We are committed to teams. Many of us spend Friday night or Saturday afternoon rooting for our school’s football team. Likewise, if we have our own children, we shuttle them to their sports activities so they can be on teams. We read the sports pages, following our favorite teams’ exploits. We claim to cherish the camaraderie and teamwork that is requisite to any team’s success. 

Team in Library

Yet, when we are expected to attend a team meeting at school, we often dread it. We claim that the meeting is taking us away from our real work, that nothing gets done in the meeting and there are better uses for our time. 

The dichotomy of loving to follow sports teams and disliking our own work in teams is made more stark because, theoretically, team meetings should be a highlight of our week. In these meetings, we are gathering with school colleagues and addressing critical issues that will help the school grow and thrive. These meetings should be like a movie in which each attendee is a co-star. (I hope movie co-stars enjoy their work more than most of us enjoy team meetings.) 

Team meetings and team work can and should be engaging and valuable. However, this does not just happen by chance. A great team is the result of careful planning and design. All great teams share critical elements; without these elements, team success is unlikely.

The elements I discuss owe much to the books Senior Leadership Teams: What it Takes to Make Them Great by Ruth Wageman et al. and The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business by Patrick Leoncini. 

Leadership is critical to any successful endeavor; it is also critical to team building. A team’s leader must be thoughtful, courageous, and committed. Particularly at the formation stage of the team, the leader needs to have her hands on the wheel, steering the team. As the team grows and matures, the leader can let other team members play increasingly larger leadership roles. Indeed, one measure of a team’s success is how capable the team is in the absence of its original leader.

The first role of a leader in ensuring a team’s success is to determine if she really needs or wants a team. Not every group of people who come together regularly are a team. An authentic team is “a small group of people who work interdependently to achieve an important mutually understood purpose and possess the knowledge, skills and experience to accomplish the task.” 

Many schools employ teams for reasons inconsistent with the definition of a team. Some teams meet due to tradition. (These folks have always met together.) Or because it looks good to the rest of the institution. (I have these senior leaders; if we don’t meet, it would look funny to other folks at the school.) Some meet to share information. (All leaders should have a general sense of what is occurring in other school departments.) These may be valid reasons for meeting, but the people who meet for these reasons are not a team, they are a group. 

Real teams, on the other hand, gather to consult, implement, or − the gold standard − decide. When a real team works well together, they make the school better. They tackle hard issues and move the school forward in a way that none of the individuals could do alone. 

Once a leader decides she wants a team, she must do the work to maximize its performance. She must be aware of the following six elements of a successful team and ensure each of them are present:

  1. a proper team,
  2. the right people,  
  3. a compelling purpose,
  4. a solid structure,
  5. a supportive context, and
  6. a team coach.

Proper Team 

A proper team has three components. 

The first, which sounds easy, but often is not, is that it should be clear who is on the team and who is not. Not only should it be clear to the team, but it should also be clear to the rest of the school. Many school teams invite people to sit in on meetings occasionally. As a result, it is challenging to know who is on the team and who, ultimately, is responsible for the team’s output. 

Secondly, teams should strive to have stable membership. It is hard for a team to function well together if the members change constantly. If a member does change, it is imperative to have a strong on-boarding process for the new team member.  

Finally, and most importantly, team members must be interdependent. To achieve the team’s goals, every member of the team must feel the goal is important and have a role to play in achieving it. When working to achieve a goal, the roles of each team member should be clearly defined, and it must be understood that the goal will not be achieved unless each team member does her part. 

Right People

Jim Collins is famous for saying you must have the right people on the bus, and he is right. For a team, the right people are those who have the knowledge, skills, and experience to achieve the team’s task. In addition, each team member must be willing to act as a good team member. They must be willing to sacrifice the good of their division for the good of the school. Good team members demonstrate empathy and integrity. Simply stated, empathy is the ability to actively listen to and deeply understand someone else’s position. Integrity is doing what you say you are going to do. Team members who do not demonstrate these characteristics tend to derail the team and should be asked to leave the team. 

Compelling Team Purpose

To quote Simon Sinek, great teams know their “why.” They know why they exist, what they need to do, and how their work will improve the life of their constituents. The team’s “why” clarifies and energizes the team’s work. Once a team is clear about its purpose, it can develop strategies or goals to achieve that purpose. If a team does not have a clear purpose and goals, it will meander aimlessly. As Lewis Carroll said, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” 

Solid Structure

Teams need a solid and mutually understood structure to be successful. This starts with the team creating and agreeing to operating norms. A team needs to understand how it intends to do business and must hold each other accountable if a member is violating the norms. A good structure includes a solid agenda and a mutual understanding of how that agenda is created, as well as an understanding of who is responsible for accomplishing what and by when. 

Supportive Context

A great team is supported by the institution it is serving. Practically this means that the team is supported by the school’s leaders, including (especially?) the head of school. The head must make sure the team is given a sufficient amount of time to meet and any resources it needs to get its job done. She insists on engagement in the meetings and is ready to hold team members who don’t abide by the operating norms accountable. It means that the team has the data, organized in a meaningful way, that it needs to understand and address the issues it is facing.  

Team around laptop

Team Coach

In order to improve at any endeavor, coaching is critical. Team functioning is no exception. A great team should be coached regularly. While that coaching can come from a team member, it is often more effective if an outside expert is the coach. A team should spend time, four times a year, explicitly assessing its effectiveness as a team. Some questions to consider when assessing a team’s effectiveness include the following:

  • Has the team achieved its purpose and goals?
  • Is the team growing more effective and efficient in its work?
  • Are individual team members growing professionally from being on the team?

As the famous baseball manager Casey Stengel once said, “Gettin’ good players is easy. Gettin’ ‘em to play together is hard.” Many of our schools’ teams are made up of very talented people. Yet they are not accomplishing what they could. With guidelines like these above, once they learn to play together well, the school will grow quickly and in exciting ways. 

  • Leadership
  • Mission/Culture

Dave Michelman has served independent schools for more than 35 years. He headed two schools; most recently, he served as head of school at Duke School for 14 years. He was both a lower and middle school division director for 10 years prior to becoming a head. Dave served on the SAIS board of trustees, has chaired two nonprofit boards, and currently serves on MISBO’s board. Dave created Michelman Consulting in 2020 to help schools develop teams by clearly illustrating why great teamwork is important, what excellent teams look like, and introducing structures that allow teams to thrive.