Building and leading successful teams requires a set of professional skills that hinge on intentional practices and strategies. Yet far too few of us leading teams in higher ed settings have received sufficient—or often any—training in how to build and lead teams. Whether you're leading a research team, lab group or staff team, if you're feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of learning to lead successful, productive and inclusive teams, you're not alone.
What Makes a Successful Team? While what successful teams look like and what they accomplish varies widely across types of teams and their goals, some common themes appear across successful teams:
- Having a clear sense of themselves as members of their team.
- Understanding both the overarching goals of the team and how their own work contributes to those big-picture goals.
- Perceiving their work and contributions to the team to be valued and appreciated.
- Experiencing high levels of productivity and routinely meeting—or exceeding—their goals.
- Actively contributing to a culture of inclusivity, transparency, respect and trust.
- Proactively identifying and addressing conflicts and challenges among team members in ways that sustain positive working relationships.
- Supporting one another in creating healthy, realistic boundaries around work expectations and time to support each member's individual work-life alignment.
These indicators of successful teams are easy to identify but require intentional effort on the part of each member of the team to accomplish. Your role as the leader of your team is to intentionally identify and communicate your vision for what the success of your team will look like as well as to model the practices that support that success.
Bringing in New Team Members
As new members join the team, being intentional about orienting them not only to the work they will be doing but also to the culture and expectations of the team helps set new members up for success. Providing both formal onboarding and training as well as informal opportunities to meet and connect with other team members can help new team members better understand the team's culture and expectations.
While the concept of “fit” has been shown to work in ways that often exclude individuals from identities and backgrounds different from those of other team members, being attentive to what a potential new team member—from a professional staff member to a student assistant to a postdoc—can bring to the team and how their contributions will fit and enhance the culture of the team is an important part of the process of building a successful team.
Leveraging the Skills and Interests of Your Team
Successful teams maximize the skills of each team member and provide regular opportunities for team members to contribute work to projects they find interesting. As the leader of your team, you should have a clear sense of the strengths and interests of your team members. While it's not always possible to assign work or projects that are in perfect alignment with your team members' skills and interests, being intentional about how you assign work to team members can play a significant role in enhancing both your team's productivity and your team members' experience of your team as a meaningful and rewarding professional home.
It's also useful to regularly check in with your team—as a group and with individual members—about where additional professional development, learning and skill-building opportunities might be needed. While team members should have opportunities to have their individual professional and skill development needs met through trainings and opportunities to engage in new kinds of work, team-based professional development can play an important role in helping your team members see themselves as a team.
Among the most common misperceptions about successful teams is that conflicts don't exist or happen only rarely. Instead, like all teams, successful teams also experience conflicts and challenges. The key difference, however, is in how successful teams navigate conflict. Successful teams operate in a team culture that invites feedback, transparent communication and early and open identification of potential issues and challenges.
In the most successful teams, team members approach challenges not from a me-versus-them framework, but from a team-versus-the-challenge framework. As the leader of your team, facilitating regular opportunities for team members to work through potential and actual issues and challenges, providing professional development opportunities that support your team in developing their conflict management and negotiation skills and modeling welcoming constructive critical feedback can help your team members navigate conflict successfully.
Using Team Culture Evaluations to Inform Leadership Decisions
Understanding your team members' experiences should be a core component of your leadership decisions. Providing multiple opportunities to provide feedback, normalizing sharing constructive feedback and suggestions for improvement and providing opportunities to share anonymous feedback and suggestions can help you obtain the most candid, useful feedback from your team.
Periodic, anonymous team culture evaluations can be an invaluable source of information about your team members' experiences. Even if you are not able to make all of the changes or provide all of the opportunities your team members would like, being transparent about your decision-making process in response to a team culture evaluation helps cultivate trust across your team.
As you are developing your own team culture evaluation process, you might consider incorporating or adapting some of the sample questions below:
- What areas of our work as a team are currently running smoothly?
- Where are areas where our work could be better organized, more efficient or easier?
- What tweaks could we make to improve communication within our team?
- In terms of our 1:1 meetings and/or team meetings, are they not frequent enough, too frequent or about right?
- What areas of training or professional development would you most like our team to focus on this semester?
- Which of the following words would you use to describe our team culture: collaborative, competitive, stressful, supportive, tense, toxic, inefficient, productive, inclusive and/or isolating? (Please select any that apply.)
- Is there anything else you would like to share about your experiences as part of our team?
Give Yourself Grace and Space as You Develop as a Leader
Finally, to the extent possible, let go of any expectations you may have of yourself to be a perfect leader or to get things right one hundred percent of the time. Those kinds of expectations are unrealistic and set you up for failure. Equally importantly, modeling for your team members how to navigate setbacks and mistakes is a vital part of your own contributions to the team you lead.
Adapting and modeling a growth mindset (in contrast to a deficiency mindset) and modeling that approach for your team members can also support your team in combatting impostor syndrome and work stress. As you work to cultivate and sustain a successful team, recognize that just as your team members will continue to develop and grow their skills sets, so too will you.
Dr. Brandy L. Simula, BCC (she/her/hers) is a professional developer and a Board-Certified executive, leadership and career coach. She currently leads the Office of Faculty Professional Development at Georgia Tech. Read more about her work at www.brandysimula.com.