Lead By Example And Build From There
Leadership has transformed over the last couple of years. It will continue to transform as leaders are faced with unprecedented complexity and change emanating both externally and internally in their organizations. This series of articles titled “The Leadership Blueprint” offers a blueprint on critical elements of leadership that you, as a Learning and Development (L&D) leader, can adopt and adapt to your organizational contexts. The series focuses on critical leadership functions, including driving digital transformation, leading people, harnessing data, driving culture change, and concentrating on the future, among others. This article focuses on the 7 characteristics you will need to cultivate so that you can effectively build winning teams.
A key ingredient of winning teams is empowerment. I often describe leadership as a coin with two sides. One side is empowerment. As a leader, you need to empower your team by articulating the “why” of the mission and letting the team drive the “how.” Empowerment is about delegating authority to the team and getting out of the way so that they can take responsibility, make decisions, and start implementing steps to achieve the strategic objectives.
Empowering the team drives agility and speed in decision-making, both of which are critical to the success of the mission. At Amazon, teams are empowered to achieve the strategic objectives by being allowed to explore different paths to “yes.”  Team members are empowered to explore ideas inside the team, with other teams, and even seek multiple champions across the organization who will vouch for their idea. The other side of the same coin is accountability.
Accountability means each member of the team and the team as a whole is responsible for delivering on their tasks and together achieving the team goals and strategic objectives. Research shows that teams work best when the team members are accountable to each other. In the United States Army, accountability is foundational: soldiers are accountable to their sergeant and to each other.  They are expected to take ownership of their tasks and put their heart, mind, and soul into them so that they can complete the mission. To facilitate accountability, you need to ensure that the team members have a role and task clarity and all the resources and tools they will need to do their job.
The third key ingredient of winning teams is diversity across all elements, including diversity of thought, experiences, rank, gender, race, age, and background, among others. As a leader, you must foster a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in your team. The research is crystal clear that the more diverse the team, the more innovative it is and the more capable of driving results.  When people who think differently and have complementary skills, perspectives, and experiences come together, they are more capable of solving problems faster and better.
Teams that enjoy psychological safety can thrive and deliver incredible new insights. As Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson has stated in her seminal research, teams that feel psychologically safe, whereby they bring their authentic self and communicate freely, perform better.  Vital elements of psychological safety are trust and transparency. As a leader, you have a responsibility to lead by example by extending your trust to the team and communicating transparently. Trust is the glue that connects beliefs, ideas, words, and actions that are placed in the hands of another person without fear of being betrayed. Transparency is open, timely, and transparent communication among the team members.
Communication is critical and foundational in winning teams. Effective communication can help decrease project scope creep and wait times, de-escalate high-stress, high-risk environments, and improve team member morale and engagement. As a leader, you need to communicate early and often with your team members. You need to be clear, crisp, and consistent with both your written and verbal communication. This will help set an example for other team members to emulate and follow. A key to successful communication is active listening, whereby you focus on the speaker, you do not interrupt them, and you engage them by asking open-ended questions. In communication, it is essential to also pay attention to nonverbal cues and what is left unsaid by teams.
Research shows that when team members feel connected to each other, they perform better. As a leader, you can start by practicing empathy and getting to really know your team members. You can also facilitate such connections by creating opportunities for team members to explore and identify things they have in common during virtual or in-person team meetups. You can also help team members engage through team assignments and mentor pairings.
The final key element in winning teams is the sense of growth of the individual team members and the team as a whole through continuous learning. Teams that learn together stay together, and leaders that don’t continuously learn cannot lead. As a leader, you first have to set an example by embracing lifelong learning. You can then facilitate continuous learning by building a culture of learning in your team and offering learning opportunities and experiences to each team member, depending on their needs and preferences, and to the team as a whole.
One of the most effective team-building activities that I have been using is our team learning sessions, where the team learns together fast. I usually invite an external speaker to speak for 30 minutes on a critical topic and allow the remaining 30 minutes for questions and answers. This is an effective way for the team to learn together and from each other. You can also offer feedback to your team members, find out their aspirations, and help them chart a path of learning and growth.
Building winning teams requires that you foster and cultivate 7 characteristics of winning teams: empowerment, accountability, diversity, emotional safety, communication, connection, and continuous learning. Building teams that deliver results is an art and science. As a leader, you can start with these critical elements to build the foundations of your winning team.