<B>Teamwork? Yes, but with conditions</B>

Ignacio Álvarez de Mon. Professor. Instituto de Empresa

1 December 2004

Teamwork has become an axiom in executive management. Newer trends point toward even greater participation and sharing of objectives, resources, talent and dispositions in the quest for desired results.

Today’s business world is competitive, open, changing, global and technical. It demands new ways of interpreting both management styles and labor relations.

Synergy – which presumes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – is another non-controversial assumption upholding the benefits of teamwork. The more different, prepared and ambitious the members of the team, the better. Of course, none of this is possible without firm leadership endowed with conviction, commitment and charisma, capable of directing the team’s actions and motivating each member. If anything speaks well of a leader, it is his or her capacity for putting together and developing good teams.

Theoretically, the model is impeccable. It is also true that the context in which we operate is increasingly less open to lone rangers. One person alone cannot get as far as several who are together, committed and well-trained. However, the experience many professionals deal with daily often casts doubt on teamwork’s supposed benefits.

Initial reflection makes us question the need for always working in teams. On more than one occasion, we come up against challenges and tasks which, at least at the beginning, are best dealt with alone. The advantage of working in a team lies in admitting that there is no more efficient alternative.

Once the decision has been made to work in a team, all is not said and done. At that point, the difficult task of working in a truly efficient way begins. A series of conditioning factors exists, and their resolution could be the platform for building a more solid executive career.

Factors for efficient teamwork

Decision-making and assuming responsibilities
Teamwork cannot be a hiding-place for the indecisive or a cover-up for those incapable of assuming responsibility. Sooner or later, the executive must make a decision and assume the consequences. Furthermore, he or she must be able to insure that team members have their own areas of responsibility and contribute to the performance of the team as a whole.

1. The pressure of conformity
This is so-called group thinking. Whether aware of it or not, the group exerts pressure on each member to adopt positions similar or identical to those held by the majority. Consequently, the quality of decisions taken suffers, and individuals abandon their own opinions to a current of thought which, although predominant and often unanimous, is not always correct.

2. Meeting mania, an obsession
Teamwork is not another name for meetings. Many people confuse both concepts.

3. The true value of synergy: 1+1=3
This formula may be correct. But all team members must be perfectly at home in their work posts, carrying out tasks that best suit their qualities, making contributions that provide value to the whole and assuming their shares of the work, effort and responsibility. If this is not true for each team member, disagreements appear and unity falls apart.

4. Executive vs. technical skills
Team leaders not only answer for their work, but also for that of their people. Their value as executives depends on what they can obtain from each team member. Executive skills are more difficult to measure than technical skills, and also more difficult to learn.

Managing a group of experts successfully, whatever their field, does not mean one has to be the expert; but being well-versed in the area certainly helps. One needs command of the sector in question. It is better to have practiced before deciding to preach.

[*D A good leader knows how to listen to problems *]

5. Talent management
Working with talented people is good, but it is also complicated. Results can be better, but the possibilities of disaster are greater. Working with talented people involves additional requirements. When these have been satisfied, both individual and collective performance can reach spectacular levels.

::Talent needs room to move
Talented people who know they’re talented are more demanding of themselves than of others. They take less kindly to bosses than to facilitators, react less favorably to coercion than to persuasion, and care less about common goals than about the extent to which the fulfilment of common goals contributes to fulfilment of their personal goals. Teamwork? Yes, but only if everyone contributes and their personal and professional development is not affected.

::Flexibility: more than one formula for success
We must accept that there are different ways of working in teams. The fundamental feature of teamwork is its series of shared goals and the fact that everyone contributes to reach them. Everyone is ready to help (team spirit) and all see the individual and collective point in what they are doing. With this in mind, the ways we devise for working in teams can be varied - especially if we take into account that we live an age of technology and knowledge.

::I win – you win – we all win: talent works happily with talent
For the untalented, talent can seem aggressive. True team leaders do not feel intimidated by it. Indeed, it is a value they must use for the good of the team. On the other hand, talents are manifold and the talent of each collaborator needs to be discovered and exploited.

6. Team-leader relations management
Speaking to team leaders can be complicated, displeasing them can be even more so, especially if they haven’t got their noses to the ground. Some leaders (the bad ones) keep too great a distance between themselves and their teams. They want only to hear the good news, they only look at results and see only as far as the short term. They find it easy to assume team success as their own and to blame the team, excluding themselves, for failure.

They do not create trust and confidence among their people and end up surprised at what happens sooner or later. Do they learn from their experience? Rarely. They justify their own actions and pass the problems on to one of the people in their charge. Getting a team leader of this kind to come down to Earth, see how things really are and lend support isn’t easy. However, this is part of an executive's responsibility and that's what we are paid for.

::Finding the best time
When this kind of conversation is necessary, choosing the right moment is a great help. When to do things can often be as important as what to do.

::Self-criticism: a source of power and respect
Admitting one’s mistakes is a sign of maturity and self-confidence. Far from losing collaborators’ respect, it increases it. Organizations that do not admit mistakes are a sorry sight. But of course, the fewer mistakes made, the better.

All leaders, if endowed with common sense, value collaborators capable of recognizing and describing problems, but they value them even more if they can provide solutions. A good leader knows how to listen to problems, but also wants to at least hear about possible solutions.

Conditioning factors can only go so far. Our capacity for turning them into opportunities for personal, individual and collective development depends on our predisposition for facing up to them, as does the efficiency of our teams.

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