
Write the Game Plan
Dr. Chernoh M. Wurie
Know and Express Yourself
Take frank inventory of your skills, strengths, and weaknesses and pinpoint the work strategies that are most efficient and productive for you. Then share that information with your team so everyone knows not only how to interact with you, Wurie says, but also sees that you’ve set an example and they can set their own personal standards.
Being upfront is essential when leading a team, says C. Damon Osborne, an MS in Education graduate and the dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Ohio.
“My team has to trust that I represent them appropriately and that I’m as transparent as possible when sharing information with them,” Osborne says. “It is far easier for me to be honest in all contexts than to remember subtle nuances I share with each person.”
Dr. Pinkey Stewart
As a result of your initiative, your team members will be more likely to be honest with you. “We trust each other,” says Jazmin Chi ’12, a BS in Business Administration graduate and founder and CEO of Mexico-based LevGrow. “We get to know each other, and that makes the work easier to do.”
Dr. Pinkey Stewart ’06, a PhD in Psychology graduate and owner of SuccessZone in Illinois, says team members can tell when their leaders are not being real or forthcoming. “Without trust and transparency, people become anxious, disengaged, and uninspired,” Stewart says. “I have seen morale and productivity decline in organizations where communication was non-existent. That breeds distrust.”
Osborne agrees that team leaders must be genuine and inspiring. “No one’s looking to follow an actor,” he says. “You need to establish yourself as a fierce advocate for the team. Show that you can convey their needs to superiors, and they’ll be more likely to follow your lead.”
Get to Know Your Team
C. Damon Osborne
You can’t put together a great team without knowing the strengths and weaknesses of its members. “When we first meet, I tell everyone to put everything on the table,” Wurie says. “I tell them I’m not good at quantitative things like graphs and charts, but I’m good at analyzing. By telling them this upfront, they’re more likely to be honest about what they can and can’t do.”
Once the information is laid out on the table, suggest that team members get training in areas that could be strengthened (point to what your workplace already makes available), Wurie says, and encourage them to be proactive about it.
Osborne suggests using tools like Gallup’s StrengthsFinder to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses among your team. “This will help you identify gaps to fill,” he says. “And it provides a detailed understanding of what projects the team should be able to do with ease, and those that may present a challenge to the group.”
When Chi first assembles a team, she asks the members to talk about their passions. “That helps me know where to place them,” she says. “If people love what they do, they will be productive.”
It may seem obvious, but it’s still important. Far too often, team members don’t work together; they focus on individual tasks and fail to make the most of the team’s greater goals.
Be sure to do what you can to help team members bond, even if that means getting personal. Lorre Allen ’07, an MBA graduate and director of human resources in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington, once had staff members write their challenges on a balloon and then release them, agreeing to move forward without those roadblocks. Stewart believes you have to give team members the opportunity to grow and learn by stretching themselves and each other during team-building events. “When people are given growth opportunities, they will give 200%,” Stewart says.
“We are a chain,” Chi says of her team. “If one person doesn’t do her part, it delays the process of work, so we are committed to the company and to each other.”
Give Feedback and Be an Advocate
Don’t keep your people guessing—feedback provides team members with a much-needed road map, Chi says. “It’s the guide for the path we are walking together,” she says. “Without it, it’s difficult to achieve the goal.” When your team understands how individual actions contribute to year-end or long-term goals, they will be more motivated to work hard.
“Without feedback, a team doesn't know if they are heading in the right direction—or anywhere at all,” Osborne says. But it matters greatly how that feedback is delivered, Wurie says. “You do not want to cut someone off at the knees,” he says. “Build them up first, give them confidence, and then suggest ways to improve.”
And timeliness is important. If you fail to give feedback quickly and leave team members twisting in the wind, their minds can run wild—and their productivity can grind to a halt.
Actively Manage Conflict
Disagreement is natural—and it can either strengthen or sideline a team. “Conflicts need to be addressed immediately, because they have the power to destroy a strong team,” Allen says. But a solid leader knows to listen, understand the issues, and ask the team for solutions.
It’s important to address conflict as soon as possible because sometimes conflicts can cause a slowdown in productivity, Wurie says. For instance, a high-ranking supervisor tells officers they need to write more tickets and put in longer hours. The officers will become overworked and burned out. “They will shut down,” he says. A mid-level supervisor who expresses understanding for both sides will have to intervene and talk with the officers and explain the reasoning behind the initiative while also understanding the officers’ concerns. “Open communication resolves conflicts,” Wurie says.
Stewart agrees that conflict can be very productive. “Maybe a team member has an innovative idea for a product or service, but traditional thinkers cannot wrap their brains around it,” she says. “Conflict ensues until the innovator demonstrates how it will work. That's growth.”
Encourage debate but keep the conversation cordial, Osborne says. “I don’t allow the debate to become personal; this only drives wedges between team members,” he says. “I do not hesitate to get directly to the issue at hand so that those affected can begin to solve the problem.”
Help team members get to the root of a problem and arrive at an amicable solution so that, “instead of tearing apart, we work to create synergy,” Chi says. “We do not compete against each other. If one wins, we all win.”
Go for the Win
Encourage and Recognize
Once you have the signs figured out, be prepared to celebrate every victory. Recognition can be very motivating, Chi says, and can inspire stellar team members to set good examples for others.
“When team members go above and beyond, I give them a coupon for a free cupcake at a nearby bakery,” Osborne says. “I also post the person’s accomplishment on our Facebook page to promote them and the school. This recognition can strengthen the team overall, particularly for people who typically work behind the scenes. The simple act of recognizing extraordinary effort can inspire others to step up their own game.”
All team members need reassurance now and then, Allen says, so give credit where credit is due. “Share team successes with upper management,” she says. “Make it part of your agenda.”
Stewart believes people need to know their work is appreciated. “When people are recognized for their work, it gives them a sense of accomplishment and validation,” she says. “I send ‘kudos’ emails to each individual, including specifics about how what they did contributed to the outcome. I have a very analytical lens, so when I talk specifics, they know I was giving their work my full attention.”
Make Time to Mentor
To keep the team growing, every member should have a mentor who can meet one on one to work on strengths and weaknesses, and set goals. “Mentoring is how you groom future leaders,” Stewart says. “The whole purpose of a team is to develop their talents and, ultimately, prepare them to replace you or someone else in the organization.”
Often, team members want the leader to provide that personal coaching. This can be productive, to an extent, but challenging. “I have to be available for them,” Chi says. “But we work virtually right now, with me in China and most of our team in the Americas and Russia.” Even with the time difference, she makes sure to carve out time to work with individual team members, although calls could take place late at night for her.
Leaders can also incorporate mentoring and development into existing meetings: Set aside 15 minutes to address any questions your team might have about their development (or a specific project). If conversations like these are always on your agenda, you’ll never miss an important discussion.
Celebrating milestones (no matter how big or small) every once in a while can be a great way to boost morale. “While retreats and lavish parties can certainly be used to celebrate the efforts of your team, the budget doesn’t always support that,” Osborne says. “Celebrations can also be simple affairs.”
When his department was celebrating the winter holidays, they hosted a potluck dinner, sang along to a karaoke CD of holiday tunes, and held a tacky sweater contest—all things that cost very little money but did a lot to make the team feel more like a family.
“We would have staff meetings in the local coffee shops,” Allen says. “Sometimes we held staff retreats, like cookouts in the park, and let the creativity flow because it’s an open environment that can encourage creative thinking.”
Taking it a step further, when one of Allen’s team members finishes a project ahead of schedule, she sometimes offers to do that person’s job for the rest of the day. “They can transfer their phones to me,” she says. “A strong leader motivates and inspires employees all the time.”
Meet the Coaches
“A leader shouldn’t only tell employees when something goes wrong; it’s important to be the first to tell them when something goes right.” — Lorre Allen ’07, an MBA alumna and the director of human resources in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington
“Society is in constant change, so we have to be flexible in all that we do. Find several ways to solve any problem.”— Jazmin Chi ’12, a BS in Business Administration alumna and founder and CEO of LevGrow, which creates educational toys, music, books, and other products for children
“Have vision. It’s awfully hard to see the future if you have no idea where you stand today or where you stood yesterday.”— C. Damon Osborne ’04, an MS in Education alumnus and dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Ohio
“Whether it is one-on-one coaching, attending seminars and conferences, or assigning a challenging project, leaders should help individuals grow and mature as professionals—and as individuals.” — Dr. Pinkey Stewart ’06, a PhD in Psychology alumna and owner of SuccessZone, an Illinois-based provider of training and development for small and midsize businesses
“Quality always supersedes quantity. Boost morale and your people will be capable of producing their best work.” — Dr. Chernoh M. Wurie ’13, ’08, a PhD in Public Policy and Administration and MPA alumnus and police planner in the Prince William County Police Department in Virginia