How to make the team of tomorrow

Too many companies are muddling on with poorly performing teams, writes Piers Cain

Simon Mac Rory’s Wake up and smell the coffee is a book born, in part, out of a sense of frustration. It is a book about management practice: how organizations can develop and deploy teams more effectively. Its main premise is that most organizations need to treat improving team performance as a strategic imperative, but most do not, preferring to muddle on with poorly performing teams. They need to change their attitude.

Mac Rory has a background as a specialist team developer. Here, he has produced a ‘how-to’ book, based on extensive experience, which is also informed by a shrewd assessment of the latest literature and research.

Many of the factors that affect team working have stayed the same for generations. But two drivers of change today are having a big impact – the use of technology to enable the creation of ‘virtual teams’ and the rise of a new generation, the Millennials (those born between 1981 and 2000). By 2025, Millennials will make up 75% of the working population – they already make up 40%. This group has very different attitudes and priorities from earlier generations – for example they crave flexibility and collaboration, and this affects how teams need to be run.

Mac Rory is strong on the importance of definitions: of what is and is not a team, and the different types of team. He identifies four: Traditional, Project, Virtual, and what he refers to as Teaming Working Groups. (The latter a new development – a way of working around shifts, with large membership and leadership that are constantly changing). Each type of team has distinctive characteristics, benefits, costs and challenges for the leader.

Mac Rory supports the view that the leader should serve the team by removing what stands in the way to achieving its objectives. In other words, the leader sits at the bottom of the organizational pyramid, not the top. Although it is fashionable to hold this view, unfortunately in most organizations the leadership is self-serving. Many leaders believe the team’s role is to support them in fulfilling their personal ambitions.

The role of the leader is critical, not only because leaders are responsible for the performance of their teams, but also because, if the organization’s senior leaders do not model good team behaviour, everyone else will draw the logical conclusion. Too often those at the top of the organization compete rather than collaborate. A simple and effective way of improving the performance of a poor team is to change the leader. Mac Rory notes that poor leadership behaviours at the top are sometimes tolerated in the belief that the individuals are too valuable to lose.

This book makes many sensible points. A couple of issues in particular stand out because managers often shy away from dealing with them. We should understand that conflict is necessary for new ideas to emerge, and this is important for innovation and growth. But conflict mustn’t be allowed to turn into combat. Teams need to understand this and understand how to handle conflict well. Recognition is important, too. People crave it and will become demotivated if they are not recognized. It is easy to praise people, but team leaders must rise to the challenge of ‘recognizing’ average or poor performance – otherwise weaker team members will freeload and high performers will feel cheated or exploited.

If I have a criticism of this book it is that it ends rather abruptly, without a proper conclusion. The question the author doesn’t really answer is: if, on the whole, we know what we need to do, then why don’t we do it? In my view, this is largely due to the continuing failure by both business schools and employers to inculcate good team behaviour and ethos as core elements in the development of future leaders. If there is no change of attitude at the top, nothing will change elsewhere. Nonetheless, this is a useful and timely book. Truly it is time to smell the coffee. 

Wake up and smell the coffee: The imperative of teams by Simon Mac Rory, LID Publishing

Piers Cain is a management consultant