Building an Unstoppable Team

Last week, I went out to the factory floor to see how we were doing building a critical order for a new customer. From a distance, I didn’t recognize the person packing the units at the end of the line. When I realized who it was, I had to laugh. It was our head of sales. He had jumped in to help get the order out in 24 hours as we had promised. I laughed because I knew there was no way our competition could ever match this level of commitment.

Have you ever noticed that there are some teams who just know how to win? Companies that outpace their rivals, sports teams that dominate their competition or military units that seem to do the impossible. There is something special about these teams that make them unstoppable.

As leaders, our job is to build and lead our teams. Leading teams is one thing but how do you build a team? How do you form a group of employees that will be resilient, persistent and consistently effective? What makes a team unstoppable?

Let me suggest that there are 4 important things to consider when building a high performing team.

Select individuals who have complementary skill sets. This is especially important for small teams. Everyone should have a specific expertise that is required to accomplish the team’s objective. Take, for example, Navy Seals. In each team, there are specialists like medics, snipers, breachers, jumpmasters, dive masters or language experts. Even though there are some overlapping skills, the experts are relied on by the team for success in specific areas of the mission. Look at the team you are assembling. Do they have complementary skill sets? Do they have the combined skills to complete the objective?

Select individuals who have achieved a high level of competency. As a former Naval Officer who served on nuclear submarines, I appreciate the brilliance of the Navy’s qualification program. To be promoted or to assume certain duties, you had to go through a rigorous qualification process. This meant everyone you served with had achieved a high level of competency. This established mutual respect across the team and built a high level of trust. You knew your teammate had the skills to watch your back. To build a great team, you should carefully consider the competency of each team member.

Select individuals who have proved themselves under adversity. As I wrote in the article, The One Trait your CEO Wants You to Have, persistent people are extremely valuable to the success of any team. Look for those special employees who can step up and deliver results regardless of the adverse circumstances. Look for people who don’t quit and have a proven history of perseverance. Look for the engineer who worked two jobs and went to night school for six years to graduate, the veteran who served two combat tours or the plant manager who worked their way up from the shop floor. These are the people who are going to make a difference when things get tough.

Select individuals who are unselfish and have a “mission first” mindset. The success of unstoppable teams resides in the singular focus on the mission. “Mission first” employees understand the objective takes priority over individual goals or career aspirations. Like our sales manager jumping in to help manufacturing, these employees will do whatever it takes to complete the mission. This mindset creates a culture where individuals hold each other mutually accountable to the team’s goal. There’s little room for office politics and egos when the priority is winning.

The objective of leadership is to direct a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.  The most important part of that objective is choosing the right people who will make up the team. Selecting employees with the right characteristics, experience and mindset can make the job of winning easier. Unstoppable teams are uncommon because building a great team isn’t easy. You need to find the right people with complementary skills sets who have achieved a high level of competency. Look for individuals who have proven themselves under adversity and can adopt a “mission first” mindset. Putting these people together and leading them well is the key to lasting success.

What can a Christmas Movie about an Elf Teach us about Leadership?

Full confession. I once dressed up as Buddy the Elf and delivered candy canes to all my employees. That’s how much I love the movie Elf. I actually have a Buddy the Elf coffee mug that I use at work every year from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

I’m not the only one who loves this movie either. In the 14 years since its release, Elf has become a classic “must watch” holiday movie. Most people can quote at least one line from this hilarious Christmas comedy.

As I watched Elf again this year, I realize there were many powerful leadership messages in the story. Here’s some that I noticed:

Sometimes people just don’t fit in. Buddy the Elf was a human raised by elves. As such, he didn’t really fit into either world. As a leader, there are times when we have great employees who just don’t fit into an assignment or a department. We need to identify these people and put them in roles where they are a better fit.

Employees need to discover things on their own. Buddy the Elf learned his birth father, who he had never met, was on the “naughty list.” He went on a quest to find him to learn more about himself. Often times, employees need to do the same thing. They need to try new activities and be given stretch assignments to learn what they love. As leaders, we need to give people the freedom to discover what their true passions are.

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” George S. Patton

People will always amaze you. When Buddy the Elf decides to decorate the toy department at Gimbels for Santa’s visit, everyone is shocked at his abilities. People will amaze you as well. Give them the chance to show you what they can do. As George Patton said, let them surprise you with their results.

“I just like to smile; smiling’s my favorite.” Buddy the Elf

Just smile. An employee once told me, I was her favorite boss. When I asked why, she explained that I always said, “thank you” and I smiled a lot. As a leader, we set the tone. If we’re upbeat and happy, our employees will sense that. Even when you’re having a rough day, remember to smile.

Don’t pick a snowball fight with someone from the North Pole. Buddy the Elf befriends his half-brother when he shows off his unusual talents in a snowball fight. As a business leader, we need to recognize when to fight and when to back down. Not every fight needs to be won. Pick your battles, whether it’s with employees, co-workers, or even customers. Always remember that discretion is often the better part of valor.

“I’m sorry I ruined your lives and crammed 11 cookies into the VCR.” Buddy the Elf

Sometimes we need to apologize.  When things didn’t initially work out with Buddy’s new-found family, he leaves an apology letter. Apologizing is often the hardest but most important thing we do as leaders. If we make a mistake, admit it and apologize. People know it’s hard to admit when you are wrong or hurt someone which makes a sincere apology even more powerful.

“You stink. You smell like beef and cheese! You don’t smell like Santa.” Buddy the Elf

Employees can spot a fake. Buddy the Elf quickly spotted the fake Santa and our employees will spot fakes as well. If you are not being genuine, authentic, and truthful, your employees will know. They can tell when you are not being real with them. Don’t think you can fake it around your team.

You need people to believe in your vision to bring it to life. Buddy the Elf knew people had to believe in Santa to make the reindeer fly. It’s the same thing with our visions. To bring our plans to life, we need people to understand and believe in them. Do your employees understand your vision? Do they believe in it? If not, it’s never going to get off the ground.

Christmas season is a great time to gather and watch our favorite holiday movies. As you sit through Elf this year, think about the leadership messages. Look for those employees who are not fitting in, find ways to let employees discover things on their own, give your people room to amaze you, find time to smile, choose your battles carefully, apologize, be authentic, and give your people something to believe in. If we do these things, we will be more successful as leaders and, maybe, be as happy as Buddy the Elf himself.

The One Trait That Makes Veterans Invaluable Employees

Why do some people succeed while others give up? What is it that allows certain individuals to endure the toughest challenges without wavering? Is it education, training, upbringing, connections, social status, or money? The answer may surprise you.

In one of the most significant business books that has been written in the past ten years, Angela Duckworth uncovers the secret to long-term success. She set out to learn why some cadets at West Point made it through Beast Barracks while others gave up. The Army wanted to know what the leading indicator of success was of this difficult challenge. She discovered that high achievement wasn’t predicted by SAT scores, GPA, athletics, race, gender, or social status. The most important trait was “grit.”

In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth reveals that grit, which is defined as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals,” is the secret to success.  It is the one determining factor as to why some people endure the toughest trials and others drop out. It’s the same thing I wrote about in The One Trait Your CEO Wants You to Have. Only those with persistence, passion, and perseverance will be successful when things get tough.

“Military veterans make outstanding employees because they possess numerous traits like loyalty, dependability, adaptability, integrity, and discipline that are desperately needed in the workplace.”

This is what makes veterans so invaluable in the workforce. I’ve written about the importance of hiring veterans in an article called, The Best Way to Thank a Veteran this Veteran’s Day. In that article, I explained that military veterans make outstanding employees because they possess numerous traits like loyalty, dependability, adaptability, integrity, and discipline that are desperately needed in the workplace. Their extensive training, leadership experiences, mission-focus, and team-orientation allow them to add immediate impact to any organization.

They persevere through the toughest trials because they are passionate about their country, their family, their unit, and the men and women serving with them.

What’s even more important is that veterans have grit. The military provides unique, high-stress experiences where soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen must endure significant hardships and still perform at a high level. Whether repairing a vehicle under fire, landing a damaged aircraft, or bringing a submarine to periscope depth in rough seas, veterans are trained to excel in the toughest situations. They persevere through the toughest trials because they are passionate about their country, their family, their unit, and the men and women serving with them.

Military veterans bring unique attributes, skills, and experiences that will enhance any organization. They are loyal, dependable, hard-working employees who know how to lead, how to follow, and can get things done. But the most important trait they have is grit. When things get tough, they persevere.