Yesterday a student emailed me a lovely end of term message: “I just wanted to say you all did a great job.” Notice this message was not for me as an individual but rather to our entire five person teaching team for the course she was just completing.
Her message caused me to reflect again on one of my favorite subjects: What makes an effective and gratifying collaborative team?
I love to work in teams and seek out collaborative environments wherever I can find them. My colleagues and I at the U teach in an uncommon format that works very well for us as a staff and, I think, for our students as a learning community. Each of us has a specific role, including the lecturer, an administrator, a discussion facilitator, and several instructors who interact with students one on one about their written work and troubleshoot the various and sundry issues that may arise as a course unfolds.
I have the pleasure of being the discussion facilitator. It is a 24/7 job and a great role for someone whose professional focus is on building learning communities through discourse and shared activity. And yet I have never met in the flesh any of my four colleagues or any of our one hundred sixty students.
What makes an effective team, even across a distance? What allows the team to support each member so she can do her best creative work and so that the team as a whole can deliver great service to those we serve?
Alan Webber, the co-editor of Fast Magazine, wrote recently in the new release End Malaria that great work derives from three sources. Start with “people you can make common cause with, people you can learn from, people you can fight for.” He adds that the team should share a powerful purpose and have a focus not just on providing excellent service but also on personal growth and development.
Lynda Gratton of the London Business School takes this model a step further with insight into how one might recruit such a team. She argues that one gains productive synergies when collaborators are not clones of each other but have sufficient overlap to understand each other and add value quickly in discourse. They should be inclined to build relationships of trust, generosity, and mutual support and to make the most of their diversity.
I might add that a team works best when no one is preoccupied with who gets credit. Each person on the team can take charge of the tasks he does better than anyone else, and any win is a team win.
In our team at the U, the lecturer is certainly our anchor, but all of us are leaders in the sense of having great flexibility to do our parts of the work and to communicate a tone to our students. Each of us implicitly might be said to follow the advice that scholar Barry Posner of University of Santa Clara offers as the basis of credible leadership. He says to ask ourselves each day: “What am I going to do today to make sure other people see my commitment to the values and beliefs, vision and mission, projects and initiatives of this organization?”
The goal is not to avoid differences of opinion but rather to use our different perspectives to create something better than any of us could have done without the others.. This way we keep each member of the team caring and striving to do great work every day.
I believe that the unity of purpose and attitude of our team comes across well to our students. Mitch Joel, the president of Twist Image, has an interesting way of describing what in modern culture is called “our personal brand.” He defines a personal brand as the mental tatoos our personae and reputations create in the mind’s eye. (Other people’s eyes rather than our own).
Part of our brand, for each of us and as a team, is the message we live that really caring about our students and giving them great service is our mindset and our cause rather than what we do because it is our job. When students see that you sincerely care for them, they naturally do their part to make the learning community thrive. And, as we model community, those who are just launching their creative careers begin to envision how community can serve to support them after they leave us.
Management consultant Tom Peters, the author of In Search of Excellence, says that we act like the six people we are closest to. If this claim is true, it provides further support for the importance of forming a vital and commited team and keeping a distance from those who would douse the fire.
As our semester comes to a close and with holiday melodies in the air, I am so very grateful for the opportunity to work with each member of the teaching team, with each student in the class, and with my creative and loving friends whose consistent support means so much to me each day. Thank you!