The team, the individual, or both

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sally crawchuckSallie Krawcheck in her posting: The secret to putting together an insanely successful team, reminds us that sometimes the best individual for the job may not be the best team member for the business.

“Research has shown that the best performing teams are diverse teams,” she writes. “The power of diverse perspectives is such that diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams….and they outperform even more capable teams.”

But humans are human. When left to our own devices, many of us prefer to spend time with like-minded individuals. I’ll admit it: I often do. Frankly, it’s just easier. And it’s also easier for me to picture how somebody who looks like me and sounds like me will get the job done; this is particularly true if it’s a difficult job or a stretch assignment, because I can imagine how I would do it.

So let’s take this to its logical conclusion….with a basketball example. In any random group of UNC basketball players from the past it could well be that Phil Ford, Jimmy Black, Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson and Kendall Marshall would be the best players. But would they be a national championship team? No way. And that’s because they’re all point guards. While arguably possessing the most valuable skill set on a team, they will almost certainly be beaten by teams that have more diverse player skills.

When I have built business teams in the past, I’ve tried to round out the group by including a visionary, a doer, a skeptic, a client advocate and an “historian” as part of the team, to name a few. And I have also worked to include diverse backgrounds, whether acquired (time spent abroad, time spent at competitors) or innate (gender, ethnicity).

If we can change our mindset from “Hey, our goal is simply to put the best person in the job” to “Hey, our goal is simply to put the best team in place,” we will have accomplished a great deal on improving company performance. And we will have accomplished a great deal on increasing opportunity and diversity.

In theory, of course, Krawcheck’s thoughts are truly rational, but the diverse team-building exercise is, in my experience, quite a lot easier to contemplate than it is to successfully  implement.

We tend to defer to talent and, worse, or own biases, memories and personal values. At the lowest level, this results in a business where the individuals “supporting” the leader are cronies or incompetent relatives (yes, these blunders happen in the real world.)  More challenging, even a leader good at delegating will defer the decision-making about team-building to either a successful employee or perhaps the existing staff collective; only to deny the diversity and innovation needed for real success. I think these problems are magnified within small-to-medium sized businesses; because it can be harder to attract (and pay for) the talent pool of potential candidates who may have the diverse skills and personality traits we require. Finally, exercises in diversity (for smaller businesses) often result in problems because of the social agencies and legislation designed to protect minority or discriminated-against groups — as employers who have experienced run-ins with human rights agencies and wrongful dismissal lawsuits will recall, but generally only in off-the-record observations.

Nevertheless, Krawcheck’s advice is sound: Team-building diversity is helpful, and the best person technically may not always be the best person for the job.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and observations about team-building and diversity.

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