I hope that most of you had a chance to take some time off to recover over the summer. September, when we are feeling more rested and energized, offers a good opportunity to rethink how we work – and particularly how we can leverage the teams we work in to increase everyone’s productivity and happiness.
It is generally believed that opposites attract; however, the inverse is true when it comes to entrepreneurial business partners. At the outset of a new venture, initial differences in working styles, thinking processes and ideas can be difficult to overcome, often leading to failure. However, in order to grow and succeed in the medium and long term, the top team – and indeed every team below it – must be composed of individuals with complementary strengths.
Complementary skills in teams, when combined, become more useful than individual skills in accomplishing objectives due to coordinated efforts of individual team members. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, has reaped the benefits of this approach more than most. Early on, he understood that his strengths were in defining a vision for the organization and that to realize such vision he would need a partner who could complement him. He found her in Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, who brought rigor and discipline into the execution of Mark’s vision to the business. One could argue that the complementary partnership of imagination and execution has been at the heart of Facebook’s success. Similarly, other examples of successful business partners were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Anita and Gordon Roddick, and Bill Gates and Paul Allen. All of which shared the same commitment, complementary strengths, and mutual trust and respect for each other.
The strengths-based approach prioritizes the specialization of abilities over the broadening of skills. Interdependent team members depend on the cooperative use of complementary skills to achieve objectives. The premise of strengths-based teams is that the most effective method for motivating people is to build on their strengths rather than correcting their weaknesses. People don’t change easily, and the effort to improve their weaknesses is substantially more, for minimal return. One of my favorite quotes by Marcus Buckingham, a prominent figure in the strengths movement, says: “Our people are our greatest asset. Correction – your people’s talents are your greatest asset, or more precisely, aligning our people’s talents to their tasks so that they play to their strengths the majority of each day is our greatest asset.”
It is through allowing the abilities and skills of all team members to be put into practice that the true potential of a team is unleashed. Organizations have the opportunity to harness the diversity of thought, skills and abilities of their employees by organizing them in purpose-led, project-specific, and complementary teams. As Clifton and Buckingham write in Now, Discover Your Strengths “When we studied them, excellent performers were rarely well rounded. On the contrary, they were sharp”.
General Stanley McChrystal describes in his book, Team of Teams, how the US military’s hierarchical command and control structure reduced operational success during the war in Iraq. He instead proposed a new structure that enabled officers to quickly move from their administrative positions to mission-oriented projects for a set purpose. This structure was built on several fundamental principles; however, I will only focus on the two most relevant ones for us: a) Team members should be complementary and mission-focused, led by team leaders who are experts in their domain; b) Employees must be encouraged to move from team to team as needed, focusing on their strengths rather than on their official job descriptions.
Bill Gross, founder of IdealLab, offers us an interesting rule of thumb when it comes to building teams. He defines team complementary skills in terms of four personality types – entrepreneur, producer, administrator and integrator. For example, in practice, the plant manager effectively manages the production line, the entrepreneur provides the company vision, the administrator implements processes, procedures and controls that ensure the company runs properly and the integrator is the people person who takes on the intermediary role for the team.
Diverse and complementary teams can bring multiple benefits to organizations. For instance, diversity of thought can help companies make better decisions as information is processed in different ways, resulting in different analyses and insights than it would happen in homogeneous groups. Furthermore, different perspectives and lenses often yield more significant and comprehensive insights. Finally, teams provide an opportunity for managers to identify the thinking process, skills, abilities, and strengths of each team member. This becomes increasingly relevant in a business environment where organizations can purposefully align individuals based on the before-mentioned characteristics rather than on rigid job roles, making them sharper.