Leading Teams In A Post-Covid World: Accountability, Devil’s Advocates And Avoiding Mediocrity

No one, not even the CEO, can make the majority of decisions that affect an organization’s performance. You need strong, well-led teams to make good choices and generate results. Five ways to do that.

Although the pandemic has probably changed the way we work forever, the fundamentals of leading great teams remain timeless – even when you’re working remotely. Having spent the past year with virtual teams, I can attest to the importance of embracing the following leadership essentials.

It’s almost axiomatic that great teams can still move mountains and accomplish big goals. One definition of effective leadership and superior management is the capacity to build and maintain high performing teams. I believe that, and I’ve experienced it. Just about everything I’ve ever accomplished has been the result of teamwork. But I also know that ineffective teams can waste time, accomplish very little and can even harm morale and impede performance.

Building and nurturing effective teams is more an art than a science. No one, including the CEO, can make the majority of decisions that affect an organization’s performance. So it’s important to have strong, well-led teams that cascade decisions down through an organization to make good choices and generate results. Here’s what I’ve learned about making teams work.

1. Make your team the model and the example for others. Should you lead the team, or designate someone else? I like to lead teams, but I also know that team leadership is often a way to develop young and mid-level talent. You don’t have to always be at the head of the table (or the Zoom call). I’ve also found that smaller teams are often more effective, and specific, short term team goals are usually better than more open-ended challenges.

2. Teach and practice team accountability. This is as obvious as having an agenda and an objective for each meeting. We’ve all gone to team sessions and half way through, asked ourselves (or whispered to others) “Why are we here?” And every session should end with next steps and who is responsible for each. Also, since the reason for the team in the first place is usually to accomplish a specific goal (e.g. launch a new product, fight off a competitive inroad, deal with a new opportunity), it’s important to measure and report team performance against the stated purpose. And when the team’s job is done – or the team is no longer productive – it’s time to disband and move on.

3. Be sure to have a devil’s advocate on the team. This can sometimes be unpleasant, but there’s nothing more valuable than constructive criticism, including challenges to your I’m not talking about people who may object to a team’s direction just to be contrarian. My favorite and most valuable devil’s advocate was my COO at AARP, who could find the flaws in the best laid plans. It takes humility on your part to listen to a nay sayer and then to regroup, pull things together and make the right decision about going forward.

4. Don’t accept mediocre performers. If teammates are in over their heads, or aren’t contributing for some other reason, it’s a serious mistake to keep them on the team. Removing someone may not be pleasant, but mediocrity is a chronic disease. You can live with it for a while, but eventually it will do you in.

5. Avoid complacency. Teams can get comfortable and settle in, especially if the tasks take a long time. I have found two ways to deal with this. First, hold periodic reviews and course corrections. Involving executives from outside the team can make this more objective. Second, if necessary, manufacture some urgency. This may involve moving up deadlines (for good reasons), adding an important (and related task) and identifying new threats from outside. I recall coming across some intelligence that a competitor was moving forward with a product similar to ours. That lit a fire under our team.

And let’s remember that not everything needs to be team-based. Sometimes individuals can do things better and faster by working alone. Highly creative initiatives, some research projects and individual mentoring are examples. Look for a balance between what individuals can achieve and what teams can do better.

Bill Novelli, author of Good Business, has a distinguished career as a leader in the corporate and non-profit worlds. He was CEO of AARP, founder and president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, EVP of CARE, and president of Porter Novelli, the global public relations agency. He began his career at Unilever and also was Director of Advertising & Creative Services at the Peace Corps. Today, Novelli is a professor in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University where he teaches in the MBA program, and also founded and oversees the Georgetown Business for Impact initiative.