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Leading Off
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“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships,” says basketball legend Michael Jordan, who should know. In business, top-team performance is an obsession; for decades it has ranked as a favorite topic among executives. But what does it take to build a superior team, if not a dream team? Whether at the top, in the middle ranks, or down on the shop floor, a leader’s responsibility starts with creating the environment in which teams thrive. This week, let’s huddle and explore classic and new thinking about teams and the leader’s role in making them agile, innovative, and empowered, whether they are in person or virtual. Fist bumps and high fives await.
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Heroic leadership isn’t enough
Despite the business press’s ongoing infatuation with the heroic leader who creates new dynasties and turns around ailing ones, the best leaders know this: no one alone creates and runs a great company—teams do. High-performing teams, built around trust and purpose, create organizational coherence and focus. As this classic McKinsey article from 2001 details, if a top team has the right chemistry, the formula for success isn’t a stretch: focus on results, reflect, and repeat. And, of course, renew—top teams must continually refresh to anticipate change.
That’s the number of pizzas you’ll need to determine the size of your most effective teams. At least that’s Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos’s calculation. He contends that a team is too big when it needs more than two pizza pies for lunch. Small, independent teams deliver agile, project-based work and make flexible organizations hum. But to reap those benefits, senior leaders must thoughtfully establish the environment in which such multidisciplinary teams can thrive, as well as provide the people, autonomy, and resources that they’ll need. In times of crisis, when urgent response is required, it’s also possible to create a robust network of teams that are empowered to operate outside the current hierarchy and bureaucratic structures of the organization. Some guidance can help.
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Like larger-than-life CEOs, dynamic innovators are often cast as solo, go-it-alone types. But, says McKinsey senior partner Erik Roth in this podcast with partner Matt Banholzer, “as we look at innovation, what we’re finding is there just aren’t that many people who are natural innovators, particularly in large organizations. We’ve been fascinated by this difference between the question we get from clients—which is, ‘How do I find the best innovators or entrepreneurs?’—and the reality that innovation happens in teams.” Who those team members are and how the teams are built is no trivial matter. Innovation is the ability to continually create new value propositions and incremental, substantial value. If an organization can’t do that, says Roth, innovation might be an interesting activity, “but it won’t create value at scale that’s meaningful to support a large organization.”
“No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team.”
So says Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn cofounder. But what is it that makes an all-star team (versus a team of all-stars)? McKinsey senior partner Scott Keller’s decades-long research finds remarkable consistency in three dimensions of superior teamwork: alignment on direction, high-quality interaction, and a strong sense of renewal. There are also some caveats, such as the tendency to succumb to the “bike-shed effect,” which can trivialize the process of making critical decisions.
Huddle up
Tsedal Neeley
As good as your team composition and talent may be, the ground rules you set in the beginning will often make the difference between a winning team effort and a losing one. “When you launch a team the right way,” says Tsedal Neeley, the Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, “you are actually creating the conditions for that team to be effective” and boosting the odds of success by 30 percent. For remote teams, Neeley suggests relaunching every six to eight weeks to update and review goals and resources because “it’s so easy to get derailed when you’re not co-located.”
Likewise, in the McKinsey Quarterly article “Countering otherness: Fostering integration within teams,” leadership and transformation coach Sabah Alam Hydari parses the return on investment—in both trust and performance—that comes from eliminating the interactions that cause some workers to feel disadvantaged, excluded, minimized, or deflated. Sensitivity to such issues will be particularly important as employers ask some workers to return to on-site work. Your team structures should take into account the need for psychological safety, especially considering that many workers who have returned to the office, as well as those who haven’t, are concerned about the impact the postpandemic workplace may have on their mental health.
Lead well.
— Edited by Bill Javetski, an executive editor in McKinsey’s New Jersey office

Leading Off is taking a break for the next two weeks. We’ll be back at it and in your inbox on September 13. Thanks for reading!
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