What makes a great team?

23.05.2019

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The ideas person… the communicator… the detail-oriented… the contrarian… the results-driven… the empathetic… When it comes to putting a winning team together, OIG Head of Audit Tracy Staines asks – what works?

The end of 2018 was intense. We had a lot of audits to finish, we needed to prepare for our new audits in 2019, but above all we were swamped with a strategic piece of advisory work.

For those not familiar with advisories, these are not audits, but rather requests from senior management to help shed light on a particularly important issue. In summer 2018, we were asked by Peter, the Global Fund’s new Executive Director, to analyse the bottlenecks and challenges in Western and Central Africa, a crucially important region in the fight against AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

This piece of work needed lots of different skills: savvy development knowledge, country experience, data analytics, writing, etc. Conscious that we needed a vast range of different skills to get this right, it got me thinking: what is the ideal team?

We humans tend to appreciate people who we have a lot in common with – results-driven people generally get on with other results-driven people, empathetic people tend to be allergic to people who are not. I’m the first to admit that I can definitely gravitate towards like-minded people: one of my biggest realisations when I took over as Head of Audit in 2015 was that my individual, and our collective, success depended on us learning to appreciate people who were different from us. This is easier said than done. It requires the reversal of muscle memory –since my days in the Big Four, it had been ingrained in me that Alpha people rise to the top quicker than shrinking violets, and technical skills could only take you so far

I entered into our Advisory review with an intention to put together a team with multiple and complimentary skills; I came out of it with a real appreciation of the tangible benefits that come from appreciating the skills of others. And I have made a conscious decision to consider the following three aspects, each time we embark on a similar engagement:

– Every team needs a contrarian – when you’re up against a blind spot, I was incredibly grateful for those people in the team who were willing to voice their discontent with our approach, or with our conclusions. This premise works in most situations. My boss, the Inspector General, actually insists on this quality in his direct reports and I have not once been penalised for voicing a concern or providing my point of view. I don’t always win, of course, but it means I always feel heard. Hopefully, so do my team.

– One and one can equal three – for example, combining someone with excellent data skills with someone who is very eloquent can produce something greater than the sum of their parts. This hit home when I realised ‘odd’ skill combinations working together were producing some fantastic results. It also really helps to take people out of their comfort zones without forcing them into doing something that is not their biggest strength. People learn best when they are challenged constructively.

– People don’t live in their boxes – someone who is better at conceptual thinking than dealing with detail is not necessarily bad at detail, so we shouldn’t write them off in this area. Colleagues surprise me every day by exhibiting a talent for something I had ignorantly assumed they would struggle with. This was a real eye-opener for me. Like 99% of managers I suspect, I can fall into a trap of categorising people into types.

So what does this mean? Diversity is the engine for great team-work. Most managers set out to build strong teams, but implementation often falls wide of the mark. There needs to be a conscious decision to put together different combinations of knowledge, skills and abilities – frankly, this can make managers a little queasy, as it means taking risks. It often means relying on one person to bring a particular skill, rather than choosing a whole team with the same skill. Working at the Global Fund, where our staff comes from over 100 countries, has shown me the benefit of doing this –I am always left astonished by the awesomeness of what they can produce.