Written by Sarah Vanek.
“When I die, I want my group project members to lower me into the grave, so they can let me down one last time.”
This is one of the funniest jokes I’ve heard that refers to working in a team environment. But why do we laugh? Sadly, it’s because we’ve all had bad experiences. We can relate. We’ve been in situations where we were responsible for leading a group or team, and we ended up feeling let down—like we were stuck doing all of the work by ourselves. And because of it, we cringe and want to run away any time someone mentions anything remotely close to leading a group.
But what if team leadership didn’t have to be the awful experience that we all have in the back of our minds? What if it could be positive, enjoyable, and beneficial? What if you could set up your team to rise above the rest? The truth is, you can. And it all starts with strategy.
To explore this concept, I reached out to a former leader of mine, Dave Struebing. As my former track coach, he was the one who screamed at my fellow sprinters and I as we ran repeat 400-meter dashes, but he was also the one who designed our relay teams. Because I respected him for the work he did as my coach and team-builder, I asked him what his secrets were. So here they are … his keys to recruiting, developing, and empowering a team that stands out from the pack.
When it comes to recruiting, the first thing Dave looks for is talent. On his team in particular, he needs to know that a potential team member can run a 400-meter, and that he or she can run it fast. But that’s just the beginning. Simply having talent isn’t enough for Dave to recruit someone. Instead, he recommends pairing the talent search with one for passion.
This passion hunt involves looking for individuals who will give their all for the good of the team—individuals who will buy into a common goal, and then do everything in their power to reach it. In fact, he went so far as to say that this intangible passion is almost more important than raw talent. Being able to run fast is important, but caring about what you’re running for—that’s a powerful catalyst.
In the area of developing a stand-out team, Dave stressed the importance of repetition. Yet, he was quick to mention that practice doesn’t make perfect—it makes permanent. So, as he develops a team, it’s not only key for each member to practice his or her skills over and over again, but also to practice them correctly.
Aside from the countless hours of repetition and correct practice, though, Dave honed in on how important it is to pay attention to everything. The team-leader must realize that everyone can’t perform well all of the time—sometimes, you need to have an alternative plan. So, part of developing an outstanding team involves knowing what to do if one member needs a break, or can’t carry the load for a short time.
Just like he did with development, Dave summed up much of how he empowers an effective team into one sentence: individuals don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. Though this is an oft-used statement, Dave stands by it and believes that it’s best to show this necessary care and concern through actions.
What kind of actions? You might ask. Well, he recommends not ignoring anything, but rather working hard to be honest about feelings and keep the line of communication constant. As each of these actions is taken, it begins to impress upon team members that the leader truly cares about everyone involved. He believes that as he does these things and keeps everything honest and in the open, it empowers his team.
With all of this, it is clear that Dave’s keys to recruiting, developing, and empowering a team that stands out from the pack, begin with a search for both talent and passion. It then continues with development via repetition of the right skills, and paying attention to everything. Finally, the empowerment that underlies it all comes from a constant level of both care, and communication. By navigating team-building with this strategy in mind, you can set your team up to rise above the rest. And maybe—just maybe—the dread of leading a group can be diminished.