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15 Tips for Building a Strong Team

Collaboration on the Courts and in the Conference Room

Last week, I watched my husband and son compete in a father/son doubles tennis tournament. It was a pretty competitive amateur event, with players flying in from all over the U.S., including one team from Chile. So, of course, I had to be there to cheer them on.

With the spectator stands rising above the courts, I was able to watch several matches taking place all at once. Most of the people in the stands knew each other and spent most of their time catching up with one another. And guzzling beer.

But since I didn’t know anyone (and not being much of a drinker), I kept my eyes on the games. Interesting. What I saw playing out in front of me was more than just team tennis. It was a reminder of much of my previous experience in both the Fortune 500 and small start-ups.

No, we didn’t play tennis in the hallways of IBM. A little trashcan basketball, perhaps, but that’s about it. But we did practice teamwork. And once in a while, we got it right.

The father-son tennis teams were a study in teamwork and collaboration. Or the lack of it. Because the level of play was pretty high, most of what I saw seemed to work pretty well, but occasionally there were some boners, especially when a player (usually the father) would lose his temper when he’d miss a shot.

Because I didn’t have a friend or adult beverage to distract me, I took my entertainment by noting the good, bad, and downright inappropriate behavior taking place in front of me. And here’s what I saw and how it relates to the business world:

Tip #1: Train together, pull together. Or pull apart.

In business, as in sports, you have to be willing to be part of a team. Otherwise, your efforts will be counterproductive. It sounds simple, but often in tennis (as in other individual sports), “superstars” who are used to succeeding solely on their own merits may have trouble adjusting to the give and take necessary in a collaborative approach. Like the tired old (but on the money) truism, there’s no “I” in team. The focus has to be on working together with a partner or within a group of people, often subsuming your individual desires to the group’s to accomplish your goal.

An effective team has clear lines of communication, an understanding of each person’s role, and respect for each member’s strengths and weaknesses. Leadership, too, needs to be well-defined, whether it’s held by one person in the group or equally within a two-person team.

The most effective teams are those that have worked together long enough to know each member well. They know how to leverage each person’s strengths to maximize their team’s effectiveness. And they’ve had plenty of practice in real world situations to observe the results and adjust accordingly.

The weakest teams, in contrast, are those without any cohesiveness, communications, or structure. In tennis, these are two people thrust together in a doubles team who are each playing a singles game. They don’t know their teammate’s strengths and weaknesses, they don’t talk with each other, they run into one another, and they scoop up balls better left for the other to return in play. Worst case scenario, they blame each other for mistakes, clearly signaling their weaknesses to the opposing team, who can then take great advantage of their disorganization and hostility to defeat them.

The same sorts of weaknesses exist in poorly planned corporate teams, especially if they’re rife with big egos who all want to be in charge. In other words,

“Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Tip #2: Create a strong team by choosing a partner whose strengths complement your own.

We all know two people who are so much alike (family members, anyone?) that they constantly butt heads. So much better to find a partner – in life, in business, in sports – whose strength plays to your weakness and vice versa. Together, you’ll be much stronger and capable of meeting whatever challenges are thrown at you, whether it’s a family health crisis, a high-stakes financial deal, or strokes delivered by a more talented tennis player.

Tip #3: Strategize ahead of time to play to your teammates’ strengths. Be willing to adjust your strategy and tactics as you play.

Tennis is a thinking game. Strategy, tactics – it’s all there. It’s not just acting and reacting to your opponent’s moves. It’s evaluating their strengths and especially looking for their weaknesses to exploit. Likewise, a doubles team sizes up the opposing team during warm-ups (or by reputation) and plans accordingly, adjusting as the game proceeds and they discover what works and what doesn’t.

Business teams work in much the same way. No shooting from the hip, hoping to score a hit! That very rarely works outside of the movies. Instead, there is much planning, organizing, and preparing resources to meet the challenges ahead. Everyone has a pre-defined role based on their skills and experience, and it’s up to the team’s leadership to know when to bring each of them more fully into play. And when to pivot to meet new or unexpected situations.

Tip #4: Practice working together before “taking it on the road.”

As with any competitive sport, team members need to practice their game so that they’re ready to meet the challenges of the real thing. Tennis doubles is a sight to behold when a team has been working together for a long time; they play as one, each supporting the other, working in tandem to dominate the court and score points. Well-managed corporate teams do the same, especially when key members have experience working together on prior deals. Sometimes these teams go on “bonding” expeditions to help colleagues get to know and learn to rely on one another. I recall one of my smaller companies sending its local sales teams to the mountains for an Outward Bound experience, all aimed at molding us into a tightly knit, fighting – er, competitive, unit.

Tip #5: Support your partner. Don’t criticize each other – especially in the middle of a play! That’s just helping your competition achieve their goal.

Keep the judgements and criticisms to yourself. There’ll be plenty of opportunity after the game, meeting, or presentation to review what could have gone better. If anything, support your partner or teammates with encouragement. No need to deliberately demoralize your colleagues whom you are depending on to support YOU. All you’re doing is showcasing to your competition the infighting on your side and bringing attention to mistakes that they otherwise might have missed. Such behavior strengthens your competition and weakens your own position. Don’t do it.

Tip #6: Review the game afterwards to recognize your strengths, shore up your weaknesses, and retool your strategies for winning next time you play.

NOW’s the time to talk about what went well, what could have gone better, and how to improve things going forward. Keep the focus positive! Yes, it’s important to acknowledge mistakes, but do so with a mindset to learn from them. No need to belittle anyone who screwed up. Chances are, they’re doing a pretty job of that themselves. Leave it up to the team leader to privately review serious errors with the responsible individual. If need be, well, on to point #7.

Tip #7: Be willing to swap out teammates to build the strongest combo over time.

Sometimes, player swaps are in order. Weak teammates who are unable to rise to the challenge can be reassigned and new colleagues introduced. Perhaps different skills are required that hadn’t been originally foreseen, so team members are shuffled a bit.

Now the aforementioned really applies to business teams. A two-person doubles team is not going to switch partners in the middle of a tournament. It’s illegal. If one player becomes injured or ill, the team drops out. But the nice thing about playing tennis doubles is that you can have different partners in different tournaments. It’s more of a dating scene than a marriage; players constantly try out new partners depending upon availability and interest. Serious players do seek out one or two partners with whom they truly gel and can count on to play in major tournaments. I remember my son doing just that in the junior USTA tournament circuit. He and his favorite doubles partner did quite well together and it made the whole experience that much more fun for them both.

Tip #8: Listen to teammates to strategize taking advantage of your combined strengths over your opponents’ weaknesses. Often, two or more heads are better than one.

Be willing to listen to your teammates and take constructive criticism. If you’re working with good people, the advice is intended to strengthen your position and benefit the entire team. And as often as is the case, other people may notice patterns that you frankly hadn’t seen.

Tip #9: Sincerely compliment one another for achievements and “saves” of another’s mistakes.

Good sportsmanship goes a long way to bolstering spirits and the team’s energy. “Thank you” and the occasional “atta-boy” slap on the back could be just the encouragement someone needs to go that extra distance that wins the game. (Or the deal.) Celebrate each little win, even if it’s just to recognize someone giving their best efforts. People respond well to positive reinforcement, as long as it’s given sincerely.

Tip #10: Play your best with each stroke, each step of the way, even if you think you’re losing overall. You may be surprised to find that you’re doing better than you realize.

I’ve run into artists, athletes, and just everyday people who suffer from “imposter syndrome,” a psychological pattern in which a person doubts his skills, talents, or accomplishments and fears being exposed as a "fraud.” Despite external evidence of competency, the individual continually diminishes his own achievements and accomplishments.

Don’t be this person! We’re often harder on ourselves than we are on others. Give yourself a break. Chances are that your teammates don’t consider you a failure. If they do, well, go back to point #7. But more often than not, it’s a live and learn situation and, to throw in another old saying:

“Get back up on the horse.”

Tip #11: Don’t underestimate your competition. But don’t overestimate their abilities, either. Stay in the moment.

Likewise, look at your competition objectively. You will have collected some information on their history, past performance, and have preconceived ideas and expectations. But also try to see them as they are RIGHT NOW. That great tennis player may be working through a half-healed injury and not up to her top game. So don’t just assume that you’re going to lose, based on her track record and reputation. Likewise, don’t discount the unknown player. For all you know, he may be a top contender in a different region who is just now venturing to play in your local competition.

Actors learn to live in the moment, reacting to things as they come. Athletes do so, too, because nothing it 100% predictable and you have to expect the unexpected. Business teams would do well to do the same, gauging outcomes and adjusting strategies and tactics to better position themselves against their competition.

Tip #12: Take breaks when you need to. Retool your strategy, and for goodness sake, take care of yourself!

The bane of every perfectionist is the realization that we’re human. Ouch! High achievers expect much out of themselves, but there are limits. Whether you’re on the athletic field, working out an academic problem, or struggling to finish that RFP and submit it on time, don’t ignore those physical limits. Food, rest, and the occasional distraction are all quite necessary to our health and well-being. And our ability to be at our best.

Tip #13: Comebacks are always possible! The game’s not over until it’s over.


“It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”

OK, it’s not PC, but the opera reference applies to just about everything. In tennis, a poor showing in the first set may be followed by a strong performance in the second, with the result of a split set, giving you a fresh 50-50 chance of a win. Athletic games and competitions are not 100% predictable, with upsets happening in the last minutes or seconds of play. An apparent straggler produces a burst of speed in the last lap to overtake the lead and win the race. And an unexpected event, like the introduction of an new decision-maker, can rescue a business deal that otherwise seemed doomed to fail.

Tip #14: Keep each other accountable. No drinking or other bad habits while the ball is in play.

To be tops in your collective game, start off by being in complete control of your own game, which includes your mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Playing to point #12, keep an eye and on your partner or teammates that they are doing the same. Sometimes, it’s as simple as avoiding indulgences that don’t belong on the athletic field or in the conference room. If you see that a teammate is struggling, help him out in a spirit of support. It’s like that childhood game of Red Rover; you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

Tip #15: Character matters. Be a good sport!

Winning and losing truly don’t matter as much in the end as being a person of good character. Yes, we all want to win the trophy, prize money, business deal, etc., but do so by taking the high road. Truly, a good reputation and the respect of others matter most in the end. Or do I need to mention Bernie Madoff and others of his ilk?

I always told my son when he was playing on the junior tennis tournament circuit that I was more proud of his sportsmanship than his USTA ranking. Maybe it’s a mom thing, but in the end, it’s the type of person you are, the quality of your relationships that matter most in life.

It's the legacy you leave behind when you depart this world.

Make it a good one.

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