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Building a Team

by Mark Hennes | Sep 18, 2017

Quote of Note
"Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work"
- Vince Lombardi, Football Coach

In my 26 years in the Army, I held 18 different jobs.  Although I enjoyed the highs and lows of every one of them, there was no tougher circumstance than taking over a job because my predecessor had been fired.  One of the two times this happened to me, it was because my predecessor failed to ensure that the organization was ready for an inspection.  This was no ordinary inspection to fail: it was to certify the unit’s ability to transport and employ nuclear weapons.  This is a critical task for an Army unit, so the news of the failure went up the chain of command pretty quickly, and the consequences came back down nearly as quickly.  At noon on a Friday the then-boss was fired and few minutes later I was notified of my new job. 

You can imagine the stunned and demoralized team that greeted me the following Monday morning.  Without going into too much detail, the procedures surrounding nuclear weapons are very exacting, and the people who execute them are specifically selected and specially trained.  So, the team’s failure was highly unusual and very problematic. 

I began by introducing myself and then went around the room asking each person to introduce himself and to give one reason why the team had failed.  To my surprise, the one thing that they didn’t mention was a lack of training.  In varying ways, they each said that they knew the procedures, but what they lacked was confidence --- in themselves and in each other.  You see, in this type of unit, everyone was cross-trained and everyone, regardless of rank or position, has the authority to question (or pause) the procedure that is being performed in order to ensure that the procedure was being done properly and safely. 

I had 90 days to get ready for the re-inspection, and the team building (or re-building) began with me.  I had never served in this type of unit before, so I hit the books and got in some extra practice under the watchful eye of the most experienced person on the team.  I then started participating in the team drills, rotating in to perform the tasks of each of the positions.  When I did this, I explicitly invited the replaced team member to critique my performance.  This gave them confidence that I was becoming proficient in my skills and knowledge, but more importantly, that I had confidence in them to correct me.

As the team started to gel and seem more confident, I began to introduce unannounced “problems” for them to overcome.  I started to remove one or two people prior to a drill, so that each person had to perform one or two levels up.  I surreptitiously removed a critical tool or a particular supply, so that they had to develop “work-around” procedures on the fly.  I even brought them in after work one evening to share some pizza and discuss the team’s progress.  Afterwards, I turned off the lights and we conducted the procedures by flashlight.    

I was confident of our progress but I wanted to be sure, so I invited one of the inspectors to give us an unofficial, pre-inspection.  He knew where the team had been and knew the stakes involved in failing a second time, so he didn’t hold back.  As we ran through our various drills, he threw in every wrinkle and mishap that he could think of, even substituting a pair of broken pliers that he brought with him just to keep things interesting. 

At the conclusion of our 3 hour inspection, he told us to put our equipment away while he checked his notes.  He had comments and recommendations for every team member (of course!), but as he shook my hand to leave he announced loudly enough for all to hear that he had every confidence that we would pass our re-inspection.  Sure enough, a few weeks later at our official, 90 day re-inspection, we passed with a “No Faults, No Deficiencies” rating --- the highest possible!

As an EdLeader, I doubt that you’re performing nuclear weapon procedures in your library.  But you might be working on improving your math scores.  Or you’re working on integrating the 4 C’s in your classrooms.  Or you’re going 1:1 to support personalized learning.  Regardless of the task, you’ve got a team to help you make it happen, and building an effective, high performing team is an essential part of your success. 

Begin by ensuring that all team members are of the same mindset and have bought in to the vision.  Brainstorm with the team the future learning environment you want to create.    Then, develop the intermediate goals and milestones that will benchmark your progress.  Change is hard, so be upfront about the challenges the team will face and the sacrifices they’ll need to make.  Acknowledge these hardships, but commit to using your power and position to lessen the burden as best you can. 

Show the team that you’re invested in and supportive of their efforts.  Communicate that support directly to the team and publicly to the district and community. 

You don’t have to be at every meeting or handle all the tough tasks by yourself, either.  Share the workload, but be sure to empower and resource the team members to be successful at their individual tasks.

Bring in the experts if needed.  Has a neighboring district implemented this initiative already?  Perhaps they have someone who can offer advice or the team can go visit a school to see it in action.  Perhaps there is a community expert or someone from a local university with relevant knowledge.  Go find them and take advantage of their expertise. 

Get ‘em focused. Get a plan of action. Get ready to be successful!



Get It Done

  • Whether you solicit volunteers or task for participation, get the right people right, first.
  • Craft a common vision and a plan to achieve it.
  • Share the workload and resource the team members for success.
  • Check for skill and knowledge gaps.
  • Stagnating? Try some design thinking or bring in some experts to help with fresh idea.

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