Slam Dunk Tips for a Productive Team



As we enter the final rounds of this year’s college basketball season, there’s much business leaders can learn from coaches about building collaborative and motivated teams .

”Upsets” happen every day in the sports world; however, it is rare for a team to accomplish something truly unprecedented. Yet, never before had a 16-seed beaten a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament – at least, not until 2018, when the unknown, unheralded UMBC Retrievers took down top-ranked Virginia in one of the most historic upsets in sports history.

How did their team defy the odds? If you take their word for it, it came down to one thing: teamwork. “We just believed in each other, man,” said UMBC guard Jarius Lyles after the win. “That’s what we came in with—the mindset of believing in each other and competing, and that’s what we did. We got the W.”

Building a successful team in the workplace brings with it many of the same challenges as building a successful college basketball program: team turnover, varying personalities, and an array of distractions. The most successful coaches navigate these challenges to keep their team performing at their best.

As we enter the final rounds of this year’s college basketball season, there’s much we can learn from coaches about building collaborative and motivated teams that just might be good enough to cut down the nets. But how do you build and lead a team that is set-up for success at work?

Don’t judge on first appearances

When building a team, we often make incorrect assumptions about individuals based on their roles, their demographics, or their behaviors. A classic mistake, for example, is assuming that the most outspoken employees have the best ideas and are the most motivated. Whereas employees who hesitate to speak are disengaged or have nothing to say.

While these behaviors do indicate key differences between individuals, the negative conclusions drawn are often neither accurate nor helpful for a team. This example shows a manifestation of extroversion and introversion differences in working style, each bringing their own strengths and challenges.

As a team-builder it’s important to not only bring in the loud voices, but to draw out the softer ones as well. Because true success typically comes from a complementary balance of different strengths, which pulls the best from the entire team. An employee whose strengths aren’t recognized and appreciated can feel like the underdog. But just like the underdogs, every employee can excel when their talents are cultivated in the right way.

Don’t become too homogenous

In basketball and in the boardroom, leaders are commonly encouraged to build teams of people who feel like they “fit” with the culture of existing teams – but this can be misleading. If we consistently choose people with the same or similar skills, we risk narrowing the possibilities. In truth, great teams are built on a diversity of talent, which in turn, broadens team skillset.

Try to ask yourself how much heterogeneity you have in your group.  Where are your current strengths and weaknesses?  Where might you lack perspectives?  Which skills do you lack or have in overabundance?  Where might a new member add value?

If teams become too homogenous, they can become less effective. When a single perspective is over-represented, it can dictate the direction of travel without being subject to multi-dimensional scrutiny. It helps to build working style diversity into a new team from the outset, but if you don’t have that luxury don’t fear.  Look for ways to harness the diversity you do have – giving voice to underrepresented types, creating environments that work for different styles – and then keep your eyes open for ways to bring in broader perspectives over time.

Give people what they need

In order to get the best out of your team, you should recognize that different people will need different things to thrive.  Whether it’s the way you structure meetings, set incentives, approach projects, give recognition, or design working space, you should ensure that people have the “bare minimums” they need around those things in order to bring the best of themselves.

When learning more about favored working practices, be sure to lay down options and not just requirements. This way team members have what they need to play to their strengths and deliver what you need.

Share your own weaknesses

Identifying and acknowledging personal strengths and weaknesses can help you be a better leader, because it allows you to be strategic about where you can lean in and where you might need help. Perhaps you are inspiring and creative but struggle with organizing your staff. Or you are a great strategic planner but find yourself unable to respond to last minute changes.

Rather than trying to conceal or deny your limitations, wouldn’t it make more sense to acknowledge them and build a team that supports you accordingly? By addressing the gaps in your own capabilities, you can plug those gaps with the skills of others, in a way that can result in a robust, holistically responsive unit.   

Before UMBC beat Virginia in 2018, 16-seeds were 0-for-135 in the NCAA Tournament. But that team didn’t ignore their team’s flaws – they embraced them and overcame them. And under the right leadership, your teams can do the same.

Kimberly Christfort Kim heads Deloitte’s Leadership Center for Clients Group (LCC), which helps executives tackle tough business challenges through experiential engagement. Kim works with business leaders and their teams to uncover cognitive and behavioral barriers to performance, and designs experiences to get them to breakthrough. Follow her on Twitter @christfort.

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