How I Start a Project: Team Building Part 1

Team Development

I recently sat down with a friend who asked my advice on building a team when you have a team composed of fresh-out-of-college team members to mid-career team members and the experienced-this-is-how-we-do-things team members.  I don’t think he appreciated the answer, because there is no quick and easy way to build a team. I think it’s simple, but simplicity is not the same being effortless nor being easy.  It takes effort, it takes time and personal sacrifice.

Team building is the single joy I get out of program management.  This is because my team building philosophy is an offshoot of my teaching philosophy. In the fall of 1995 I started the PhD mechanical engineering program at Michigan State. My candidacy came with a teaching assistantship. I was dreading being a teaching assistant.  I did not like public speaking, nor did I believe I could teach.  They put all of us new teaching assistants through a 2 day training.  Dr. William Donahue, professor of communication, kicked the training off with a talk about what teaching really is: it’s a meeting of the minds.  I still remember him putting his arms out and folding his hands so the fingers were intertwined as he said, “meeting of the minds”. Teaching is not pouring knowledge into another – it is a connection, a transfer of knowledge between two people.

I found this to be true even if I am teaching 5 year olds, because you have to connect with them, where they are, in order to teach. Leading is connecting with people and then taking them on a journey. The journey can be the project execution, it can be daily work tasks or it can be volunteering to clean up the park.

So the question becomes how do you connect to team members to build a good team?

It’s Their Project not Your Project

Your job is to make them successful.  Yes, if they succeed your success will be inevitable.  You can’t be selfish and insecure if you want people to follow you. Insecurity is a leader’s kryptonite. Your team will know if you have their best interests at heart or if you are out for your interests.  This is not easy.  I’ve never seen a selfish person win over a team – they might bully, use their title to threaten to get things done – they never connect with the team members.

Focus on the Goals of the Project

I don’t believe anyone shows up to work with the intent to derail the project and not do their work. You can handle poor performers in a couple of different ways:

    1. A way out with dignity – find a way to make it easy for them to leave. Only do this if you have their supervisor and your supervisor support.  I was asked by a superior to do this once with the promise she would follow to let them know why they needed to be removed from the team.  She didn’t do that, in fact she through me under the bus.
    2. Confront them – come from the point of view of what’s best for them and try to reach a solution.  But what has surprises me is that the people I have pulled aside to deal with in this manner have all been shocked about their performance and attitude.  We live in a  passive aggressive society. People don’t see how their actions drive consequences in any relationships, because there is so little confrontation – at least outside of Facebook!

People do have personal issues that will affect work performance.  Get everyone to focus on the goals in team meetings, but in 1-on-1’s deal with real issues that are hindering performance. One of the best teams I led, didn’t like each other. Yet they were a high performing team – they put away their personal issues to focus on the goal.

Next week I’ll give the next steps to building a great team.