Maximizing Team Performance

picture of Becky Keogh

Editor’s Note: Becky Keogh, an Associate Registrar at the University of Iowa and former National Champion and All-American collegiate softball player at the University of Michigan, has been studying Leadership at the University of Iowa. She has coached Division I college softball at the University of Michigan, Indiana University, and the University of Illinois-Chicago. Keogh has a Kinesiology (Sports Management) M.A. and Mathematics and Physics B.S.E. from the University of Michigan. She talks leadership, culture, and building trust.

Forming a team? Consider these 4 questions before you start.

Before I was an admissions counselor at the University of Iowa (and subsequently moved a block and a half down to become a member of the Office of the Registrar), I coached Division I college softball for 8 years. I spent my days training athletes and managing teams. True, working in an office environment is not exactly the same as competing on the ballfield, but a team is still a team no matter the environment.

In some sports, athletes are solely responsible for their own success while in others, athletes are completely dependent upon the performance of their teammates. The same is true for our offices. Some tasks require individuals to collaborate and share information with others, but they are only held accountable for their own work. Let’s call these work groups. They aren’t better or worse than teams. They exist to manage less complex tasks or oversee a process and their performance is measured as a function of what the members do as individuals.

Complex tasks or problems that have no obvious solution require teams to be formed. Team members are accountable for their individual progress but also the team’s success. This mutual accountability is what sets them apart from work groups. If you’re interested in learning more about the differences between work group and teams, check out Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith’s article, “The Discipline of Teams”, featured in the Harvard Business Review.

This mutual accountability does not happen overnight however. Teams need to be thoughtfully formed and managed.

Here are 4 things to consider when forming a work team:

  1. What is the purpose of the team?

Any type of team needs to have a meaningful common purpose. If the team is formed with a specific goal in mind, for example, researching and implementing a new SIS, then the team will be most successful when they are able to put their own spin on the purpose by determining how they will go about the mission. I was a member of a team dedicated to developing new tools for students to plan their academic career. The task was complex and required innovation. The executive sponsors of the project set the goals but we were able to determine how they would be achieved, helping us take ownership and further buy-in.

2. Do I have the support needed for the team?

Support can come in terms of physical resources such as a budget and meeting space, high-level administrator backing, or a commitment to reassign individuals’ daily tasks while they focus on the team. Teams also need support to know what type of authority they have and what decisions they can and can’t make. Does the group exist to recommend a solution only or to also perform the tasks required to implement the solution? For an in-depth discussion of the RAPID method of determining decision-making roles, check out Paul Rogers and Marcia Blenko’s article, “Who Has the D?: How Clear Decision Roles Enhance Organizational Performance” from the Harvard Business Review

3. How will the team define roles, responsibilities, and values?

Every team member needs to understand and have a part in defining team roles. This way, they can fulfill the duty if/when assigned to them and be held accountable by other members. Will the team have a leader and if so, what is expected of this person? Who will facilitate meetings? Who will be responsible for the minutes? When the team decides this last one, make sure “team housework” tasks like note taking and meeting scheduling are assigned evenly and not falling along gender lines.

Teams also need a set of core values. Everyone coming to the table has their own values but the team needs to spend time creating their own, especially if people are coming from different offices with different cultures. These values can range from “Open and Honest Communication” to “Be Bold”. One way all types of teams can learn what is important to them is by partaking in the “Defining Core Values” exercise included.

4. How will I evaluate my team?

One of the hardest lessons to convey as a coach was the idea that though we won the game, we did not work well together as a team and we have room for improvement. This lesson is particularly hard to transfer over to the office. We want projects done quickly since the next one is probably waiting in our inbox. However, team members should be evaluated on how they perform as individuals and as part of the team. Maybe your team’s goal is to develop a One-Stop that involves multiple student services. Though the One-Stop may open on time, it will not be as efficient or successful if one department or individual feels they had to do all of the work. This lack of a team approach may have resulted in a short-term goal of opening on time but it will not be able to sustain long term progress.

Some do not take the time and energy to answer these questions and reflect on how they will manage their team. Unfortunately, skipping these steps mean they will spend more time and energy to fix other problems down the road such as the absence of trust or lack of commitment. You may remember Gale Mote speaking at the 2018 UMACRAO convention. I had the opportunity to study under her this past semester and when her clients balk at the effort needed to manage a team, she reminds them that they can pay her now or pay her later, but they will eventually pay.

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