Team work and team-building is ubiquitous, but extraordinary team work and team-building is not. So after a new university president asked Patrick Sanaghan “How do you build a stellar senior team?” he ruminated on the topic and decided to write about it.

“The question prompted me to think about the many senior teams and cabinets I have worked with over the past 25 years. Only a few stick out as being exceptional; many were smart and hard-working, but few have ever become great,” said Sanaghan.

He formed five recommendations (“not theories”) drawn from his experiences. Combined, they form an insightful guide on how to build a team that draws on its collective strength to achieve great things. We’ve synopsized the recommendations here.

1. The 65/35 rule: A highly effective team will carve out the time to discuss and implement processes (35% of team time) that will go a long way in allowing team members to accomplish the tasks that will ultimately lead them to their overall goal (65% of team time). The biggest mistake teams make, Sanaghan says, is to devote 90 to 95% of their time on tasks – without checking in with each other to ensure continued engagement and productivity.

2. Highly effective meetings: Always set the agenda ahead of time, and make it available to all attendees prior to the meeting. The team should deal with the top priorities first, and leave enough time to recap next steps and action items. And one more thing: from time to time, evaluate the meetings themselves to make sure they are not “colossal wastes of time.”

3. Clear ground rules: People make assumptions about ground rules, says Sanaghan, but rarely verbalize them. He suggests forming three to four rules as a team to serve as a foundation, especially for when the team meets to accomplish tasks.

4. No “triangulation”: Sanaghan describes this dynamic as “an insidious group dynamic that is a team killer”. It occurs when team members don’t talk directly to each other about challenges or issues, but instead complain about or ridicule members (or their ideas) to other teammates, never fully confronting and fixing a problem. The way to prevent or stop triangulation is simply not to allow it, says Sanaghan. “It is a difficult ground rule to adhere to because it really tests people’s natural tendencies to complain and gossip about others. It takes integrity and real commitment but it enables [teams to] excel.”

5. They evaluate their priority decisions: Much like introspection is a key part of successful leaders’ ability to grow and become more effective, when teams takes the time to reflect on decisions they’ve made they are taking the time to recognize what went well and what didn’t, which helps them make more informed decisions in the future. But, it’s not easy: “The key is to have the discipline to take the time to review past decisions and the rigor to ask the tough questions.”

Sanaghan parting words: “In over 25 years of working with teams, I have never been brought in because a poor-performing team didn’t know how to do their tasks well. I have always been brought in because the process side or the relational side has broken down (e.g., when people don’t feel heard, feel disrespected, unable to deal with team conflict, not listening to each other.) Leaders need to pay careful attention to the process side because that is what will kill a team’s effectiveness and performance.”

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