Leading Teams: It’s a Balancing Act

In engaging your team the first question you must ask yourself is what you want your team to accomplish.  Sometimes making a simple academic distinction helps to focus this issue.  Do you want your team to be primarily concerned with implementation? Or, do you want your team to be creative and innovative?

The challenge is to find the balance point. If you lead your team too tightly, you run the risk of creating insularity and inflexibility. If you lead your team too loosely, the team can fall into the trap of perpetual creativity, but accomplish nothing.  Your objective as the team leader is not to swing too hard at either extreme.



Don’t Process Things to Death

Most meetings in organizational life follow a script. Everyone plays their part and says their lines. Someone–the department head, VP, or dean–calls a meeting. His immediate direct report feels that if too many issues are raised, nothing will get done. The administrative director is willing to have the meeting, but wants to specify parameters, set a time limit, and start with the agenda in place. The others invited to the meeting understand the broad agenda, but they have their own agendas and issues. Unfortunately, the meeting chair is too facilitative. After forty minutes, it becomes clear that the agenda has long since crashed and burned. Everyone wants to put their issues on the table, and the discussion degenerates into several smaller, simultaneous conversations. The meeting chair tries to wrest back control, but doesn’t want to be abrupt; others try to help him focus the discussion, to no avail. After two hours, the meeting ends with an agreement to meet again.

Dialogue is celebrated today. As corporations move further away from traditional, directive leadership, innovation team leaders and organization members find themselves spending a lot of time in some kind of dialogue–processing ideas, brainstorming, and engaging in continuous open discussion. Virtual and real meetings are the modus operandi of organizational life. Certainly the internet, webinars, and video conferencing haven’t diminished the need for meetings, but have increased it.

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Great Leaders Have Agenda Moving Skills

The major leadership challenge is to lead innovation and change. In that sense, leaders need to move ideas through the maze of the organization. In today’s organizations, with multiple businesses, numerous teams, and changing expectations, leaders need to figure out how they can overcome resistance and get support for their ideas. Indeed, a good idea is not enough. Without the capacity to get others behind your agenda, you’re not really leading. The problem is that super-heroic characteristics, grand personality, and shining charisma are not going to drive ideas through the organization. Successful leaders are agenda movers who engage in the micro-political skills of execution to get people on their side and keep them there.

Agenda movers know that their good idea, no matter how brilliant, is not enough and they need to actively win others to their side. To accomplish this, they develop four key competencies: to anticipate where others are coming from, to mobilize others around their ideas, get the buy-in, and finally to go the sustain momentum and go the distance to get things done.

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Key Hiring Criteria: Tenacity, Spark, Trust, Leadership, and Humility


As the academic semester ends and graduation approaches, the hiring season is in full swing. For over four decades, I have been training and working with undergraduates at Cornell University. To my joy and some pride, among my former students are well-known corporate leaders, public figures, and an array of entrepreneurs. I sometimes reflect on the qualities of my most successful students, and I am somewhat dismayed to think that if some of them were entering the job market today, they would have fallen through the cracks.

As there is more emphasis on mass hiring through recruiting agencies, there is a greater obsession with strong signals rather than weak signals. The alma mater, the grades, the activities, and the cookie-cutter elements that are easily measured and give some benign threshold of achievement, but may be predictive of very little. I’ve found that in my experience with students, the weak but persistent signals can speak more to a person’s character and potential than strong signals. There are several weak signals that are never quite captured in the resume, interviews, or tests, but can be discovered with a comprehensive conversation with their mentors.

Tenacity. The one trait that most of my successful students have in common was their tenacity. These students who took on special projects and sought out opportunity. They went beyond the core course requirements, and involved themselves in extended research and volunteer projects with focused intention.

Spark. These students shared a type of irreverence, a casual indifference to the way things are or should be. Each one had a sparkle. This subtle spark of quickness, intelligence, and wit differentiates the good from the best.

Trust. These students understood moral parameters, knew that need to share credit, and had the commonsense to distinguish acceptable and unacceptable behavior. While ambitious, it was bounded by a core understanding of the rules of the game.

Leadership. These students had taken the lead on projects. They could assemble and motivate a team of researchers. They could map out what needed to be done, and they could follow up to make sure that the work was done.

Humility. Most of these students exhibited a degree of humility. While not lacking in ambition, they had a deep sense of their limitations, which did not enhance their competitive insecurity but strengthened their tendency to work with others.

Last week I was asked to give a reference for a student who had graduated five years ago. He had a good job, but was looking around for new opportunities. While I told the recruiter he was not the best analyst or the very best technocrat, I re-framed the discussion on what I consider to be the four prerequisites of a future leader: tenacity, spark, trust, leadership, and humility. He starts in two weeks.

My advice to organizations seeking to hire the best is to have a comprehensive conversation with the college mentors of their job candidates. There is the battery of questions that have to be asked to fulfill bureaucratic requirements, but put down the list for a moment and go off script. Take the time to dig a little deeper and learn about those things that aren’t immediately evident and cannot be readily measured. The reward will be having some great people on the team.


7 Criteria to Select the Best Idea

select the best idea - innovation

How do you select one idea over another? The innovation leadership dilemma is a classic decision-making problem. Professor Bacharach lays out 7 criteria for selecting the best idea on