Four Cornerstones for Building A Sustainable Team

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“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good.  It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

–     Malcolm Gladwell (b. 1963), UK-Born, Canadian journalist and author, and a real difference-maker in my life / career (read Outliers!)

So, for those of you waiting on the pithy hope that Iowa wins the Outback Bowl on Tuesday, here it is; I hope Iowa wins the Outback Bowl on Tuesday, but even if they don’t, it’s been worth the extra six weeks…  And, therein lies the tenuous tie to the business message — six extra weeks of practice.  (Gladwell’s 10,000 hours-to-mastery is in play here…)

When building a team, of course we want wins.  We should want continuous improvement almost as much as the wins.  Thus the “sustainable” angle we’re taking here…

So, what are the cornerstones for building a sustainable team?

Not surprisingly, one is practice.  There’s this pervasive idea in business today that we’re too busy to do anything other than our jobs, and, to a certain degree, I concur.  But, our jobs are to get better and better, day-after-day, month-after-month, and that means that we need committed time and energy spent sharpening the axe.  A few notes on the concept:

– Practice should be intentional, planned, repeatable and designed for outcomes.

– Practice should be designed to maximize our strengths 2/3rds of the time and overcoming gaps only 1/4th of the time.  The remaining 1/8th?  Learning new things / skills…

– Practice should employ instantaneous, objective feedback loops.  Every great sports coach talks about film — and it’s a powerful tool.  So are role-play, memorization and repetition…

– Practice should be work, but keep Mary Poppins in mind (great new movie, by the way!); a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.  Find the element of fun!

Another cornerstone is talent.  Putting the best people in place is critical to building a team.  It’s not only about talent, though.

– Strategy over structure.  Every time.  Know your strategy and build the team to execute it.

– Talent must be evolutionary, not static.  Yes, hire and retain the best people you can, then expect them to improve constantly.

– Diverse talent trumps a one-size-fits-all approach to staffing.  Different points of view, skills, abilities and experiences make everyone better, if the strategy and leadership are strong.

Speaking of strategy, a third cornerstone is just that — strategy.  

– Know the corporate identity and direction, and what you want it to evolve to become.  All your “why?” answers will tie-back to this element.

– Know the market, and have an idea where it is going.  It helps to know if your plan is to go along, beat others to the punch or take a different direction / flank the market.

– Use strategy as the “True North” for your team.  The flavor-of-the-month will kill momentum and confuse the team — and confused teams without momentum rarely fare well.

Finally, make sure the fourth cornerstone is coaching.

– Consistent, focused, cohesive coaching is critical.  If the strategy, talent and practice are all solid, but the coaching isn’t strong enough, you’ll water down the results.

– Hire coaches that are strong enough to see the big-picture / long-term, but flexible enough to consider new concepts and ideas — and smart enough to incorporate them.

– Match the coaching to the strategy first, then the talent.  Strategy over structure requires coaches that are well-suited to the strategic direction you’ve chosen.

OK, back to the game.  Iowa’s coach, Kirk Ferentz, isn’t the most successful coach in the country, and Iowa’s talent isn’t the best in the country.  But the strategy fits the program, the fanbase, the culture and the market in which the team competes.  The longest-tenured head football coach at any university in the NCAA, Ferentz has Iowa in the position to get six extra weeks of practice for the 16th time in the last 18 years.  That’s why so many of the three-star athletes he’s able to recruit end up playing football for a living — and a really good living at that.

Pithy?  Perhaps, but a fitting business concept to finish 2018 while rooting for my favorite team tomorrow…

The Diff returns on Wednesday.  Happy New Year!



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  1. Awesome – thanks

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