Building and Leading Teams

September 2014 » Feature Articles » Firms in Focus
Four traits of successful project and corporate teams.
Tim Strawn, P.G., L.G., CHG, LHG

Professional service firms must be successful in three areas: the market for clients and projects, the market for staff, and delivering profit. To be successful in the market, clients must choose your firm. To be successful in the market for staff, you must differentiate your firm by creating extraordinary opportunities. To grow the business, you have to be successful in creating profit. The global recession, combined with increased international competition and market consolidation, has made achieving all three objectives extremely difficult. Being aware of this, A/E firms are seeking new strategies to accelerate the development of project- and corporate-level teams.

As with most things, building and leading effective teams is easy to describe yet difficult to accomplish. But successful team traits — when deliberately cultivated — can accelerate successful outcomes. Having worked within many types of teams — the good, the bad, and the ugly — I have observed that the most successful teams almost always exhibit the following traits:

  • Team members are emotionally connected to each other, typically bonded by an understanding that they are accomplishing something greater than themselves.
  • Individual team members understand that they receive more benefit and value when they engage with others, which in turn builds team momentum.
  • Team leaders are passionate and energetic.
  • Team leaders identify risks and hazards before others become aware of them.

Personal connection

Team members who are connected on an emotional level to the task at hand will almost always outperform those who are connected intellectually, with one caveat: only if the team’s purpose and objective is explained in a personalized, response-driven manner. Without understanding the “why,” an emotional bond cannot be formed.

I have often observed teams floundering when the emotional component is missing. For example, giving a team an objective of “increasing revenue by 10 percent” does no good when motivating staff. If the objective changes to “increase revenue by 10 percent so that we can enter a new service line and create opportunity for staff to move into management,” motivation is different: It answers, “What’s in it for me?”

The power of answering, “What’s in it for me” should not be underestimated. Great team members will go out of their way to explain why tasks are important. Even menial tasks (like filing) can be described as important. Successful teams ensure that the active or more senior members have time with the group to relate stories of personal value and reward (not financial) as a result of their involvement.

Team members who are connected on an emotional level to the task at hand will almost always outperform those who are connected intellectually.

Aside from connecting with the cause, it is important that teammates connect with each other. The best-performing teams and most connected teams generally have fewer than 25 people — usually between seven and 14. Within the group, team members’ skills are complimentary. A team needs those with strong technical expertise, skilled problem solvers, key decision makers, and “connectors” who motivate the team and help facilitate strong inter-team relationships.

Schools of fish provide an unusual but appropriate example of how a team connects to achieve objectives with better efficiency and more safely than an individual. Every aspect of the school’s “organization” (I use this term loosely) remains focused on achievement of a common goal. Egos, titles, divisions, or excuses are not permitted to deter the group from its objective (namely, survival). Group encouragement spurs additional effort. Leaders are necessary but interchangeable, organization of work depends on the task, accountability for individual and group performance is paramount, and seemingly small adjustments can yield amazing results.

For example, when a school of sardines is hunted by sea lions, the sardines clump together, making it seemingly impossible to tell one sardine from another. The mass of fish change direction together, with sardines at the outside (the most dangerous position) circulating to the inside (the safest position) and vice-versa. In other words, leaders are interchangeable — each sardine sacrifices safety and makes important strategic decisions (swim left, dodge right) for the greater good.

Of course, I am not saying that the A/E industry is like a school of sardines — our clients very rarely resemble sea lions preying on us. However, the key principles of changing positions from the “outside” of the team to the much safer “inside” and ability for everyone to serve as leader is tantamount to success.

Individual engagement

Contrary to popular opinion, the word “team” does include an “I.” A commitment to teamwork is found in the willingness of every member to listen and respond constructively to views expressed by others, give others the benefit of the doubt, provide support, and recognize other’s interests and achievements. In other words, it’s about each team member’s interpersonal relationships with each other and themselves.

And, because teams are comprised of people — each with different communication and leadership preferences, backgrounds, and narratives — clashes are bound to happen. Even the most self-aware person will have challenges in a new teaming environment.

Of course, you can’t expect a new team to perform perfectly from the beginning. Team formation and engagement takes time, and teams often go through recognizable stages as they change from being collections of strangers to becoming united groups with a common goal. Psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing Model describes these stages. In fact, some clashes are healthy — they push participants to be better.

However, clashes become unhealthy when they inhibit the ability to get work done. One the most prominent clashes I have observed surrounds level of engagement. In this case, one party/individual identifies another party/individual as “not carrying their weight.” This breeds distrust and resentment and, if not properly adjudicated, creates a circle of negativity.

Although seemingly frustrating, the tension over engagement is extremely natural and should be expected. Most team members (e.g. junior members/firms) will start out with a passive role, while a smaller, more knowledgeable subset will be more active (e.g. senior members).

Critical to team maturation is to ensure less active members find personal benefit from every team encounter. For example, a senior geologist may take a moment to explain to a junior architect why accurate soil samples are important to the goal, or a prime firm may help educate a subcontractor on developing winning proposals. This small investment of time has much larger payoff, essentially stopping the argument in its tracks and ebbing the flow of building resentment. Further, it also helps lower-utilized team members feel like they belong to the team by expanding leadership opportunities while encouraging more passive members to participate.

Energetic leadership

I am convinced that all teams succeed or fail based on the passion, energy, and positivity that the leader brings to the group. Yes, that is a declarative statement, and for some leaders it may not be true. You don’t have to have a positive attitude to have a leadership role, and you don’t even have to have it to lead. But you definitely must have a positive attitude if you want to lead successfully for an extended period of time.

It is important to note what I’m not saying here: I’m not saying a positive attitude requires you to be a pom-pom toting cheerleader or an always smiling Pollyanna who ignores challenges and thinks that attitude alone will carry the day. It is something deeper and can be shown in your actions in a personal way; it doesn’t require you to live a stereotype. I define positive attitude as an expectancy that good things will generally happen, and a healthy optimism for the future for the project, team, and company.

Whatever energy a leader brings to his or her work will be noticed and amplified. Personal attitude is a huge part of the energy you inject into a team and organization. If you aren’t injecting positive, supportive, and encouraging thoughts and actions into the workplace, it is far less likely that others will either. You can’t rely on someone else to do this for you — to lead a team you must be a true leader.

Team formation and engagement takes time, and teams often go through recognizable stages as they change from being collections of strangers to becoming united groups with a common goal.

While passion and energy are key, the leader must also be a collaborator. Time spent between team meetings linking people face-to-face is critically important to the project’s outcome. Architects, engineers, clients, and consultants shouldn’t only meet at monthly project meetings — the team lead needs to connect them throughout the month. This is by far the easiest means of overcoming challenges as efficiently as possible.

Remote teams should meet as often as possible, either in person or by video conference, to keep the team engaged and moving forward. Teams located in the same office often succeed because of the informal interactions that occur in the hallways. Remote teams do not have similar opportunities. Therefore, it is important that the team lead manufacture virtual “hallway” meetings. This may be accomplished through collaborative technology such as blogs and bulletin boards or through prescribed virtual events that bring team members together one on one or as an entire group.

An effective team lead is a facilitator focused on creating opportunity for other team members. The most successful team leads I have observed are selfless, acting out not to benefit them but the good of the team. Growth and opportunity of team members drive momentum and tightens the community.

Hazard identification

Working in a team demands a great deal of psychic energy, and not everyone may be ready to be a team member. Analyses of failed teaming attempts have identified several obstacles to success, all of which could have been easily avoided if identified and understood quickly.

The main threat to team effectiveness is unrealistic expectations, which leads to frustration. Frustration, in turn, encourages team abandonment. I am sure all A/E professionals have encountered this situation more often than they would like to admit — a contractor goes over budget, an architect provides a design that is much too complex, or a geologist pulls too many samples because they assumed that’s what they needed to do. If teams are to be effective, you must make a concerted effort to clearly communicate expectations.

The most productive teams undermine expectations by developing a sense of mutual accountability. They believe “we are all in this together” and that “we all have to hold ourselves accountable for doing whatever is needed to help the team achieve its mission.” Such mutual accountability cannot be coerced. Instead, it emerges from the commitment and trust that come from working together toward a common purpose, which usually starts with clear expectations.

The main threat to team effectiveness is unrealistic expectations, which leads to frustration.

Other common management mistakes generally involve doing a poor job of creating a supportive environment. For instance, reward plans that encourage individuals to compete with one another erode teamwork. Teams need a good, long-term, embedded life-support system. Teams also cannot be used as a quick fix to any organizational problem; they require a sustained commitment over time.

Finally, some leaders are unwilling to relinquish control to the team. In the past, good managers worked their way up from the plant floor by giving orders and having them followed, and they may find it difficult to change that approach.

Team building takes time

My approach to teamwork starts with complete buy-in to the project, individual engagement, ductile leadership, and early hazard identification. Leading and building successful teams is not “nice to have” but rather a strategic approach to doing business in the evolving A/E industry. It also makes for happier clients, a better working relationship both within an organization and externally, and a stronger financial return.

Tim Strawn, P.G., L.G., CHG, LHG, is chief technical officer with Kleinfelder (www.kleinfelder.com) in Seattle. He can be contacted at 425-636-7977.


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