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The Team Myth

The five steps of successful team building.

by Gerry Sandusky
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The NFL has 32 teams, not groups. Teams. All teams are groups, but not all groups are teams. Calling a group a team doesn’t make it one. That’s the team myth. Too many business owners and executives think of “team” as a label. It’s not. A “team” is an achievement; a dynamic process that includes talent, focus, motivation and sacrifice. It has a personality, preferences, and a unique culture. 

The team myth leads businesses to think they can borrow a word or a label from sports that can replace or expedite a process. Sure, you can call the people on the second floor your marketing team. That doesn’t mean they’ll act like one. Neither will your leadership team, your operations team, or your production team until they commit to the five steps needed to form a team. 

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Step one:  Assemble a talented group of people. 

Talent matters. Every NFL head coach knows that the more talent he has on his roster the smarter he becomes. Identifying and recruiting talent is only the first step. Talent alone is never enough. Every year in the NFL, talented teams fail to make the playoffs. It works that way in your business, too. Talent is the starting point, not the finished product. Identify the talent you need. Bring that talent together. But don’t even think about calling that talent a team yet. 

Step two:  Build everything around a clearly defined goal or series of goals. 

All teams organize around specific objectives. In the NFL, every team builds around the goal of winning the Super Bowl. To do that, teams map out a series of goals, with each goal moving the team farther along in the direction of the one major goal: 

  • Win each week’s game
  • Qualify for the playoffs
  • Win their division
  • Earn a bye week to start the playoffs
  • Earn home field advantage throughout the playoffs
  • Win their conference title
  • Win the Super Bowl

On successful teams, every member knows the primary goal or goals. It is communicated thoroughly and consistently. The goal provides a direction so powerful team members know when they have drifted off course. Everything a good NFL team does—from its practice schedule to its travel itinerary to its off-season conditioning program—should push the team in the direction of increasing its chance of winning the Super Bowl. Everything. And everyone on the team should understand that singularity of focus. What is the clearly defined goal or goals that will help reshape the talented individuals you have brought together into a team? 

Step three:  Create a clearly defined and shared success benefit for each team member. 

No one on an NFL team shows up to practice every day focused on earning the head coach a new contract. In your organization, no one shows up every day hoping to earn the CEO a bigger bonus. Everyone arrives motivated by his or her wants, desires and hopes. Harnessing that broad spectrum of ambitions and motives requires clarity. 

Every member of the winning Super Bowl team gets a ring; a big, shiny ring unique to that team and that season—a ring they can’t buy anywhere. They have to earn it—together. There are plenty of other more vague benefits to success: endorsement deals, a new contract, national recognition, etc. But vague doesn’t galvanize individuals into teams. Ironically, neither do salaries. Salaries are part of step one, attracting talent. The success benefit for a team has to extend beyond each team member's salary and each member’s individual motivations. Salary is a personal benefit. Successful teams revolve around shared benefits. What is the shared success benefit for your team members? 

Step four:  Every team member buys in with a specific and shared sacrifice 

A team has members who sacrifice something important, something they all surrender. That surrender creates a buy in, the foundation of a merit system. No one gets to play right tackle for the Cleveland Browns just because his father played right tackle for the Cleveland Browns. The right tackle earns his job both on his individual merits and on the price he pays as part of the team. Every NFL team holds training camp, a month long grind of long days, hot practices, intense competition, and meetings that stretch into the night. Every team member gives up free time, pleasure, family for the duration of camp. 

As the season progresses, every NFL team has a leader in rushing yards, receiving yards, tackles, and sacks. On the best teams, those distinctions take on considerably less weight because the individuals who lead those categories see their efforts as a way to bring their team to a higher level of shared accomplishment. Ironically, on losing teams the statistical leaders often draw more attention to themselves. It becomes an individual focus. And that tears a team apart into a group, a group of individuals. 

Have the members of your team paid a price to belong? Name the price. Make it a high price. People value what they pay the most for. 

Step five:  Hold the team to a specific time period 

Groups, associations and organizations are open ended. Teams are not. Teams have a specific start and end date. The first four steps help your team reach the start date. The fifth step, the end date helps push the team with sense of urgency, purpose, and focus. Following this year’s Super Bowl, every one of this season’s NFL teams will cease to exist. Sure, the Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks, and Green Bay Packers will all continue on as organizations. But the 2014 Philadelphia Eagles will end. That team ends the minute it plays its final game—and every team member knows it. 

After the season, many of those 2014 team members will try to position themselves back at step one: becoming part of the talented group the organization assembles for the 2015 team. Your team needs a specific time period that drives it toward achieving excellence. Is it a month? A quarter? Half a year? Two years? You decide. Make sure your team knows the date of its Super Bowl. 

These five steps will transform your groups into teams, and your teams can transform your organization into an industry leader. But just because you embrace the team approach doesn’t guarantee success. That’s the last part of the team myth. Thirty-one teams in the NFL fail to win the final game of the season. All thirty-two set out to build a stronger team the next year.

About the Author

Gerry Sandusky is the play-by-play voice of the Baltimore Ravens, and a speaker, corporate trainer and author of The New York Times bestseller, Forgotten Sundays. He is the recipient of two regional Edward R. Murrow and Emmy Awards for his accomplishments in broadcast journalism. Gerry’s energetic and insightful presentations will impart the value of effective leadership techniques and communication on your audience. For more information on Gerry, please visit