How Do You Build a Winning Team?


/ 2014-01-14

Like most of you, I work in the corporate world. I’ve been around long enough to be part of good teams and bad teams. I have also had the opportunity to build teams. Building a team is challenging and a lot of hard work. Being on a bad team is a stressful nightmare. Building a bad team is, well, a long story. If you did it once, you’re probably no longer with that company. With most companies, you are either a player or you are a coach (boss). If you’re self-employed that can be the most challenging—because you’re both.

I am also a big football fan. High school, college, professional, fantasy—I like all of it. I never played on the field myself but I love watching a great game at any level. As the season winds down at this time of year, I always get a little sad that it will be eight months before I get to watch my favorite teams again.

Starting in the late 1970’s and continuing throughout the decade of the 1980’s, one of my favorite football coaches was Bill Walsh. A brilliant strategist, Coach Walsh brought management-like planning to the San Francisco 49ers when he took over the reins in 1979. He focused on little details that most coaches of the time ignored or didn’t even consider. Years later Coach Walsh was interviewed for an article that was later published in Harvard Business Review in 1993. It’s always been a favorite article and I want to summarize what I think are key points and, in particular, relate them to the “business of business intelligence” that we are all part of at this point in life.

The day of the dictator is behind us (hopefully).

Years ago, in both football and business, there was usually one dominant figure (“the coach” or “the boss”) who ran things. You did what the boss said and that was that. That person told you what to do and you did it—or you got fired. That structure still exists, but for the most part, those days are gone. In this day and age, working successfully together demands a different tone and environment. The team needs to work well together while at the same time making sure that each individual has intensity and skills. Whoever is “at the top” needs to create an environment where the team achieves as a team and each individual knows his strengths and skills and contributes to the teams’ objectives.

It’s interesting, in work and in sports, often the most talented people are the ones that are the most “independent.” This means the boss needs to master the arts and skills of communication. It’s not easy, but it’s important. The uniqueness of the individual is an important part of the overall team creation and ongoing commitment between the employee and the boss.

The boss needs to be a leader, not a dictator. The employees need to be smart, motivated and confident.

That’s a really stupid idea!

The “ego barrier” can be a big obstacle for the team players. If h2/negative group or individual egos exist, people are afraid to communicate. This is not good at all. When an organization or group feels like they will not be ridiculed for their ideas then breakthroughs can happen. Synergy builds. Really good ideas start to bubble to the surface. People smile. They like the team. They like coming to work.

Coach Walsh said in the interview, “I made a point of reminding our coaching staff that I expected them to change their opinions and impressions over time.” If the boss’s ego would cause him to explode if someone changes their mind or opinion, then you have a hostile environment that will result in a lack of success. Given the amount of information that comes at us every day, month and year, how could we not change our opinions and solutions over time?

This is especially interesting in the strategic business data world where we are working. That is our job definition—to improve and analyze an “information flow” that is coming towards everyone. Those who receive the information need to have an environment where the data is reviewed and analyzed, ideas shared and formed, and business decisions are made. Sometimes the information also needs a “human element” for decision making that only comes when the team is in good shape (intellectually).

There are components of ego that are good like self-confidence and good self-esteem. However, when the ego causes the person to be distracted by their own sense of self-importance, group dynamics will suffer. You will look like an egotistical, insecure buffoon. Who wants to talk to someone like that? The goals of the groups’ efforts will fade into the sunset—quickly.

You are so cool!

If you are the one building the team, you have to set the example. Sounds simple, right? If you’re new to being the boss, you’ll find out it isn’t always so easy. Here’s what makes it hard:

  • You have to have a good working knowledge of what your business is all about—not just about what the team is needing to do—but the entire corporation and its missions and goals
  • You don’t want to “bad mouth” the company or be an “us vs. them” boss—it will make you look weak and untrustworthy and might even bring you down someday
  • You have to effectively function every day, at a high level, even under stressful conditions
  • You need to balance the needs of the group with the skills and abilities of the different members of the group—all without looking like you are trying to control everyone too much or micro-manage
  • Your team needs to know you’re in command, but you respect a democratic, inclusive process and the individual voices

It’s also important to set expectations. For example, it is not unreasonable to expect an employee to become an expert in the areas you expect them to work and to do so by refining their skills continually and to be intellectually and physically up to the task.

Just like Boy Scouts, your corporate motto: “Be Prepared”

“Be prepared” might not be as famous as another Boy Scout motto, “Do a good turn daily,” but Coach Walsh followed that creed. He was famous for his preparation. People around him said no one’s game plans were even close to the level of detail that was in his game plans. He expected everyone to execute the plan to the best of their ability and to be prepared. His practices were extremely precise and structured minute-by-minute. They practiced five or six particularly skills each session when most other teams only worked on two skills.

How does this relate to our world? The skills required for successful BI, Big Data and Data Warehouse professionals is staggering. There are so many methodologies, tools, vendors, platforms to know and master. As a team, you need to establish priorities, make assignments and be sure to learn the necessary skills. In some cases you need to be the teacher of those skills. Build a plan and execute it.

Don’t waste your time with the guys at the bottom!

I want to quote Coach Walsh directly from the article on this one. His feels are quite interesting.

Take a group of ten players. The top two will be super-motivated. Superstars will usually take care of themselves. Anybody can coach them. The next four, with the right motivation and direction, will learn to perform up to their potential. The next two will be marginal. With constant attention, they will be able to accomplish something of value to the team. The last two will be a waste of time. They won’t be with you for long. Our goal is to focus our organizational detail and coaching on the middle six. They are the ones who most need and benefit from your direction, monitoring and counsel. Bill Walsh

That might sound a little brutal, but it’s probably very good boss. Not everyone has what it takes to help the team move forward. And often “cutting them” can be doing them a real favor.

So…give it to me straight up!

I would summarize the counsel of Coach Walsh in the following manner.

The Organization Should…

  • Be very knowledgeable and competent in dealing with and developing employees
  • Accept individualism as a fact and recognize the uniqueness of each employee
  • Show commitment to employees and their development
  • Recognize and be in tune with skills needed for the benefit of the team
  • Provide structure for proper team interactions and growth
  • Separate between team and employee needs
  • Provide a balance between giving explicit direction vs. permitting individual creativity
  • Build plans that include worst case contingencies

The Boss Should…

  • Control ego properly so that people can communicate without fear
  • Set standards for employee competence
  • Be able to function effectively and decisively in the most stressful situations
  • Demonstrate intelligence and resourcefulness in getting things done
  • Behave democratically and expect everyone on the team to participate in the decision-making process

The Employee Should:

  • Be able to respond quickly both mentally and physically
  • Have basic skills and abilities that include the ability to learn and retain/apply what was learned
  • Be able to work under stress individually and with other people
  • Realize the team results are more important than your own personal career goals—take care of the team and rest will follow


Being the boss of a great time is a challenge because it feels at times you are striving for two things at once that can feel in opposition to each other. You want an organization where people understand completely the importance of their jobs and are committed to working hard and taking directions within the context of the team/department/company. But you also want an organization where the employees feel creative and adaptive, are willing to change their minds, and express ideas without feeling threatened. Welcome to the ultimate management challenge.

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