March 11, 2014

5 Lessons On How to Build High Impact Teams

n 2010 William McNulty and I joined a team organized by nothing other than fate. Less than twenty-four hours after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, we began assembling a team of military veterans and medics to go down and render aid. Initially, four of us launched from three different airports in the States, and while en route each person added a new member to the team—a former Army Special Forces medic, a former Army Police Officer turned emergency room doctor, a family physician, and a Jesuit brother. It was a motley crew at best, but the original Team Rubicon was born.

That team that crossed the border into Haiti was unique. It was not deliberately selected; it had no prior experience working together; and it had yet to clearly define its roles and responsibilities. Still, that team had the opportunity to be high-impact. Why? Because its members had aligned passion, were willing to sacrifice enormously for a common goal, and faced circumstances with enormous stakes. After three weeks of operations on the ground in Port-au-Prince, our team had proven to be high impact. We’d discovered that we could repurpose military principles for use in disaster response, and in doing so maximize the impact of our aid amid chaos.

Over the last decade I’ve joined, led, followed or built a number of high-impact teams, and along the way I’ve learned some incredible lessons. Some I learned while following, others while leading; some while succeeding, probably even more while failing. Some have come from the military, others from college athletics. Some in the for-profit sector, while others in the nonprofit space. I’m going to spend the next few weeks writing about five of these lessons, and hope to start a conversation around what building a high-impact team really means.

Before we can talk about building high impact teams, we first need to understand what exactly a team is? Let’s establish a working definition: a team is a group of individual egos, united in pursuit of a common mission or goal, often forgoing personal advancement and comfort for the sake of the whole. Assuming we agree with this definition, teams require three things: individuals, a common goal, and a willingness of the individuals to sacrifice for that goal.

What is a high-impact team (HIT)? A HIT requires some special internal characteristics along with some environmental ones. First, a HIT must be faced with a daunting task or opportunity that has high stakes—the chance to turn around a failing inner city school, or commercialize a radical new technology- in other words, a mission for which there is a high chance and cost of failure, but also a potential for huge reward. That is the environmental factor. Next we have unique internal characteristics. The team must be foolish enough to think it can make a change, daring enough to try, and persistent enough to have a chance.

Foolishness, daring and persistence—these are the ingredients of a high-impact team. Many leaders will cringe and say, “I don’t want any fools on my team.” Given the right context, I’d agree. However, when I use the term foolish, I use it to refer to the dreamers—to those that look at problems and only conjure solutions, who look at obstacles and see only opportunity, who don’t ask why, but rather why not. Furthermore, high-impact teams require daring. Dreaming the solution or seeing the opportunity isn’t worth $*!% if you don’t dare to push the boat off the shore and sail toward it. Too often, incredible ideas and innovations go un-materialized because teams lack daring. Finally, we require persistence. Calvin Coolidge said it best when he stated:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Persistence has the potential to pull teams through friction and past obstacles; beyond failure and toward success. Show me a team that has succeeded despite odds stacked against them and I will show you a group that doesn’t know the definition of quit.

Alright, so that’s what high-impact teams are and consist of, but how do you build them? Over the next few weeks I’ll be publishing a series of short lessons I’ve learned in five key areas:

Know your role (and the role of those around you)
Build trust through training, transparency and trials
Passion trumps talent, but culture is king
Embrace innovation and change
Build a brand that inspires
These five points don’t encompass all that it takes—certainly there are other lessons. However, through my experiences in college athletics, a Marine Corps sniper team, and as an entrepreneur, I’ve come face to face with these five time and again.