Building Star Teams, Not Star Players

In high school, our swim team was one of the smallest in our competitive division yet we had two undefeated seasons in a row. I think it’s because even at that early age we learned the secret to winning was to maximize our total team points—estimated by how well each of us would likely perform in different events—rather than focusing on individual victories.

I often think about that experience because it taught me such an important lesson: Success comes from building a star team, not a team of individual star players. Our swim team discovered by making that commitment to each other and focusing on the bigger picture, we often surpassed our own personal goals.

Building a star information technology team requires a similar approach. It begins with understanding the strengths of each individual on your team and making sure there’s a good mix of attributes each player brings to the table. There are a number of assessment tools you can use, such as Myers-Briggs, Strengthsfinders, or DISC, as well as your own observations and what applicants reveal about themselves when interviewing for a position on the team.

I’ll use the team I’m building now as an example: We have leaders who are good at building relationships and at getting to the essence of a problem. We also have leaders who are good at coordinating and facilitating, those who are great at high-level concepts, and others who are really good at the details.

To develop a team that wins together, it has to be okay for everyone to talk openly about their strengths and development areas.

I believe that by having those different talents and personalities on our team, we’re better equipped to solve any problem. With this approach, there may be healthy tension at times because team members will have different perspectives, but if we create an environment of trust—where team members are comfortable raising different points of view—we will often end up with a better decision.

The Relationship between Trust and Influence

To develop a team that wins together, it has to be okay for everyone to talk openly about their strengths and development areas. Cultivating an environment of trust is essential if you want team members to be comfortable discussing both what they’re good and not good at.

To help my team get comfortable, I openly share my own development areas. Recently we had an all-day team meeting where everyone came prepared to participate in a “start/stop/keep” exercise. I went first: I asked my team members what they wanted me to start doing more of, what they’d like me to stop doing, and what they’d like me to keep doing. Others on the team then followed suit. We all shared our feedback with the group, but we did it in the spirit of helping each other be better.

All of this helps create trust, so when we come across that next major challenge and we’ve got a big problem to solve, we’ll discuss the problem as a team and be less likely to go on the individual defensive. All of this ultimately leads to a faster solution.

I was asked during a Forbes interview about what I would tell a high school student who wanted to be a CIO. I answered that while technical skills are table stakes, developing skills at bringing people together is critically important. Only then can your team have a real influence and drive positive change, helping the business leverage the power of technology. All of that takes trust and teamwork. Whether it’s swimming for trophies or building a world-class IT organization, putting the team first will always be a winning strategy.