Can people management skills be taught?


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Many of you reading this will have been taught how to become a better leader or manager. Coaching of individuals in this way is commonplace, yet coaching senior teams to become more effective is less so. This is a paradox, since organisations are facing increasingly numerous and complicated challenges which require answers well beyond the power and capability of any one individual to provide. The need to harness the power of effective teamwork to drive business performance has therefore never been greater.

Sadly, many senior teams operating ineffectively – although aware of some of their limitations – are unaware of what the real opportunity is that exists. Awareness is of course a pre-requisite to understanding how to put things right. Without it, there can be no surprise that so many teams operate to a low standard. We can all think of examples of team effectiveness – the top sports team in which individuals sacrifice personal glory for the sake of silverware – but we find it harder to translate these notions of what good looks like back to our own teams at work.

In today's business environment, however, it is essential that we try. After all, it has been highly effective teamwork, rather than an individual moment of genius, that has led us in recent years to enjoy breakthrough inventions such as Google and the Apple range of iMacs, iPods and iPhones. Awareness must begin with a frank and open admission, from the leader downwards, that he or she may not actually know fully what a good team really looks and feels like. Teams need to admit their current limitations in order to progress to a higher level of effectiveness.

Once this admission has been made, a central step to any effective team lies in the attitude or mindset of its individuals. Many of us consider ourselves to be 'good team players'. We are undoubtedly well-intentioned, yet mentally we may arrive at a meeting as individuals (ie as the director of a department) and work on the basis of trying to ensure the best for our area. Team members need to ask themselves (and each other) whether they are truly putting the collective purpose of the team ahead of their narrower territorial interests.

Truly effective teams are not – and never have been – simply about individuals getting on with each other

When it has been recognised that a team is not working as effectively as it could be, many leaders move to overcome this hurdle through developing good 'relationships' within the team. Teams that don't work well together may resort to an expensive team awayday or even an attempt to 'bond' down at the pub. However, truly effective teams are not – and never have been – simply about individuals getting on with each other. Good chemistry certainly helps, but is only a small part of a much bigger picture.

The rock upon which true team effectiveness is built is to understand and buy into the collective endeavour of that team – why is the team there in the first place, as opposed to a group of individuals? And what is it that it can only achieve as a team? Whether the purpose is to double the size of the business or create culture change, the team's core purpose must come ahead of individual or departmental interests in order to get the job done.

There are of course many other challenges to overcome in operating an effective team – the clarity with which team goals are pursued, the appropriate composition of the team, the way its members talk to each other, the yardsticks by which they assess themselves and the connections they have with stakeholders, to name but a few. Yet only when teams take the first steps in becoming more aware of current limitations, adopting collective rather than individual attitudes and developing a commonsense purpose of what the team is there to do, can they tackle these latter challenges with a genuine sense of confidence.

Elke Anderson is director of executive coaching at performance-improvement company Blue Sky Performance Improvement

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