Business Journal

Building a Team With Talent

by Kathie Sorensen and Steve Crabtree

Strategies for creating a strengths-based team

In sports it's often called chemistry: that harmonious balance of strengths that makes a team able to do the improbable. Take an example from baseball: the 2001 Seattle Mariners. Despite the departure of three superstar players -- dominating pitcher Randy Johnson and sluggers Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez -- the team is having its best year ever. Actually, it's having one of the best seasons in the history of the sport. There's no dominant standout player to point to -- the team relies on a balance of solid veterans and gifted young athletes. And it has an experienced manager with a good sense of how all the players work best together. Ironically, it's been noted that the departure of their superstars allowed the Mariners to elevate their level of play as a team.

The example can be extended to any workgroup. Team members who understand one another's abilities not only trust one another, they can easily distinguish the areas in which their time and talents are most effectively applied from those better left in the hands of teammates. It's easy to see how this improves the team's efficiency.

That's not to say great teams are always in agreement. In a previous column, we described how the dialogue between individuals with different dominant strengths improves the quality of the decision-making process.

Aside from key decision-making points, a balance of strengths facilitates the smooth day-to-day operation of the team. Lopsided teams tend to generate dynamics that cut into the team's productivity: The whole is actually less than the sum of the parts.

  • Have you ever been in a situation where your team is meeting weekly to hash out the issues surrounding your project, but despite seemingly endless discussion, resolutions are rare and actual decisions hard to come by?
  • Have you had one team member run roughshod over the process in an effort to be productive, dominating it so that the knowledge, experience and talents of the other team members are largely wasted?
  • Have you ever teamed with someone who just doesn't seem to grasp the concept? Sometimes "teams" are teams in name only, and on closer inspection bear more resemblance to individuals sitting in a room together, separately focusing on a common topic.

A good manager will take the time to deconstruct the daily operation of his or her team, identifying where it bogs down and where it over-accelerates. Examining those areas from a strengths perspective can offer the manager insights about how to achieve a more complementary balance. Those insights can then be used as a basis for dialogue within the team, allowing each member to better understand his or her ideal role relative to the other team members. In this way, the manager can ensure that the team operates as more than the sum of its parts.

Team-building guidelines

So what are the best strategies for building a highly effective, strengths-based team? Here are a few basic principles that may help provide guidance.

  • With your group, determine what "team" means to each of you.

Some people may consider "team" to be a four-letter word in more than the literal sense. The term tends to be overworked and underachieved. For the practicing manager, carefully consider carefully the image that comes to mind when you use the word "team" to describe your direct reports. Do they share a common goal? A common set of measures that determine success? Are collective achievements possible -- or is this really an assortment of individuals working independently with separate measurement and goals?

Even when individuals do much of the team's work independently, team members can still share in the responsibilities associated with building a great place to work. Think about using the Gallup Q12 items as a common focus for better partnership and teaming.

If the group is working with common measurements and a shared goal, however, investing some time and thought in strengths-based team building will pay off.

  • Develop a shared goal.

A shared goal must be shared in both vision and execution. Sometimes too little time is spent defining the team's goal and what it means to each member. Invest in a process that has each team member describe the goal from her own point of view and her perceived contribution toward the achievement of it.

As you listen to each member, note the language that she uses, and her point of view. Reflect as a group on the diversity or similarity of the descriptions.

  • How are your viewpoints alike?
  • In what ways do you see different aspects or issues in the challenge or opportunity?
  • Create a list of team functions, then allocate responsibility for each according to team members' strengths.

Many teams move right from defining the challenge to working toward the solution, with little or no thought to the most appropriate functions or roles. You'll improve efficiency by building those considerations into the planning process. This can be done for specific tasks -- for example, the manager could draw up a specific action plan to get from point A to point B -- but also for the general day-to-day operation of the team.

You might start by listing the common functions you feel your team must allocate in order to operate smoothly. Invite team members to share in defining the process and their contribution. Obviously, this will be different for ad-hoc teams formed around issues than it is for ongoing teams whose members develop partnerships over time and across projects. But in either case, define the process in terms of steps. The result might look something like column one in the table below.

Relevant Strengths
Function Team Members Themes What I Do Best
Vision & leadership Joanne Smith Futuristic, Strategic Build the vision.
Carlos Sanchez Command Make presentations.
Measurement & goal-setting Bob Green Focus, Arranger Set goals and timelines.
Rachel Johnson Maximizer Determine priorities.
Celebration & recognition Eric Jones Individualization, Relator Knows what each person likes/dislikes; what "fits" each of us.
Communication Alison Stevens Communication, Harmony Share what we're doing with the company.
Rebecca Tucker Communication, Arranger Write down and circulate our notes and "to do" items.
Accountability Jim O'Brien Responsibility, Consistency Follow up at every meeting -- track our results.


  • Ask team members to consciously consider: "Who am I, and what do I contribute?"

A strengths-based perspective recognizes that not all team members are alike -- and that the ideal role is unique for each. Now that you have the functions or process, consider each person's best contribution. Ask each person to share two of his strengths, and identify two areas within the process that are a "best fit" for him. Also keep in mind that individuals can not only contribute their talents, but also their knowledge or skills, or their interests. Ask each person to distinguish among these personal resources to better clarify his contribution.

  • Distribute leadership and responsibility according to strengths.

Once you've allocated functions, ask the person whose name is next to each individual function to "own" that aspect of the team's operation. This is a time to share leadership responsibility -- it shifts with the strengths of the participating team members. Then note whether there are any parts of the team's overall operation with which no team members have associated strengths. Will you need to bring in outside help for this area? Whose help will you need?

  • Remember that consistency and practice are the keys.

Make this a regular part of your team's work -- to consider not only the issues, problems or challenges, but also the ways you work together in solving or achieving them. To help ensure consistency, make sure that someone in the group is accountable for follow up and that someone is responsible for reminding the team to begin its next meeting with a short dialogue on team members' strengths.


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