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The ‘I’ in Team: Building a Team of Leaders

Published: 2021-10-07
The ‘I’ in Team: Building a Team of Leaders
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David Sammel delves into his years of coaching experience to highlight some lessons behind creating a fantastic team culture. Over thirty years he has coached 17 athletes to represent their countries in international team competitions and the Olympics. His specialist knowledge in mindset makes him a sort after advisor to coaches, parents, and competitive athletes. He helps them negotiate the difficult road to the pinnacle of reaching the pros. He has experience managing teams of coaches both at club and academy level, so his lens is incredibly broad. If he cannot help on a specific issue there is every probability, he will know who can. Basketball coaches and parents alike can pick up several tips from Sammel's years of team building and management experience. 


Democracy doesn’t work 

Poor responses disappointed me weekly.  Our program would get bogged down with petty problems.  Many were internally generated by the staff and had to do with allocating lessons, a topic of considerable import.  Accusations of coaches influencing poaching students as they ushered parents into the restaurant area as they showed up at the reception desk with inquiries, interrupting the normal rotation of student allocations.

Coaching better players is always preferable and jockeying to get them caused further staff tensions.  Given my status, I worked with better players, a natural order.  Less talented and beginner players needing lessons are more difficult to teach and so the coaches with less clutter on their schedules felt that more of the better players should be shared with them, as they put in time similar to the busier coaches.


A fractured team

The harder I tried in these meetings to meet the individual needs and get a consensus among the coaches as to the best way forward, the worse things seemed to get. The bigger goals for the program and ideals of building a team were buried by the bickering and immediacy of solving each coach's perceived problems. The team began to fracture into cliques and once this happened there was no hope of becoming a united group. 

The cliques and disarray the bickering engendered were difficult to deal the because I felt listening and learning from was reasonable, as was including them in decision making to encourage a mindset of working for the greater good.  Despite best intentions, a reward system I put in place to reward good work also became a source of aggravation, gratitude being mostly absent as was cooperation.  Even after an award, I was said to be playing favorites.  I asked myself what I was doing wrong?

Bonding efforts like team outings and nights out appeared to be a success, but my disappointment grew when even after a great time together, as soon as we got back to work the camaraderie seemed to evaporate.


My way or the highway 

I was failing and had to change. All this new-age philosophy I was reading about listening and bringing people with you, appreciating each person's talents, and nurturing a friendly environment without fear to speak out was rubbish. What was needed were good old-fashioned discipline and strong autocratic leadership. So I brought in a load of rules. No more freedom to express, just obey the rules and do the job or you could leave. I had probably inherited and hired the wrong people, so if a few left, great, because then I could bring in coaches who would understand the way things worked from the start and would not bitch and sulk at the new rules. 

Immediately meetings improved.  Stepping out of line would earn a fine in the new system and discipline prevailed in solving everyday issues.  Of course, my popularity sagged along with morale, but efficiency improved, at least on the surface, and moaning was quieted.  Productivity suffered a bit, as going the extra mile disappeared, but the squabbling shut down and my bosses appreciated that.

As all those supposed improvements occurred I was unhappy because inside I knew these methods were as wrong as the previous way.  Sure, some of the staff were lemons, but I also felt I didn’t get the support of the good ones, even before the tighter restrictions.  What was more alarming was the good coaches were going elsewhere when they got a chance.

Good teams and bad teams 

My first clue as to what had gone wrong came when I thought about my relationships with players. The bonds were strong, the trust levels high and there was enthusiasm to work hard to achieve goals. I was a good one-on-one.  I inspired belief and confidence in individuals. My strength was taking complex issues and making them simple to understand. The amazing thing was that the squad of players I worked with was a good team. They supported and encouraged each other, enjoying any success that was achieved by anyone in the team. Was it because they were young? Was it because they all had a common goal to be better players, which overcame most differences?  

I knew this was not the reason, because I had been in a college team that was fractious even though we had a common goal. Morale was not high and apart from the personal gain from the team doing well, we were quite happy to see most others on the team lose. We did well but did not achieve as much as we should have because we had not been a close team, just a team of good individuals.  The leadership of the coach was poor and subject to the whims of his mood. 


Good coaching 

That playing experience influenced my coaching for sure.  I strive to be emotionally balanced every day and my firm philosophy aims to be fair.  Clearly communicating what I expect from players, incorporating their ambition levels which we develop together, is my regular practice. For instance, when a player shows up with a poor attitude, breaking my fundamental rule of showing up with a good one, I instantly banish them until he or she can return with a good one.  After a minimum 5 minute hiatus, they're reintegrated without fanfare, and usually, that's the last time that baggage gets carried into a team gathering.


To struggle with the paradox of why team spirit is strong and replication of that energy at the staff level was then a constant.  How did a tight-knit small team of three coaches and a trainer working with similarly welded players while the larger group became so disparate?  It came to us that even though we were like-minded the others didn't get the concept of teamwork.  That ultimately didn't hold water with me and through a long trial and error process, I came to understand how to create a culture of excellence in a team framework.


Building a team (of leaders) 

These activities lead to teamwork to solve the challenge of that day, but make little difference to the workplace unless you first meet each staff member individually (or the key managers in larger organizations, who pass the processes down the ladder when they've been properly trained to do so.  


Staff members are tasked to discuss the following questions and prepare answers: 

■ What is your ambition both in this job and personally? 

■ What is your job summarized into a maximum of two bullet points, and how does your job add value to the team/ company? 

■ If you could change one thing to make your job better what would it be? If it is a reasonable request that clearly will improve things, promise to implement it immediately and be good to your word.  Nothing validates or inspires a person more than being listened to and seeing his or her idea implemented.  

■ What is the vision of this team/ company as you understand it? It soon becomes apparent if there is any clarity or consistency on a shared vision/plan. Once you have this information you can quickly ascertain who is sharp, committed, and adds or has the potential to add value to the team. If possible remove anyone who fails to outline exactly what they bring to the table.  


Follow-up meeting 

Modify your vision for the team from the information and knowledge gained and arrange a follow-up meeting. In this meeting outline the vision and your ambitions for the team. Explain your philosophy and how you see them playing their part in delivering the vision.  

Ask the question: 'Are you comfortable playing your part and are you willing to accept the trust that I'm placing in you to deliver the targets?' Emphasize that you are interested in the results and not in telling them how to achieve, but prefer to trust them and their imaginations and experience to find the best ways to accomplish the goals. Make it clear you are there to help but have every confidence in their ability to do their job. Ensure you all know what has been agreed and that it is a true reflection of expectations.  

Once the second meeting has happened with all the staff members, the group meetings should become productive. Everyone will be clear about their role and onboard before they enter the group meetings. The meetings take on a collaborative feel where each person is focused on the task of achieving the vision and has the freedom, to be honest in the discussions because everyone becomes solution-minded to succeed. 


Team of leaders 

It is imperative that everyone is supportive as a team and that each person sees himself or herself as a leader.  This does not mean that everybody is a chief. My definition of a team of leaders is a group of people who look to support teammates when they drop the ball, and who do not delight in the failure of others but rather work hard to prevent any failure and genuinely want to achieve the vision that they all signed up to and agreed to deliver.  

As the overall leader of the team, it is important to accentuate the value in being brave and trying new ways of doing things as long as they are thought through and the implications for others in the team are considered.  It is impossible to evolve without experimenting and many of these experiments that seem a good idea may well turn out to be rubbish. However, a  few ideas can turn into gold dust. Understanding that life is messy and it is not our job to create a perfectly ordered system where nothing goes wrong. That is a utopia that does not exist. The trick is to negotiate a sensible path through the unpredictable vagaries of life, anticipate and innovate ways forward.


True delegation 

Management's real test is to truly delegate.  Allowing a job to be done without smothering supervision is the goal.  First, agree on the task and its intended outcome and leave them to do it, unless they ask for help.  A supervisor's way isn't always the only effective way and imposing it purposely or inadvertently can invalidate and disempower the staff member.  The freedom from the stress of being semi-responsible for several tasks, rather than the outcome evaluator becomes true delegation.  

The team's confidence builds as members experience true delegation.  Soon, instead of looking to you for approvals, they begin to relish the freedom to perform.  Once this mindset permeates the team, and everyone delegates and trusts others the needs of performance and harmony prevail.  Leading from behind, observing, being available, and ensuring that a fair balance of work is achieved should be every leader's goal.


Tidying up the mess 

Exceptions to our precepts will undoubtedly challenge us, no matter how good our leadership skills have been implemented.  The strength of our prior work to build the team through the individual route will pay off during these instances.  When team spirit and trust and leadership grow together, it is fun working collectively.  When a team is unafraid to voice strong opinions and then put their combined assets behind ways you and they agree upon you have done a good job.  

Since responsibility ultimately lies with you, there will be times when you will need to deviate a bit, though explaining that a job or operation has to be done in a specific way as influences such as your prior experience or rules direct that action.  Your reward for building trust will come from your practice of delivering concepts or changes which agreeably improve the team. 

The individual meetings must remain quarterly in the first year then no less than half-yearly. Prepare a challenging question or two for every meeting and use them to explain the next steps and to discuss or sell the evolution of the program. It is only in these meetings that most people will open up and speak freely, as long as you never betray their confidentiality. Never divulge information to another or the group without the individual's permission.  


Creating a winning team 

Finally, here are few key points about the reality of leadership and creating a  winning team culture: 

■ The time and energy needed at the start of this process mean it takes far longer than either the team-meeting or 'my way or the highway' approaches.  

■ Having the ongoing energy to inspire is challenging, especially during times when results are difficult and the goals seem impossible to achieve. However, the rewards are awesome as the team grows in confidence and strength.  

■ Short term this approach takes longer, but long term it builds a legacy and produces a healthy line of succession. 

 â–  The environment and culture are one of honesty and integrity and therefore mentally healthy and a fun place to work. Again it takes vigilance to prevent the laziness of 'telling' and 'unfair expectations' creeping into the program or company.  

■ Everyone is emotionally invested in the success of the project. The outwardly passionate and enthusiastic members can drown out the more reserved members.  Giving the shy ones a voice is important, as is managing the disappointment of the loud ones when the group does not submit to their enthusiasm for an idea.  Over time these vastly different groups begin to merge towards each other and respect what each brings to the table.  

■ Hold your hands up when you are wrong. The message must remain clear that if the program or company is constantly evolving then mistakes are part of the process, including your mistakes. A group never reaches the place where it can stand still for long and whether we like it or not the next challenge will present itself regardless.


This article is an extract from Locker Room Power (www.lockerroompower. com).