How to Build a Team

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Management


Every organization goes through developmental stages. It can be frustrating if you’re in a hurry, but you have to help your team walk before it can run. If you have deeply entrenched silos, personality conflicts, low morale, or inattention to quality or deadlines, the good news is it can be fixed. The bad news is, you eat the elephant one bite at a time.

This article provides step-by-step guidelines for building your team – or rebuilding one that’s gone awry. Begin at the beginning, and when you get to the end you’ll have a powerful, highly productive organization, deeply committed to delivering on their shared vision and goals.

Build trust. Everything depends upon establishing a safe platform for discussing needs and how to meet them. This is easier to do in a new team than in one that has descended into dysfunction, but the principles are the same. Help your team members know one another, warts and all. Some will be reluctant to show vulnerability and have to be drawn out gradually. If your team is virtual, create an opportunity for them to meet face to face if at all possible. Take advantage of virtual meeting technology. However you do it, meet weekly.

During team meetings, spend a little focus time on one team member. In a new team you might explore one another’s background, expertise, and team responsibilities, as well as outside interests and family. Also spend some time discussing as a group how each person experiences and shows stress, what they do to take care of themselves, and how team members can help. Later meetings can incorporate an in-depth mastermind review of their work in progress, brainstorming together on how to solve problems and share resources.

As the leader, you must go first. They know you aren’t perfect. Get it on the table. Help them understand your leadership style including both strengths and blind spots. How will you champion, align, and develop them? How will you know they’ve got your back?

Foster constructive conflict. The last thing you need are team members who pretend to agree with you or with each other, and then covertly tear down supposed agreements. Bring those backbiting water cooler conversations out into the open.

A healthy team operates in the creative tension between opposing points of view and differing natural styles. Harness this! Seek out a range of opinions and courses of action before making decisions. Help your team understand the benefits of having different natural styles represented. Risk takers and legacy builders balance one another’s vulnerabilities, as do standardizers and innovators, task driven and vision driven colleagues, and those who drive individual ownership vs. those who drive collaboration.

Create rules of engagement as a team for how to tackle problems without attacking the person. When there are personality conflicts or turf wars, insist that they be resolved. Help team members develop the business case for working well together, and mediate if necessary. If all else fails, be prepared to replace one or more combatants. A single weak link seriously hampers your team’s performance.

As the leader, identify and cultivate your own “loyal opposition.” Who notices what you overlook, has a different appetite for risk, or a different problem solving style? Set an example for the rest of the team by inviting, valuing, and incorporating that contrasting input.

Establish buy-in to shared commitments. Many leaders try to start teambuilding here. Without the previous two levels as a foundation, your team is doomed to fail. If you want to know how to build a successful team, start there. The vast majority of people are willing to play team as long as they have an opportunity to ask questions, offer honest opinions, and express concerns. Shared commitments and genuine team performance rest upon trust and vigorous, respectful debate.

Beyond that, your job is to create a road map and ensure each person clearly understands how they fit into the bigger picture. Each team member’s natural style and key currencies are likely different, from one another and from yours. Make sure you connect with what motivates them, as a group and individually, to secure their buy-in.

Press for clarity and closure, a public verbal or written statement from each person about their path forward in the service of team goals. Also acknowledge that, while the team has a plan, the plan is likely to change. Have a mechanism for addressing mid-course corrections so the team remains aligned in their mandate and action plan.

Create accountability. While you are the most important enforcer, you shouldn’t be the only one. Establish group protocols for how to enforce group agreements, and how to renegotiate deadlines, deliverables, and distribution of resources when necessary.

Create an online team dashboard posting all active projects, with major benchmarks defined and status updated daily. Cultivate the habit of checking in with each report about their plans for the day, whether walking the halls or through a shared instant messenger tool. Use the weekly team meetings to create further accountability. Each person reports on project status against the previous week’s commitments, and states goals for the coming week.

As the group leader, be prepared to have the tough conversations in a constructive way when a team member is clearly in over their head, or appears not to be pulling their weight. However, keep in mind that – unless you want someone to leave – you should praise publicly, critique and coach privately.

Focus on collective results. Inevitably in pursuing the good of the team, someone’s turf will be threatened. Especially among senior teams, people have often gotten where they are by fiercely expanding and defending their territory. Be alert to personal agendas that undermine a colleague or impede the group’s efforts, and be prepared to call it out. Those who can’t find win/win solutions for serving the greater corporate good don’t belong on your team.

Make sure you reward collaborative success as well as exceptional individual performance. Give your team feedback on how your own efforts and theirs support the collective success of the leadership team at your level, your boss’s, and the company as a whole.

These stages of team performance are processes, not events. Like spinning plates on the top of a pole, just as you finish sending the last one aloft the first one will need renewed attention. However, as you perfect the foundational stages, the higher levels of team success become possible. Without the foundation, they are unattainable.

To learn more about how to build a team, read Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. For practical insights into your own team’s needs and best practices to lead them most effectively, check in with me to see how I can help.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.
Managing Partner
The Cogent Executive LLC

Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.How to Build a Team