May 2014

Being A Team Player

By Jay Vogt

Being a team player is a great quality to bring to work. You become a better team player by understanding how teams work and how to bring out the best in your teammates.

Teams Defined
Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith defined teams succinctly in their classic book, The Wisdom of Teams, saying, “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

Katzenbach and Smith found that the best teams are small (think five to 10) and are staffed by people with a mix of skills and disciplines with each individual uniquely contributing to the success of the team as a whole. With this in mind, when asked to be a member of a small team, remember that your contribution really matters. Always bring your “A game.” It is also important to take time to understand what your teammates can contribute.

Team Charge
When you join a team, the first question you should ask is, “What’s our charge?” A team’s charge lays out its purpose and performance goals. If these aren’t clear, you can make them clear. Ask “What is our assignment?” and “What does success look like?”

Most managers know that these are critical questions to answer at the start of a team’s work life, rather than at its middle or end. However, many managers are so busy that they neglect to pause and give them much thought. So, you may have to take the lead in seeking clarity on your charge.

You can also ask:

  • How much time does our team have?
  • What budget, information, and administrative assistance does our team have?
  • What parameters bound the work of the team?

Team Sponsorship
Teams need executive help in getting access to resources or other assistance.

It is helpful to know who, at the highest level, is sponsoring your team. The sponsor’s support and approval is also required from time to time when work is underway. To better understand the executive sponsor’s involvement and motives, you might ask:

  • What tools or techniques should be used to meet the sponsor’s goals?
  • Are there other corporate considerations the team should know that might impact their work or upon which their work depends?

Team Approach
The Katzenbach and Smith assertion that effective teams share a “common … approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” reveals something of the magic that can emerge from great teams. Teams may be given their purpose and goals by their managers but, once they accept them, the team’s work process to achieve them is largely up to its members. They are usually free to adopt an approach that works best for the team’s leader and members. It is true that the team is ultimately accountable to their executive sponsor but, first and foremost, they feel accountable to each other.

A team’s common approach may include a shared understanding of how change happens in the organization, how to analyze and solve problems, how to work well together in meetings, how to deal with conflict or how to communicate and share information. Helping a team articulate and adopt its shared approach helps it become more productive more quickly.

Team Success
A team’s strong start is the seed that yields the final fruit of its success. Invest time up front in any team you join to clarify purpose and performance goals. Know what your executive sponsor wants and how he or she wants to be involved. Understand what each team member offers, know your own role, and be sure you always give your best. Help the team settle into a shared approach that ensures its work makes a satisfying, productive contribution to the organization.

Jay W. Vogt is an organizational development consultant, and author of Recharge Your Team – The Grounded Visioning Approach. Learn more at