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  • Waldemar Kohl, Founder, Kohl Consulting

When Your Team Hits Full Throttle

Last November, the Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Pit Crew set a new world speed record of 1.82 seconds at the Brazilian Grand Prix, besting their prior record of 1.88 seconds. Although I’m far from a motor sports fan, what stood out to me was how the 16 members of the pit team worked together – in perfect synchronicity – to execute on their objective. Eight tire carriers (four for the old, four for the new tires), a front and a rear jack man, two car stabilizers, and four tire swappers . . . Under two seconds!

There’s something truly inspiring about a group of people who are able to accomplish something significant or extraordinary. What is it about a cohesive team that is so awe-inspiring? And how is it that a team can achieve results that may surprise even themselves?

As a Principal Consultant for The Table Group, I work with leaders to help create healthy organizations that experience sustainable success. During our offsites, each leader gives direct feedback to each of her peers. Starting with the boss, everyone provides affirming feedback on a positive behavior that is helpful to the team. This is followed by everyone identifying a specific behavior that is not helpful to the team, which the colleague should stop doing. The result of this “Team Effectiveness Exercise” is a personal commitment from each leader to the team. We practice peer-to-peer accountability because we know that a high-performing team requires continuous individual improvement.

In his book, The Ideal Team Player, our founder Patrick Lencioni explains that for teams to become more effective, team members must exhibit three simple yet critical virtues: humble, hungry and smart.

  • Humble = works for the good of the team, shares credit for successes, and responds well to criticism.

  • Hungry = a strong work ethic and the willingness to take initiative.

  • Smart = Interpersonally smart. The smart person has good intuition about people, listens well, and knows how to relate to others.

(Please note: The requirement is not perfection in all three virtues – we all have bad days. However, if any team member has a significant deficit in any one virtue, the team – and results – will suffer.)

When a Team Member Lacks Humility

One of my clients in the technology space has experienced exponential growth since their inception almost 20 years ago. The CEO, Mark, who was recently named Entrepreneur-of-the-Year in his region, has focused for the past three years on the health and alignment of his executive team. Yet there was something within the team dynamic that was holding them back. In retrospect, the team can now pinpoint specific areas of concern:

  • Tempered debate – only certain topics could be discussed by the full group. Team members often felt like they were “walking on eggshells” during meetings.

  • Decision compliance – when a decision was made, team members would nod their head in agreement, but there was no real commitment to execute. This was a result of not having honest and vigorous debate.

  • Accountability deferred to the boss – with a lack of real trust, team members wouldn’t hold each other accountable for behavior and performance. Instead they left all feedback to the CEO to deliver, returning their focus to just their area (silo).

  • Outsider syndrome – team members would often come to meetings feeling like they had somehow missed an important prior discussion. This slowly began eroding the trust that had been built.

For about a year, I had been helping Mark to counsel certain members of his team, in particular Steve, the EVP of sales. Steve wouldn’t offer input in meetings unless it touched on sales, and he would never show any vulnerability with teammates. Worse yet, Steve would find subtle ways in 1-on-1s to suggest deficiencies in his peers’ area and people, while making sure to proactively praise them in public. Mark tried working with Steve, but the behaviors continued.

It wasn’t until the CEO terminated Steve a year ago that the team began firing on all cylinders. In fact, at the very next offsite the dynamic was so different – fluid, energetic, creative, challenging. It was almost as if the entire team had been swapped out, like they were exploding out of the pit with four new Pirelli tires! But why such a drastic change by removing just one person? Because as hungry and smart as Steve was, he was not humble.

Restricting Team Creativity

In another example, a client of mine in the entertainment and recreational business had been working with her leadership team of five for more than a decade. The team was open with each other and enjoyed spending time together, both at work and after hours. The company’s market, however, was facing significant shifts in demographics, which required innovation, new services and new sources of revenue for my client. The executive team struggled to break through.

Within a few months of working together, it became apparent to me that one of the most intelligent (friendly and funny) members of the team would seem to tune out during strategic discussions. When he did reengage, he was quick to volunteer a colleague for an assignment. If the responsibility was best suited for him, he would pivot to the high cost or downside of the idea. The team would get frustrated momentarily, but a timely joke would bring everyone back to a happy place. With some coaching, the CEO finally realized the cost of an executive who lacked hunger. In a heart-to-heart discussion that was far less adversarial then expected, the executive agreed to step down from the team and move back to a regional position where he had once been very effective. The executive team quickly accelerated, broke through the creative barrier, and rolled out several new programs and services.

During this pandemic, life has dramatically shifted. For many of us sheltering at home, there is more time for introspection and self-assessment. Though the above examples are about executive team members holding the broader team back, my challenge to you is to ask yourself: What kind of leader am I? Am I an Ideal Team Player – humble, hungry and smart?

Make yourself a cup of coffee (or grab a Red Bull) and identify the virtue that is lowest for you. Get onto a video call and seek advice from your team members on how to improve. Then have your team do the same. There’s no telling what the world will look like on the other side of this crisis. But a team full of Ideal Team Players will truly inspire others and is very likely to outmaneuver and steer past the competition!

By Waldemar Kohl, Founder, Kohl Consulting


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