by DOM Staff Writer
Susan is the leader of a new team charged with designing, developing, and implementing an initiative to take Vertex’s soft drinks beyond North America. She received the assignment after successfully leading the marketing of a new soft drink product. Her impeccable leadership skills make her ideal for the position. Her team is made up of twelve very talented employees–The group members ranged from relatively new employees to legacy members (i.e., those who have been around for a long time).
Susan facilitated the four-hour initial meeting with the team to launch their work. It became evident within the first hour that the group would take a while to get into alignment. The first thing Susan had to deal with was the diversity of the team with respect to individual differences in understanding of what their charge is, approaches to meeting the goals, and experience in being managed. The differences turned out to be more significant than the obvious cultural diversity among the group of twelve, but even that could not be ignored.
Meetings with individual members left no doubt in Susan’s mind that the group’s heart was in the work. But, getting them to agree as a team about how they would be working together, what to expect of each other, and the nuts and bolts of collaborating was clearly a challenge for her as the leader. Things got out of hand at one meeting when a Latina American team member spoke up to state that she felt that the group was on unreceptive to her ideas. She went on to say that not including everyone would lead to failure, and she did not trust Susan’s effectiveness as the leader. Susan had asked them to speak their minds, but it did not feel good to hear the remarks, which left her uncertain of how to respond. Team members were left puzzled while awaiting structure and clear direction. As time passes, Susan finds that she is taking on more and more of the team members’ work just to keep the project moving along.
Susan’s predicament is not unusual and in fact it is increasingly the rule rather than the exception in leading modern teams. Getting team members on the same page and managing disagreement in the service of generating high quality results are essential for effective team leadership. Alignment is more than team consensus or agreement. It is the active engagement of team members even in the face of considerable disagreement about how to succeed as a group at any point in time. That is what the leader is trying to encourage, model and sustain.
One of the major challenges for the leader is facilitating disagreement in ways that nurture engagement, creativity, and a sense of serving a common purpose.Â Too often leader’s shy away from disagreements and try to squelch them for fear of things getting out of her or his control. Disagreements along racial, ethnic, and other identity group lines are not only a common source of team alignment challenges, but the very topic managers and supervisors try to avoid like the plague out of fear.
Too much focus on cultural differences often lead to missed opportunities to harness the diversity in the service of succeeding as a team. This is what alignment is all about. One way to know if your team is aligned is to simply ask the question ‘What do each of you as a group member think our charge is?â€ or ‘If we are successful as a team, what will the results look like?â€ Unless your team has done alignment work, they will likely have different answers to each question no matter how much effort you have put into communicating the team’s purpose up front. Even if you do not address differences, such as culture, locust of control, individualism-collectivism orientation, motivation, etc., they are likely playing a role in how people perceive and answer the questions. Â Team alignment is necessary for setting the stage to get the work done.
How Does a Team Leader Create Alignment?
The teamwork of a sailing crew is a good example of alignment. Alignment means that the team is working in concert as they collectively steer the sailboat to its destination. Each individual knows her or his position on the boat relative to the others and consistently delivers the necessary contributions at just the right time. Under ideal conditions, the team looks like it is in a flow from individual to individual member with respect to getting things done smoothly and efficiently. The collective trust in each member’s skills and abilities makes for smooth sailing. If one member is scapegoated as not pulling her weight or just not up for the task, the energy put into addressing the problem takes away from getting the team prepared.
Developing a high functioning team requires the leader to address ten things:
- Get clarity about what it takes to build and sustain a team. This means looking at it as a (a) long term effort, (b) stretching each employee to make the most of her or his talent, (c) being honest about the capabilities among team members, and (d) providing the constant attention needed to manage individual differences.
- Evaluate the extent to which your team is in alignment and continue utilizing some form of alignment assessment over the life of the team.
- Articulate the team’s charge, mission, and vision.
- Set ground rules for teamwork while allowing team members to decide as a group what they would like to add to or remove from the list. Then get each person to agree to a social contract for using the ground rules.
- Use team building to increase a sense of common mission.
- Facilitate the team’s development and implementation of a system for reporting, communication, and knowledge sharing among team members.
- Facilitate a discussion about how to best to address conflict that challenges productivity. Individuals will likely differ in terms of what conflict means and how it should be addressed, so alignment is needed here. One crucial component is to get them to agree on an effective team decision-making process.
- Identify and secure resources needed for the team’s success.
- Give each individual member a leadership role in some aspect of the team’s work along with coaching needed to support success. Also challenge high performing members to coach a less experienced member.
10. Build capacity by demonstrating how to get things done rather than relying on individual initiative or taking over the task for them. Show them that you have confidence in their skills.
Team building is an important part of managing staff. Yet too often leaders treat it as a one-time workshop or seminar that has a life of its own afterwards. In fact, teamwork is built over time and needs leadership to sustain. By providing team members with a clear mandate, a set of ground rules for engagement, decision-making processes, coaching opportunities, and conflict managing skills, individuals and the group as a whole can thrive.
Gaurav Gupta (2009).Â Is Your Team Aligned? In Industry Week (October 21).
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