Discussion about building strong, effective teams—and I mean in business teams in this context—frequently centers around buzz words like empowerment, loyalty and goal-setting. We are told that we must develop empathy for each other and respect each person’s contributions. We learn about focusing on outcomes and achieving expectations by working together.
There are plenty of courses, retreats, books, tapes, speakers and seminars on teambuilding that explore the dynamics of relationships and give us techniques for creating cohesion in our groups. Trainers are abundant who can help us develop skill sets for communicating better inside teams.
But absent this training and education, where can we begin if we believe that teamwork is necessary to accomplish our corporate objectives? From my personal experience in running programs, departments and companies, I believe this must begin with one simple word: Trust.
We must find a way to get past the often honest assessment that someone else may go about a certain task differently than we do, and trust they will find a way to get the job done. When we try to do our own work, yet spend time and energy intervening in the work around us, we may actually become the weak link in the chain.
I’m not in any way suggesting that we do not need to accept the burden of responsibility for our organization’s success, or that we hide behind “the team” as an excuse for failure. And I’m not saying that we should not watch each other’s backs, lend a hand, offer a suggestion or step in when something has gone wrong. Of course we have to do all of those things to create a team whose success and survival means we rely on each other.
But I am saying that in the heat of battle, focus first on your own job and let others do theirs. Trust that they will do their part. Okay, I’ll even go a step further and say, trust, but verify—to borrow a concept a successful Army Ranger squad leader said he was taught.
Here’s my favorite example of teamwork achieving a desired result. In 1977, both Penn State and Alabama football teams went 11-1 and fell just short of their goal of a National Championship. Throughout the following 1978 season, these two teams were on a mission, but Alabama faltered and lost one game to USC early. By year end, they had climbed back to number two. Penn State was undefeated and ranked number one. The matchup was set for one and two in the Sugar Bowl.
Two well-coached teams took the field that day prepared by Coaches Paterno and Bryant, two of the finest motivators and teachers in the history of sports. The two teams slugged it out and Alabama led 14-7 late in the game.
Penn State could do little in the fourth quarter, until they recovered a fumble inside the Alabama 20. Penn State ran to the eight-yard line. First and goal. They gained two more yards. Quarterback Chuck Fusina then passed to a big tight end on the three—a sure touchdown to onlookers—until Alabama safety Don McNeal came from nowhere and knocked the runner out of bounds at the one yard line.
On third down, Alabama linebacker Barry Krause called the Double-X Pinch defense. Every defender knew to crash toward the center to stop a run up the middle—which Penn State had used earlier that year to win a close game at Pittsburgh. It was all or nothing. The teams collided. Alabama defensive tackle Curtis McGriff and linebacker Rich Wingo stopped the powerful Penn State fullback Matt Suhey just shy of the goal line.
Penn State quarterback Fusina was frantic to see how close the ball was to the goal. Marty Lyons of Alabama uttered the now-famous words of Crimson Tide lore: “About a foot. You better pass.”
Fourth and goal. A national championship is on the line. The two best teams in America are breathing fire. Again the Nittany Lions call for Suhey to get the last foot. Again Alabama calls the Double-x Pinch.
With a foot to go, only teamwork would win this game. It was the immovable object against the irresistible force. No one could falter on offense and allow a defender to penetrate the line. One foot was all the offense needed.
Everyone on defense had a specific assignment, and each had to be executed perfectly. If anyone hesitated and tried to find the ball and be a hero by making the tackle alone, Alabama would lose. Every player had to trust the person beside him to do his job. For Penn State Fusina took the snap and handed off to Gruman. Across the defensive front, each player held his ground. Marty Lyons of Alabama penetrated into the backfield and collapsed the line. Wingo crashed into the lead blocker to take him out of the play. The runner Gruman leapt over his blocker, where he was met by Barry Kraus and stopped in mid-air. Murray Legg came screaming in from his safety position to shove the runner backward to the ground. No gain.
This play became the most famous stop in Alabama history. Krause wobbled off the field after being momentarily paralyzed, but the Tide held on to win.
Had each of these teammates not trusted the man beside him, this play could not have worked. Trust worked. Teammates believed in the person beside them, and were rewarded with a championship ring.
When building your winning business team, start by trusting your teammates to do their job.