Teamwork, Leadership, and Cumulative Impacts

I make my living as an investor and attorney, so over my career I've worked mainly as a lone specialist rather than working on teams. Nonetheless, my brain is an analytical meat grinder and I've had a few team experiences, so I wanted to briefly share my thoughts on the subject:

  • A team leader's impact normally isn’t felt after one or two decisions -- it's felt after hundreds or thousands of small decisions/interactions with team members and people throughout the organization. If the majority of these small decisions/interactions are good, then the cumulative impact will be good and the organization will go in the right direction, like a slow moving barge passing through the center of a river channel. Conversely, if the majority of these small decisions/interactions are bad, then the cumulative impact will be bad and the organization will decline, like a slow moving barge gradually steered out of the channel and run aground.
  • The team leader must keep a close eye on the barge's course and make sure his decisions/interactions keep the barge in the center of the channel. He must listen to feedback, be an open-minded, ego-free learner, and make lots of good decisions.
  • It can be hard to tell whether the barge is being run aground, because it often happens incrementally. If the shipping owner gets a new captain only after he's sure the barge is being run aground, then the vessel will already have sustained major damage. The owner must act when it's more likely than not that a new captain is needed, before a lot of incremental, irreparable damage occurs.
  • The team leader must actively solicit ideas from all team members and from people throughout the organization, and then the leader and team must winnow down to the best ideas through candid, constructive debate and conversation. All team members must candidly speak their minds, even when it's uncomfortable, to improve the team’s chances of making a good decision. Candid, constructive criticism is important so bad ideas can be weeded out and good ideas can move forward.
  • The biggest benefit of a team is that you have more than one person offering ideas. This leads to more varied, more creative ideas/solutions than one person can come up with.
  • Unless it's a crisis requiring quick top-down solutions, leaders must allot adequate time to attracting followers and getting buy-in from people throughout the organization. The buy-in process should start well before any change initiative is finalized and implemented, and this process should allow people to offer input on the new idea. These suggestions can then be adopted or rejected by the leader and his team. Buy-in is critical so people will embrace and execute the new idea. If the leader's style is too top-down, or the leader procrastinates and does not spend enough time getting buy-in, then the idea will fail due to poor execution.
  • Pilot programs are a good way to test, iterate, and improve new ideas/solutions -- these programs can make the original idea better/stronger. Additionally, buy-in goes up when people in the organization see the pilot working and can suggest changes/improvements, which then leads to better execution if the idea is fully implemented.