Yesterday morning I watched Germany’s national soccer team surprisingly exit the 2018 FIFA World Cup finishing last in their designated group. I am certain most of their fans remain in shock. Man for man they possessed as much raw talent as any of their competitors but they could not muster more than a lackluster performance in any of their three games. How could this happen to the reigning world champions of soccer will certainly be asked by many German loyalists? Well, it just does and often. Four of the last five reigning World Cup champions did not make it out of the following Cup’s Group round and the other lost in the quarterfinals.
Achieving top-notch performance from those individuals entrusted to their management skills and from the teams they generally constitute is every good manager’s goal. But achieving it is not a science. While management skill matters, there is also a degree of art, alchemy, luck, intuition, and human nature involved. There is only so much a good manager can do, knowing blame for disappointment will rest heaviest on their shoulders. The best managers, however, work to increase the odds of success by paying close attention to two major elements underlying individual and collective success: talent and its assignment and team environment.
In their best-selling book, First Break All The Rules, authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman describe four key habits generally shared by the best managers. They: select for talent, not credentials; define the desired outcomes, not methods; focus on strengths, forgetting what isn’t there; and find the right assignment fit for the talent they have (see chapters 3-6).
Hard to argue about any of these practices but getting them right is hard. Really knowing in-depth the human beings with whom you will work, understanding what makes each of them tick, being able to touch the right motivational nerve of each individual is a time-consuming, non-perfectible challenge. What you thought you knew a few months ago may be out of date today and it seems you need to start your assessment all over again.
But let’s say we have the talent assessment and assignment part about right for a group of individuals and now let’s put them in a team environment and demand they work together as a high performing single unit.
In his book Smarter, Faster, Better author Charles Duhigg describes a set of norms that Google believes are the keys to effective teamwork. Teams and their members need to believe their work is important, he writes, they need to feel their work is personally meaningful, they need clear goals and defined roles, they need to know they can depend on one another, but most importantly, team members need a sense of psychological safety in each other’s presence. PP. 65-66)
Once again, all of these norms make sense but they simply do not happen automatically or because a manager explains these things to a team and then tells them to go “make it so”. Even when great team chemistry, interconnectedness, and selfless contribution to the whole does happen on occasion, it may not recreate itself the next time. A manager holds the primary responsibility for creating a working environment where great team performance is possible but the ingredients of great team chemistry are complex, fragile, susceptible to the vagaries of human nature, and beyond complete human control.
The best any manager can do is constantly and honestly assess their own performance in each of these critical areas and make whatever adjustments necessary. This involves less concern about being right than getting it right. It often involves acknowledging something as your mistake and correcting it. It requires both learning from the reality you observe and listening to others who may see things more objectively and clearly than our subjective selves.
There are no guarantees when it comes to the challenges of matching talent to a task. But consistent evaluation of the core elements of success in collective efforts is certainly worth the effort and thankfully does pay great individual and team performance dividends from time to time.