by Esther Schindler

Creating Golden Teams

Apr 11, 20075 mins
IT Leadership

I was lucky; one of my first real-world experiences was as part of a golden team; a group of people who knew, collectively and individually, that they could achieve far more together than they ever could on their own. Each of us knew that we brought something unique and necessary to the whole, and we cherished the skills of everyone else. Not a bad experience, for a 20-year-old.

Ever since, I’ve paid attention to group dynamics. I’ve tried to figure out what makes one set of people merely competent, and another one act as smoothly as a baseball team performing a difficult double-play. If you’ve ever been part of such a team (or even more wonderful, you’ve been manager of such a bunch of folks), you know the sparkle I’m talking about. It’s as though someone cast a spell of “these people work well together.” When you look back, years later, you think of it as a golden time.

The term golden team is my own, but I define it as a group in which the success of the team and its members is considered a vital part of each individual’s own happiness. It’s utterly a joy to be part of one… an experience that, I’m happy to say, has happened to me a few times in the 20-mumble years since that first job. (Either this means that I’m a catalyst for such communities, or that I have low expectations that are easily met. My conclusion varies by the day of the week.)

The typical examples are sports-related, but that’s only because we easily can identify “teams” by their uniform. The mechanics of golden teams work for business the same way. For instance, I was reminded of this in the last few days when listening to interviews with the Arizona Diamondbacks (go team!), which—should you not follow baseball closely—has the best win-loss percentage so far this year, with the second-youngest team (the average player age is 27). When Orlando Hudson was asked about his game-winning home run, he gave all the credit to the players who’d scored the two earlier points. The next night, the guy who knocked in the winning run credited the win to the guy on base who, he said, had to be there for it to be worthwhile to hit the ball. In golden teams, I’ve observed, there’s an incredibly generosity of spirit; there’s plenty of credit and celebration to go around and very little Me Me Me.

A lot of ink is given to the notion of leadership, and I suppose that a good manager can encourage a golden team to form if the ingredients are in place. Few of the buzzwords ever seem to apply, though. I’ve never seen “strategic direction” make a difference. Nor have I ever seen a golden team form when a manager makes authoritative decisions by executive fiat. Rather, they seem most likely to form when the manager creates an atmosphere of consensus and the sense that it’s safe to propose a stupid idea. You’re far more likely to hear the manager ask, “What do you think?” than “This is what we should do.” But one thing the manager does is extract the best from every contributor, and in such a way that the worker-bee knows she’s doing her best work. Magic, I tell you. Magic.

The other thing I’ve observed is that the golden team is not necessarily more effective outside its own circle of influence. In that first team, we could accomplish a lot together, but our wisdom and influence could not exceed the maximum creative power of anyone in the group. That is, we might have been very good at our internal project (which you can imagine to be “writing software that users will love,” even if that wasn’t the case), but that didn’t help us get the budget we had been denied, since none of us had those particular skills (or were over age 25, which was probably relevant, too). It’s nice to imagine that we were brilliantly effective, but I’m not sure that was so. I am certain, however, that the other members of that team have equally warm and fuzzy memories of that time.

These teams are also fragile. Everyone on one team loved the sense of cameraderie, until the manager was promoted. When another team member was put in charge, the whole thing fell apart.

The magic is rare, but there are things you can do to encourage people to evolve from “a random group of people whose major shared attribute is the name on the paycheck” to a true team. Doing so is often considered a managerial task—i.e. hiring the right people in the first place—but it can come about from things that the team members do themselves.

It occurs to me that we have enough collective wisdom here to make it worthwhile to share experiences about what does and doesn’t work. If you’ve been on a golden team, as manager or team member, to what do you attribute it? What have you seen others to do encourage it… or, untintentionally, to kill it?—Esther