Building a successful team is about more than finding a group of people with the right mix of professional skills. Over the course of interviewing over 500 leaders for Corner Office, I asked them all about the art of fostering a strong sense of teamwork. Their insights can help you lay the groundwork for a highly productive team that can communicate, cooperate and innovate in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.
Make a Plan
You need a clear and measurable goal for what you want to accomplish.
“If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.”
Jim Collins, author of the best-selling management books “Good to Great” and “Built to Last.”
HIRING WELL ISN'T ENOUGH
If you ask enough top executives about their leadership style, you’re likely to hear a number of them say, “I hire the best people and get out of their way.” It’s a good line that makes sense at a certain level. Hiring the right people is the most important part of building a strong team, of course, and delegating to give people more autonomy is a powerful motivator.
But managing a team is not that simple. Leaders have to play a far more hands-on role to make sure the group works well together and remains focused on the right priorities.
There are six main drivers for creating a strong culture of teamwork – the things that, if done well, have an outsize impact. And the insights are applicable to any team or organization, from five people to 500,000.
Leaders owe their teams an answer to the same question that young children often ask their parents before setting out on a long drive: “Where are we going and how are we going to get there?” In other words, what is the goal and how are we going to measure progress along the way?
And that may sound simple, but it is often one of the greatest challenges that teams, divisions and companies face. What does success look like? If you were to set up a scoreboard to track success over time, what would it measure?
The trouble often starts when leaders start listing five or seven or 11 priorities. As Jim Collins, the author of the best-selling management books “Good to Great” and “Built to Last,” is fond of saying: “If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.” Determining these priorities and how they’re going to be measured is arguably the most important job of a team leader because most of the work that everybody does will flow from those goals. Those priorities have to be lined up as carefully as the trajectory of a rocket launch, because even the slightest miscalculation can take a team off-course over time.
HAVE A SHARED SCOREBOARD
Another benefit of having a simple plan is that it creates a shared goal that will offset the tendency of people to identify themselves as part of smaller groups. Think of a football team, for example. There are many “tribes” within a team – offense and defense, linemen and receivers, running backs and defensive backs. But because the goal of the team is clear, and there’s an external scoreboard to track progress, there is a greater sense of “us” on the team than the “us and them” dynamic that can often divide colleagues in companies.
“Metrics are actually the way that you can harmonize a large number of people, whether it’s dozens or even thousands,” said Adam Nash, the former chief executive of Wealthfront, an online financial management firm, who is now an executive in residence at Greylock Partners, the venture capital firm. That way, he added, “when they’re on their own and making their own decisions, they can be empowered to make those decisions because they know they’re aligned with the rest of the company.”
In the absence of that simple, shared scoreboard, people will make up their own ways to measure their success, Mr. Nash added.
“If you have a company where everyone has their own ways of keeping score, you’ll get incessant fighting and arguments, and they’re not even arguing about what to do,” he said. “They’re arguing about how to keep score. They’re arguing about what game we’re really playing. That’s all counterproductive.”
YOU MAY FEEL LIKE A BROKEN RECORD...
Once you have a simple plan, you have to keep reminding your team of the priorities, even if it can feel repetitive. People often have to hear something a few times before they truly remember it. Marc Cenedella, chief executive of TheLadders.com, a job search site, shared a good rule of thumb:
“You say something seven times and they haven’t heard you,” he said. “Until they start making jokes about how often you repeat it, they haven’t internalized it.”
Rules of the Road
You’ll need a set of values, behaviors and cultural guardrails so that everybody knows how to work together.
“I think it’s easy for people at many companies to become cynical, which then leads to politics, which can create a cancer that can topple even the greatest companies.”
Kathy Savitt, managing director at Perch Partners, a consulting firm.
CREATE YOUR TEAM'S CULTURE
All families have values, even if they aren’t discussed explicitly. There are certain behaviors that are encouraged and discouraged — like rules of the road — for how everyone is going to (try to) get along and spend their time.
Teams aren’t really that different. Pull together a group of people to work on any project, and they will develop a culture of their own, and it will be as unique as the people in the group.
As a leader, you can take a laissez-faire approach and hope the team meshes well over time. Or you can look for opportunities to set some shared guidelines for how people will work together.
The most important thing is for the team or company to live by their stated values, rather than just going through the motions of the exercise, with people earning promotions even though their behavior runs directly counter to the stated rules of the road.
“I think it’s easy for people at many companies to become cynical, which then leads to politics, which can create a cancer that can topple even the greatest companies,” said Kathy Savitt, managing director at Perch Partners, a consulting firm.
A couple of other traps to avoid:
Don’t make your lists too long. Most people can’t remember more than three things day-to-day, and the lists don’t need to somehow address all potential human behavior, good and bad. Just focus on the things that feel unique to the group or organization, and are good reminders to keep everyone aligned and moving forward.
Specific is better than vague. Many lists of values share similar words, like excellence and integrity, but those broad notions can create problems of their own, said Michel Feaster of Usermind, a customer-engagement software firm. “The problem with values like respect and courage is that everybody interprets them differently,” she said. “They’re too ambiguous and open to interpretation. Instead of uniting us, they can create friction.”
If team members don’t feel respected, they won’t be motivated to bring their best ideas — and their best selves — to work.
"We make everyone understand that the reason the culture works is that we have that respect. There is a comfort level and a feeling of safety inside our business.”
John Duffy, chief executive of the mobile-technology company 3Cinteractive.
THE EFFECTS OF A BAD BOSS
Unfortunately, most of us have worked for at least one bad boss (and sometimes many of them) over the course of our careers.
They often share many of the same bad tendencies. They don’t listen. They micro-manage. They’re not trusting. They see employees only as pawns to help them accomplish their goals. They point fingers rather than owning their mistakes. They steal credit for the team’s accomplishments. They dress people down in front of their colleagues. The list goes on and on (sigh).
That kind of treatment puts people in a defensive crouch and they start subconsciously checking part of their self-image at the door before they go into work. And it means that if they have an out-of-the-box idea for the team, they may think twice before sharing it, out of fear it will be dismissed. In this kind of environment, innovation is hard, if not impossible.
SET THE TONE
It is incredibly important for leaders to set a tone, and model the behavior, that everyone will respect one another.
Robin Domeniconi, chief executive of Thread Tales, a fashion company, told me at the time of our interview that she used the expression “M.R.I.” as a cornerstone of culture.
“M.R.I. means the ‘most respectful interpretation’ of what someone’s saying to you,” she said. “I don’t need everyone to be best friends, but I need to have a team with M.R.I. So you can say anything to anyone, as long as you say it the right way. Maybe you need to preface it with, ‘Can you help me understand why you don’t want to do this, or why you wanted to do this?’”
John Duffy, chief executive of the mobile-technology company 3Cinteractive, said he established a zero-tolerance policy for disrespectful behavior.
“We have absolutely clear discussions with everyone about how respect is the thing that cannot be messed with in our culture,” he said. “When we have problems with somebody gossiping, or someone being disrespectful to a superior or a subordinate, or a peer, it is swarmed on and dealt with. We make everyone understand that the reason the culture works is that we have that respect. There is a comfort level and a feeling of safety inside our business.”
It's About the Team
A team is stronger when everybody delivers on their individual roles.
"You just need people who follow through, and it’s a lot more fun when the people you work with do that."
Brett Wilson, chief executive of TubeMogul, a video advertising software company.
ACCOUNTABILITY GOES BOTH WAYS
Treating people with respect is part of a two-way street to help foster teamwork. At the same time, leaders also need to hold everyone on their team accountable for their work and role on the team. In effect, it’s a simple bargain that leaders can offer their employees: “I’ll treat you well, but we’re also going to be clear about the work you’re expected to contribute.”
At many companies, this culture of accountability is discussed explicitly. “I hold people accountable for everything that comes out of their mouth,” said Steve Stoute, chief executive of Translation LLC, an advertising and marketing firm. “Don’t say you’re going to do something and not do it, because in a company of this size, everybody is directly responsible for the person next to them.”
IF YOU SAY IT, DO IT
Brett Wilson, chief executive of TubeMogul, a video advertising software company, uses a smart phrase to signal the importance of being reliable at this company.
“It’s a culture where we value the people who do what they say — they have a high ‘do-to-say ratio,’” he said. “You just need people who follow through, and it’s a lot more fun when the people you work with do that. You can count on them, and you can get by with fewer layers of management, and communication flows faster.”
Tobi Lütke, chief executive of Shopify, an e-commerce software company, developed a clever metaphor of a “trust battery” to signal to employees that everything they do can help or hurt their reputation for reliability.
“Every time you work with someone at the company, the trust battery between the two of you is either charged or discharged, based on things like whether you deliver on what you promise,” he explained. “Humans already work like this. It’s just that we decided to create a metaphor so that we can talk about this in performance reviews without people feeling like the criticisms are personal.”
Difficult discussions aren’t anyone’s idea of fun — but they are necessary for running a successful team.
"Having those good conversations is really 80 percent of being an effective manager.”
Seth Besmertnik, chief executive of Conductor, a search engine optimization company.
STAY ON YOUR SIDE OF THE NET
A big part of holding people accountable for their work is a willingness to have frank discussions about problems and misunderstandings that inevitably arise among colleagues.
But the fact is that most managers go out of their way to avoid these “adult conversations.” It’s understandable. They can be unpleasant, and most people would rather deliver good news instead of bad. Also, you never quite know how somebody’s going to react to feedback. That is why problems are often swept under the rug, and maybe dealt with months later in an annual performance review.
One of the smartest tips for having such conversations is to make sure you “don’t go over the net.”
It means you should never make statements that include assumptions about the motivations behind someone’s behavior. Instead, you should stay on your side of the net and talk only about what you’re observing and your own reactions and feelings. That way, it’s harder for people to get their back up because you’re not devising rationales to explain someone else’s behavior.
Consider, for example, the small but important difference in approaches in the following paragraph:
"I’ve noticed you keep showing up 20 minutes late, and it seems like you don’t care." The boss has gone over the net here and accused the person of not caring.
"I’ve noticed you keep showing up 20 minutes late, and it makes me feel like you don’t care." Here, with just a small language tweak, the boss is staying on the right side of the net, and avoided an overheated conversation because the employee can’t argue about how someone feels.
This approach was first described to me by Andrew Thompson, the chief executive of Proteus Digital Health, who said he uses it as a counterweight to a natural tendency of human beings.
“People concoct all this imaginary garbage about why the person is doing this to them when in fact the person may not even realize that they’re doing anything,” Mr. Thompson said.
SET EXPECTATIONS FOR FEEDBACK
How often people give feedback is just as important as how they deliver it. Some leaders tell their employees upfront that they are going to give them frequent feedback. That way, employees are not so alarmed when the feedback comes, and they’re more open to hearing it and acting on it.
“A lot of bad patterns happen when you go for really long periods without giving people feedback, and it just bottles up,” said Seth Besmertnik, chief executive of Conductor, a search engine optimization company. “They’re so used to not getting any feedback that when they get it, it’s this huge deal. If you get into a rhythm of giving feedback, they get used to it.”
He added: “Having those good conversations is really 80 percent of being an effective manager.”
THE HAZARDS OF EMAIL
This last point may not seem as big a deal as the others, but email can have a corrosive effect on culture.
The problem starts because emails often lack the tone and context to clearly signal what the sender is thinking. So a straightforward email can get misinterpreted, create anxiety or trigger an angry response. As a result, email can often damage the connective tissue that forms relationships among colleagues rather than help build it up.
“If there’s a conflict and you need to resolve it, you cannot really do it in an email because people don’t know tone,” said Nancy Aossey, chief executive of the nonprofit International Medical Corps. “They don’t know expression. Even if they like you and they know you, they might not know if you were irritated or joking in an email.”
The problems really begin when people start an argument over email, she added: “Arguing over email is about having the last word. It plays into something very dangerous in human behavior. You want to have the last word, and nothing brings that out more than email because you can sit there and hit ‘send,’ and then it just kind of ratchets up and you don’t have the benefit of knowing the tone.”
Many leaders are aware of the dangers of email, and are explicit about the rules they expect people to follow. For example, a disagreement should never extend beyond two emails. After that, you have to pick up the phone, or do something potentially out of the ordinary — get up from your desk and go talk to your colleague in person.
SIMPLE ... IN THEORY
If there is one overarching theme that threads through most of the points covered in this guide, it is that most problems on teams can be solved by colleagues being up front with each other, and having respectful, frank conversations face-to-face.
That sounds simple, but just as with the art of distilling complex goals into a clear, three-point strategy, simple is often very hard.
Nicole Eisenberg’s older son has wanted to be a star of the stage since he was a toddler, she said. He took voice, dance and drama lessons and attended the renowned Stagedoor Manor summer camp for half a dozen years, but she was anxious that might not be enough to get him into the best performing-arts programs.
So Ms. Eisenberg and others in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., the affluent suburb where she lives, helped him start a charity with friends that raised more than $250,000 over four years.
“The moms — the four or five moms that started it together — we started it, we helped, but we did not do it for them,” Ms. Eisenberg, 49, recalled. “Did we ask for sponsors for them? Yes. Did we ask for money for them? Yes. But they had to do the work.”
She even considered a donation to the college of his choice. “There’s no amount of money we could have paid to have got him in,” Ms. Eisenberg said. “Because, trust me, my father-in-law asked.” (Ms. Eisenberg’s son was admitted to two of the best musical theater programs in the country, she said, along with nine more of the 26 schools he applied to.)
College has been on their radar since her son was in diapers. “We’ve been working on this since he was 3 years old,” she said. To apply, she said, “I had to take him on 20 auditions for musical theater. But he did it with me. I don’t feel like I did this. I supported him in it. I did not helicopter parent him. I was a co-pilot.”
Or was she, perhaps, a … snowplow parent?
Helicopter parenting, the practice of hovering anxiously near one’s children, monitoring their every activity, is so 20th century. Some affluent mothers and fathers now are more like snowplows: machines chugging ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child’s path to success, so they don’t have to encounter failure, frustration or lost opportunities.
Taken to its criminal extreme, that means bribing SAT proctors and paying off college coaches to get children in to elite colleges — and then going to great lengths to make sure they never face the humiliation of knowing how they got there.
Those are among the allegations in the recent college bribery scandal, in which 50 people were charged in a wide-ranging fraud to secure students admissions to colleges. According to the investigation, one parent lied about his son playing water polo, but then worried that the child would be perceived by his peers as “a bench warmer side door person.” (He was assured that his son wouldn’t have to actually be on the team.) Another, the charges said, paid someone to take the ACT for her son — and then pretended to proctor it for him herself, at home, so he would think he was the test-taker.
The parents charged in this investigation, code-named Operation Varsity Blues, are far outside the norm. But they were acting as the ultimate snowplows: clearing the way for their children to get in to college, while shielding them from any of the difficulty, risk and potential disappointment of the process.
In its less outrageous — and wholly legal — form, snowplowing (also known as lawn-mowing and bulldozing) has become the most brazen mode of parenting of the privileged children in the everyone-gets-a-trophy generation.
It starts early, when parents get on wait lists for elite preschools before their babies are born and try to make sure their toddlers are never compelled to do anything that may frustrate them. It gets more intense when school starts: running a forgotten assignment to school or calling a coach to request that their child make the team.
Later, it’s writing them an excuse if they procrastinate on schoolwork, paying a college counselor thousands of dollars to perfect their applications or calling their professors to argue about a grade.
The bribery scandal has “just highlighted an incredibly dark side of what has become normative, which is making sure that your kid has the best, is exposed to the best, has every advantage — without understanding how disabling that can be,” said Madeline Levine, a psychologist and the author of “Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies or ‘Fat Envelopes.’”
“They’ve cleared everything out of their kids’ way,” she said.
In her practice, Dr. Levine said, she regularly sees college freshmen who “have had to come home from Emory or Brown because they don’t have the minimal kinds of adult skills that one needs to be in college.”
One came home because there was a rat in the dorm room. Some didn’t like their roommates. Others said it was too much work, and they had never learned independent study skills. One didn’t like to eat food with sauce. Her whole life, her parents had helped her avoid sauce, calling friends before going to their houses for dinner. At college, she didn’t know how to cope with the cafeteria options — covered in sauce.
“Here are parents who have spent 18 years grooming their kids with what they perceive as advantages, but they’re not,” Dr. Levine said.
Yes, it’s a parent’s job to support the children, and to use their adult wisdom to prepare for the future when their children aren’t mature enough to do so. That’s why parents hide certain toys from toddlers to avoid temper tantrums or take away a teenager’s car keys until he finishes his college applications.
If children have never faced an obstacle, what happens when they get into the real world?
They flounder, said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.”
At Stanford, she said, she saw students rely on their parents to set up play dates with people in their dorm or complain to their child’s employers when an internship didn’t lead to a job. The root cause, she said, was parents who had never let their children make mistakes or face challenges.
Snowplow parents have it backward, Ms. Lythcott-Haims said: “The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”
Helicopter parenting is a term that came into vogue in the 1980s and grew out of fear about children’s physical safety — that they would fall off a play structure or be kidnapped at the bus stop. In the 1990s, it evolved into intensive parenting, which meant not just constantly monitoring children, but also always teaching them.
This is when parents began filling afternoons and weekends with lessons, tutors and traveling sports games. Parents now spend more money on child rearing than any previous generation did, according toConsumer Expenditure Survey data analyzed by the sociologists Sabino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg.
According to time-use data analyzed by Melissa A. Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, today’s working mothers spend as much time doing hands-on activities with their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s. Texting and social media have allowed parents to keep ever closer track of their progeny.
Snowplow parenting is an even more obsessive form.
“There’s a constant monitoring of where their kid is and what they are doing, all with the intent of preventing something happening and becoming a barrier to the child’s success,” said Laura Hamilton, the author of “Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College and Beyond” and a sociologist at the University of California, Merced.
The destination at the end of the road is often admission to college. For many wealthy families, it has always been a necessary badge of accomplishment for the child — and for the parents. A college degreehas also become increasingly essential to earning a middle-class wage.
At the same time, it’s no longer guaranteed that children will do as well as their parents. Children born in 1950 had an 80 percent chance of making more money than their parents, according to work by a team of economists led by Raj Chetty at Harvard. Those born in 1970 had a 61 percent chance. But since 1980, children are as likely as not to earn less than their parents did.
It’s painful for any parent to watch their child mess up, or not achieve their (or their parents’) goals. Now, however, the stakes are so much higher.
“Increasingly, it appears any mistake could be fatal for their class outcome,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist studying parenting and inequality at the University of Maryland.
The problem is: Snowplowing is a parenting habit that’s hard to break.
“If you’re doing it in high school, you can’t stop at college,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said. “If you’re doing it in college, you can’t stop when it comes to the workplace. You have manufactured a role for yourself of always being there to handle things for your child, so it gets worse because your young adult is ill-equipped to manage the basic tasks of life.”
In a new poll by The New York Times and Morning Consult of a nationally representative group of parents of children ages 18 to 28, three-quarters had made appointments for their adult children, like for doctor visits or haircuts, and the same share had reminded them of deadlines for school. Eleven percent said they would contact their child’s employer if their child had an issue.
Sixteen percent of those with children in college had texted or called them to wake them up so they didn’t sleep through a class or test. Eight percent had contacted a college professor or administrator about their child’s grades or a problem they were having.
“Some of them think they’re doing the right thing by their children,” said David McCullough, Jr., a high school teacher and the author of “You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements,” who helped popularize the “snowplow” term. “Parents understand that going to a highly prestigious college brings with it long-lasting advantage.”
Often, that involves intervening on behalf of their children. In a recent study that surveyed a nationally representative group of parents about which parenting choices they thought were best, people, regardless of race, income or education, said children should be enrolled in after-school activities so they wouldn’t have to feel bored. If a child didn’t like school, they thought parents should talk to the teacher to get the child different work.
Still, true snowplow parenting is done largely by privileged parents, who have the money, connections and know-how to stay two steps ahead of their children. Families without those resources don’t necessarily have the money to invest in lessons and college counselors, and may not have experience navigating college admissions or ultracompetitive job markets.
Carolyn O’Laughlin worked as a director of resident life at Sarah Lawrence and Columbia, and now does a similar job at St. Louis Community College, Meramec.“I don’t talk to parents nearly as much here, where parents are down the street, as I did when the parents were across the country,” she said.
At the elite schools, Ms. O’Laughlin said, a mother once called her to ask her to list the items in the school salad bar so she could choose what her daughter should eat for lunch, and another parent intervened over video chat to resolve a dispute with a roommate over stolen peanut butter.
Now, many of the students she works with are immigrants or first-generation college students.
“As I read about the scandal, I feel for those parents, I do,” she said. But “first-generation students coming through here are figuring out how to navigate an educational system that hasn’t always been built for them,” she said. “It is changing the course of their lives and the lives of their families.”
Cathy Tran, 22, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, is the daughter of people who immigrated from Vietnam who did not attend college. “They do give me a lot of emotional support, but they haven’t really been able to tell me about what I should be doing, like next steps,” she said.
Clearing her own path to college had some benefits, Ms. Tran said. “I actually think that I have a sense of independence and confidence in myself in a way that some of my friends whose parents attended college might not have,” she said. “I had some friends who didn’t even know how to do laundry. I guess in some ways I feel like I was forced to be an adult much earlier on.”
Learning to solve problems, take risks and overcome frustration are crucial life skills, many child development experts say, and if parents don’t let their children encounter failure, the children don’t acquire them. When a 3-year-old drops a dish and breaks it, she’s probably going to try not to drop it the next time. When a 20-year-old sleeps through a test, he’s probably not going to forget to set his alarm again.
Snowplowing has gone so far, they say, that many young people are in crisis, lacking these problem-solving skills and experiencing record rates of anxiety. There are now classes to teach children to practice failing, at college campuses around the country and even for preschoolers.
Many snowplow parents know it’s problematic, too. But because of privilege or peer pressure or anxiety about their children’s futures, they do it anyway.
Felicity Huffman, an actress charged in the college admissions scheme, has long extolled the benefits of a parenting philosophy in which children are to be treated as adults. On her parenting blog, What the Flicka (which was taken down this week), she described raising children as “one long journey of overcoming obstacles.” In another post, she praised schoolchildren “for walking into a building every day full of the unknown, the challenging, the potential of failure.”
This week, Ms. Huffman was accused of paying $15,000 for an SAT proctor to secretly inflate her daughter’s test scores.
Claire Cain Miller writes about gender, families and the future of work for The Upshot. She joined The Times in 2008 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. @clairecm•Facebook
Jonah Bromwich is based in New York. He writes for the Style section. @jonesieman