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Look Beyond The Surface: Being Part Of An Elite Team Isn’t Reserved For Just The Military

As a team coach, it's hard to relate to people. More specifically, it's hard to relate that how we worked as a team in the military is the same as how corporate teams, marketing teams, product teams--and every other sort of team--can function.

What others see is my career background, and then immediately write themselves (and their team) off with excuses like:

"We're not a SEAL team, so we can't operate that way."

"I don't have the luxury of having all high-performers on my team."

"We're not 'elite' so it's different."

Blah blah blah (this is also the point in the conversation where I might remind them of one of my favorite quotes from training, which is, "If you want sympathy, you can find it in the dictionary between 'shit' and 'syphilis,' but you won't find it here." True story--and yes, I just said that).

The thing is, you don't have to do what we did. We trained for a very specific, surgical mission. However, the means by which we achieved that mission--and every mission, for that matter--is absolutely transferable to every corporate team, every sports team, and every team on earth.

Dig deeper than surface level...

We carried guns, yes.

We wore uniforms, yes.

We had a buttload of funding, yes.

But none of that would mean anything if we didn't work together as a team toward a shared end state.

I'm gonna share a little secret with you (just don't tell anyone). Nothing we did in the SEAL Teams was really that advanced. Okay, maybe some things. But for the most part, we weren’t better because we had better people. Don't get me wrong, the guys I worked with were some of the best people I'll ever have the privilege of knowing, but all the hard work, all the courage, and all the sacrifice we were willing to make wouldn't mean anything if we were all headed in different directions.

We "won" on the battlefield the same way businesses"win" today: by learning to work together as a team rather than as individuals. The byproduct of those collective efforts, was "elite."

Here’s where you can start:

Establish a clear purpose.

There needs to be a reason why your team exists, and habit isn't one of them (“we’ve always been together”). People also must agree on what needs to be accomplished. Are we trying to increase revenue? Market share? Engagement? While all these benefit the business, the team should have a shared understanding of the one thing it wants to accomplish that supports an organizational goal.

Over-communicate, but don't be annoying.

You can over-communicate or you can under-deliver, but, that doesn't mean micromanage. Teams communicate consistently because they realize the value of information flow. They don’t try to decipher what information is important or “who needs to know” because they realize it's an impossible task. The problem with operating on a "need to know" basis is you never know exactly who needs to know. It's a recipe for individualism and turf wars. Instead, smart teams share everything they know and let each member decide what's pertinent to fulfilling their roles and responsibilities.

When you share information--and more importantly, have a process for sharing information--you minimize the telephone effect that we all failed in Kindergarten and still fail today (when the message sent isn’t the message received). By communicating openly and consistently with other members you mitigate individual bias and interpretation from snowballing into something it shouldn’t.

Clarify roles and responsibilities.

Everybody on the team plays a part and is responsible for the part they play. Clarifying roles and responsibilities is important not only for the individual contributor but also for the team as a whole because there’s no confusion about who does what or where the team stands. This sounds very basic but it’s amazing how many business functions get this wrong because they don't realize it's fundamental. Inside the finance division of the very first Fortune 500 company I consulted for was complete role obscurity. If someone from the Tax Division, for example, had a question about Audit they didn’t know whom to turn to. Now, this was already a high performing company so just imagine where they would’ve been had they taken the time to establish role clarity.

Remember, if somebody isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, chances are it’s because they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. Rarely is it because of malicious intent. Without clearly defined roles and responsibilities, there’s no accountability, which leads us to…

Establish accountability.

Accountability isn’t a "nice-to-have." It’s a must. There must be accountability at three levels. First, each individual must hold him or herself accountable to produce work. Without individual accountability, the team’s potential is limited because it’ll be playing the blame game (“I didn’t have enough information,” “I didn’t know…”). Second, there must be accountability between members, which means there also must be trust. It’s difficult to hold somebody accountable whom you don’t trust enough to be accountable. Third, each individual must hold the team accountable as a whole. One difference between a group and a team is that a team shares the same fate, whereas a group does not. The only way to ensure the team wins is if the members hold the team accountable.


Have a process.

In order for any team (or group, for that matter) to produce work, they must do three things: meet, communicate, decide. If they don’t do any or just one of these, they don't produce work. Can you think of a team that doesn’t have to meet together, talk about issues or decide about next steps? Didn’t think so.

Meeting, communicating and making decisions are all simple in theory, yes, but not easy. What I’ve seen in coaching teams is how easy it is to take each of these for granted. If you’ve ever been in a meeting that didn’t go according to schedule (because there was no schedule) or where the same two people were the only ones talking or where making a decision was more complex than the matter itself, you know what I mean.

Competitive advantage today stems from how efficiently and effectively teams respond to opportunity and change. If you want to start your team right, begin with the fundamentals—and practice them daily.

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