Muscle Up

Muscle Up

Building strong teams


“Leaps of greatness require the combined problem-solving ability of people who trust each other.”

— Simon Sinek

In “Leaders Eat Last,” New York Times best-selling author Simon Sinek emphasizes one of the most basic tenets of teamwork: teams that trust work as a unit; the ones that do not trust function as individuals. In honing in on the importance of the concept that a team is one that trusts its leader, Sinek shines a light on the fact that trusting teams are happier, more motivated and more successful.

Leaders of trusting teams are the ones who put their team members first and sacrifice comfort, gaining the persona of respect instead of an order-giver.

When it comes to the higher education space, a team’s capability to transform business initiatives is all relative to an individual’s experiences and specialization, and how in aggregate the individuals on the team inform the whole or shape the center. Certain initiatives put forth by leadership require different skills and perspectives, i.e., not always the same team members are going to tackle the same projects, nor should they.

RJ Thompson’s approach to building teams for certain projects, initiatives or tasks is to resolve any gaps that exist in skills and perspectives. As the Manager of Multimedia and Digital Strategy – Health Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, Thompson leads a team of writers with varying skills in creative and marketing aptitudes. By pairing members of the team together, it allows them to not only concentrate on their areas of expertise, but to learn from each other, balancing out the skill sets to deliver the best possible outcome.

“This typically reinforces good thinking, and makes our initiatives and projects execute at a higher level of quality,” Thompson says. “The willingness to share in that interactive exchange, though, needs to be there. I’ve found that when it is, projects are more successful. The team enjoys working on the project. They build familiarity with the initiative and thus are prime selections for working on future iterations of it. It’s all a very gestalt approach —the whole is the sum of its parts.”

The whole, in this case, is Thompson’s team, which is strengthened by the growth of the sub-teams’ experience when working together. The teaching point is a matter of purposeful redundancy in that familiarity is present with a second team member should it not be with the other. He believes that the purposeful redundancy approach creates a safety net, lowers anxiety and stress, and creates better working relationships.

The secret to Thompson’s success is no secret at all. Instead, it is rooted in creating what he believes is the basic foundation of any team’s success: open, frequent, personable and constructive conversation. Asking about how to do the work in smart, targeted and strategic ways, then employing those considerations in doing the actual work.

“When you have a plan—on how to do anything and everything—doing the work doesn’t become onerous or an obstacle,” Thompson says. “Asking for objective feedback, regardless of how big or small the project, is something I feel each member of my team should be willing to provide, as they will get the same in return. I’m always writing strategies for our marketing and communications teams, and having members check for clarity of thought, ideas and technical concerns. It strengthens the work.”

The end result is what Thompson believes every team should strive for. “My work is a reflection of theirs—and vice versa.“ As a manager, being able to willingly cede some responsibility of a project to a teammate so they can learn something new can be a difficult choice, but one I make easily. Learning how to do strategic planning is incredibly important for their growth, especially if they want to make it up the ranks.”

“As a manager, being able to willingly cede some responsibility of a project to a teammate so they can learn something new can be a difficult choice, but one I make easily.”

— RJ Thompson, Manager, Multimedia and Digital Strategy – Health Sciences, University of Pittsburgh

Straight from the heart

Sara Luther’s affinity for personal development and involvement dates back to her days in junior high with clubs and sports. She credits her career ascension to the choice to be part of a team, volunteer for formal leadership positions and build confidence to lead others at a young age. As the Director of Operations for the National Association of Educational Procurement (NAEP), Luther is part of an organization dedicated to serving higher education purchasing officers in the U.S. and Canada.

Even from her earlier days of learning the foundations of leadership, Luther, CPPB, embraced the importance of having different perspectives, and identifying current or potential pitfalls. “Business transformations are not an individual effort. They impact past and future contributors. The ability to provide ideas and feedback increases the likelihood of adoption and support.”

Luther believes that effectively communicating details related to the business transformation is critical. The key is being able to tailor messaging to clearly identify the audience’s role and repeating via various methods to reach the audience in their preferred media. She recommends a heavy emphasis in the beginning of the process on “boots on the ground” team members—the ones who can confidently address concerns and questions.

“You have to empower your team to properly identify exceptions for elevation and solution brainstorming,” Luther says. “Everyone has a seat at the table. The ability to provide input and feedback are not dependent on your title, years of experience or ability to be the ‘ideal’ customer/end-user/supplier. Involve your biggest naysayers and cheerleaders. Let them hear what the other has to say; remember they represent both ends of the spectrum; recognize if one side leans over to the other, acknowledging the direction to continue forward or to further understand concerns.”

“You have to empower your team to properly identify exceptions for elevation and solution brainstorming. Everyone has a seat at the table.”

— Sara K. Luther, Director of Operations, NAEP

In the end, the direction and success are dependent on how you navigate the process. Good leaders understand their team member’s pain points, repetitive issues, enjoyable responsibilities and desire for more involvement. This information comes from a variety of sources, including regular conversations, data from various systems and customer service surveys.

“There is also a balance between doing what you enjoy and doing what is needed for the team to be successful,” Luther says. “Through conversations, you may find hidden gems where desire and skill pair up for the benefit of the team and the individual. Empower them to proactively create solutions, and recognize the small changes that are beneficial.” As any successful team leading a business transformation will attest, you have a finite amount of time and energy to do the work, so using it to create impact, memory and meaning are the motivators that matter.