Every entrepreneur realizes that building a great team is critical to the success of his or her startup, but many don’t realize that it takes more than multiple qualified employees to make an effective team. It’s possible, or even likely, that a set of skilled individuals can result in a dysfunctional team, where contention, jealousy, lack of communication or work habits jeopardize results.
As a mentor to entrepreneurs, I recognize that it’s easy to spot a dysfunctional team after the fact, but it’s not so easy to spot the right attributes of new team candidates, in the context of existing members. The approach I recommend is to make sure all candidates and existing members exhibit the following team-centric attributes, in addition to a unique set of skills and experiences:
- Comfortable being challenged by associates. The attributes to look for in interviews and reference checks would include minimal ego, self-confidence and a willingness to work with others. Team members who won’t listen, immediately become defensive and react emotionally to all suggestions will quickly make your whole team dysfunctional.
- Enjoy a healthy level of conflict. The most productive teams regularly engage in some healthy friction and heated debates between team members, but are able to avoid the emotion and drama that negates the value of these efforts. That’s the way smart teams make real change happen. Remove team members who initiate unhealthy conflict.
- Commit to the team despite individual qualms. Commitment means a willingness to negotiate and support a team decision, despite personal qualms and some risk. People who are perfectionists are not usually good team players. Test new candidates for their reactions to hypothetical and actual past situations.
- Willing to take team accountability as personal. Accepting accountability means not making excuses for the team, and avoiding the fallback to highlighting personal performance. It also means coaching and challenging peers on the team on behavior leading to dysfunction, even when it means risking a friendship.
- Support the team view in external discussions. You need team members who will support team efforts and progress, despite customer challenges or questioning from executives. Non-team players are quick to jump ship, and defer support to a popular counter view, thus undermining the effectiveness of the whole team.
- Focus on team results vs. individual performance. Team members that exhibit more concern for individual status and results are doomed to failure. A critical role of the founder is to effectively communicate the collective goals, characterize progress in the context of the team and integrate individual performance results.
- Accept team relationships as personal as well as business. Effective teams get to know each other on a personal basis, and find opportunities to meet for lunch or an outside event as a team. If you find a team member who truly dislikes other members, or doesn’t trust them as individuals, the whole team dynamic will be compromised.
In my experience, a few entrepreneurs seem to actively discourage any real team synergy, perhaps due to a lack of confidence in their own abilities, too much ego or a desire to retain autocratic control over each decision. This is a self-defeating strategy, since cohesive teams will normally outperform any set of star individual performers.
Thus the ability to build effective teams is one of the key differentiators of a great entrepreneur that outside investors look for, and the validation of having effective teams in place is high on the list of due diligence items before investor funding is committed.
If you find you have a dysfunctional team at your startup, fixing it should be a top priority. If you are just now hiring, be sure to keep the team-centric attributes on the same plane with other qualifications. On either end of this spectrum, teamwork or lack of it can make or break your startup, independent of the strength of your business concept.