Leaders as Team Builders

By Erin Wilson Burns | September 14, 2018

While building strong teams is generally accepted as a key component of excellent leadership, mastery of this trait continues to elude many leaders. At the executive level, leaders that are strong team builders recognize the human side of the enterprise as a critical component to achieving the organization’s goals. 

In recent articles, I have discussed the seven personality traits that differentiate executive leaders from leaders at other levels and shared insights on the first four: Objectivity in the Workplace, Having a Positive Outlook, Being Engaged, and Being Innovative. This article focuses on the fifth trait, team building. In coming months I will cover the final two: being a quick learner and trusting.

Why does building teams matter?

I’m sure anyone reading this series of articles has been wondering when we were finally going to get around to talking about teams. For several decades, leadership research has been working hard to pound into our thick, post-1950s skulls that the work of organizations is actually done by teams or teams of teams – not by individuals. While building strong teams is generally accepted as a key component of excellent leadership, being effective at this trait continues to elude many leaders.

At the executive level, leaders that are strong team builders recognize the human side of the enterprise as a critical component to achieving the organization’s goals. They successfully perform a challenging tightrope walk and must balance their accountability for setting and achieving objectives for their team(s) with the ability to inspire involvement, development, and commitment of the people on those teams. In short, team builders understand that people create hard value in operational capability, future value, and a committed work force.

Team builders are leaders who see themselves more as resources for their groups than as drivers – focused on doing things from where they sit and with what and who they know that team members cannot do for themselves. These leaders tend to spend more time thinking ahead. They tend to understand that today’s talent needs to grow and today’s ideas need to develop for the organization to keep pace with change and succeed tomorrow. To enable this individual and organizational growth, leaders who excel at building teams are typically more flexible in how work gets done, but very deliberate in building belief in the importance of that work. They are able to separate means and ends, staying focused on the ends, while building on others' ideas or allowing others the autonomy to determine means to those ends.

Their light-but-smart touch has a positive impact on group problem solving, group performance, and both individual and collective commitment, all of which is reinforced by the fact that team builders are less likely than other leaders to be focused on themselves and their own leadership prerogatives.

What happens if a leader is not focused on building a team?

Leaders who are not team builders tend to have a more directive view of leadership and more sharply differentiate their role (and importance) from those of group members. They are often less consultative in decision-making and planning and drive their teams harder to deliver on commitments. They are likely to focus more on details of current work than on longer-term objectives and less comfortable in rapidly changing environments, which are harder to control. In particular, these leaders are less concerned about human resources development over the long term than utilization in the short term. They tend to be more "practical" in their thinking and absorbed in the day-to-day details of their own work.

While mid-level leaders can still be successful (if not inspiring) without strengths in team building, it becomes a significant barrier in executive leadership. The shift from operational execution and organizational effectiveness, which is the focus of mid-level leadership, to strategic positioning and direction-setting requires more collaborative problem-solving. At executive levels, problems and issues are more long-term than short-term and they are more complex because they involve broader and less predictable forces (economic, technological, social-demographic, and geopolitical).

Even at other levels, without collaborative problem-solving and decision-making processes, decision-making and alignment both suffer. Leaders who do not engage their teams in idea-generation and decision-making lack the benefit of other perspectives in facing complex, unforeseeable futures. As a result, they tend to struggle to lay out a compelling path forward and align all parts of the organization behind this path. This lack of clarity often results in differing views and competing interests that, in turn, breed organizational confusion and in-fighting.

Can leaders be too focused on team building?

Leaders with very strong team builder qualities are much more focused on facilitation of their groups than the average manager. They are more likely to focus on stimulating enthusiasm within the group and to involve direct reports in decision-making. They also tend to be more innovative in how they manage their group.

All managers have tasks critical for group performance that they alone can do, such as negotiating with cross-functional peers and senior leaders about strategy and long-term resources. Cheerleading is important, but it must be balanced by an objective assessment of what is required for excellence. Some strong team builders lose this perspective, and their groups become less focused as a consequence. They may give higher priority to the team's internal sense of direction than to the explicit work for which the team is accountable for within the larger organization—sometimes going so far as to create a "rogue" group.

Additionally, for some, a strong focus on building group engagement leads to a loss of objectivity about priorities in their own work. It can also lead to over-collaboration, slow decision-making, and moving forward on changes that may not yield significant benefits.

In sum, leaders who can effectively balance collaborative problem-solving and decision-making processes on the right topics, while keeping their group in sync with the larger organization’s strategy and long-term objectives, are best prepared to meet and solve the executive leader’s challenges of direction-setting, alignment, and execution on promises to stakeholders. Perhaps even more important, these leaders are attuned to future requirements and are systematically creating future value by enhancing the "net worth" of their organizations' human resources.

I invite you to learn about the impactful ways RBL helps our clients foster and develop executive leadership skills. Visit our website to learn more.

Erin is a principal at The RBL Group with 25 years of experience in leadership and strategic HR consulting.

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