Building Exceptional Teams

Serendipity can be a magical thing. The word was originally coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. He wrote in a letter about an unexpected discovery he made in reference to a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. He explained to his friend that the princes were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”

Recently, I had such an experience. I had been reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the classic about achieving happiness through more frequent optimal experiences. That concept is something that we have been trying to embed in the numerous “Building Exceptional Teams” sessions that we have been conducting in 2014.

We’ve been trying to bend the curve on the challenge of building high performing teams much more effectively and quickly. When you think about the best team you’ve ever been on, the concept of FLOW sounds very familiar – “a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity…people typically feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.” What’s most interesting is how the author demonstrates the ways this positive state can be controlled, not just left to chance.

I was fortunate to work recently with a team that was led by an exceptional leader for one of the largest branded lifestyle apparel companies in the world. We experimented with a new approach and built a customized program around the following:

While our mission is to help others to perform at their “BEST – Become Exceptional Starting Today”, we found that we also learned some great lessons from others who were truly inspirational, transformative leaders:

  1. Understand the strategy of the business and how they were doing in terms of results.
  2. Understand the leader’s perspective on the team strengths and development needs and where she wanted to get them to in the near future.
  3. Through individual coaching sessions, build a strong foundation of self awareness through a Birkman assessment of their strengths, needs and stress points
  4. We also validated and aligned their career interests and hobbies with their past work histories to help them feel good about choices they’ve made and more aware of “safe harbors” for them to unwind as needed. The objective was to get them in the best frame of mind to leverage their strengths in the group session and be prepared to contribute in an even more positive, selfless way.
  5. Build a customized group session which used questions, examples and exercises based on their individual and team preferences. We worked on some specific techniques on how to handle stress more effectively. More importantly, we focused on positive outcomes and individual commitments for actions which would improve themselves as leaders and team members. In Wisdom of Teams, the authors describe why this is so powerful, “Fueled by interpersonal commitments, team purposes become even nobler, team performance goals more urgent, and team approach more powerful. The notion, for example, that ‘if one of us fails, we all fail’ pervades high performance teams.”

The pre-session coaching and the team awareness event went incredibly well. The participants felt great about themselves and the commitments they had just made. They had a lot of fun.

Immediately after the session, I went to lunch with one of my friends and favorite clients at a restaurant which we chose at random a block away. I was feeling great – I felt like I had had an optimal experience as a coach and facilitator and we spent the lunch discussing the event and catching up.

As we paid the check and were about to leave, my friend saw something and grabbed my arm and told me to sit down. He knew I was a lifelong NY Giants football fan and nodded towards someone behind me. Phil Simms, the 1986 Super Bowl winning MVP quarterback of the Giants, had walked into the restaurant and was a few feet from where we were sitting.

No one else in the restaurant initially recognized him, so we did what any well behaved NYC metro area residents (who occasionally bump into celebrities) would do. We acknowledged that we knew who he was, without bothering him. We found out he had slipped into the bar to get a break from his daughter’s wedding planning activities. We empathized with him and asked a couple of reasonably intelligent football questions about the upcoming NFL draft.

He liked the chatter, so I felt bold enough to ask him a question I had always wondered about. In that first Super Bowl championship (for the Giants) game, Phil had one of the most exceptional clutch performances in NFL history. He set records for completing 22 of 25 passes (a Super Bowl accuracy record which may never be broken) passer rating (150.9), and consecutive completions (10) in the biggest game of his career.

Strangely enough, I had just seen a video clip on his performance in 1986 a few days before. He had said that he felt great in warm-ups. His coach, Bill Parcells told him one thing, “Be aggressive.” (The famously tough, controlling and combative Hall of Fame leader essentially gave his quarterback permission and support to be at his best.) After the game, Phil was so in FLOW (or “in the zone”) that he had no idea that he had just completed 88% of his passes.

Teasing him, I asked, ”So Phil, in the ’86 Super Bowl, how did you miss those three passes?” He’s got a great sense of humor, so I expected a wisecrack as a response. Instead, he got a bit of an intense look on his face and sighed, “Well, the first one I missed because I had a guy on my leg and I overthrew the other two.” After 28 years, he was still incredibly humble and a team first guy. (The reality is that two of the three missed passes were flat out dropped by his receivers, but after all these years he still held himself accountable.)

This strange serendipitous string of events led me to reflect more deeply. Viktor Frankel, the Australian psychologist, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, had a brilliant quote that relates to the challenges of having an incredible, clutch performance like Phil Simms or to any of us who are trying to build exceptional teams. He said, “Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”

Our challenge as leaders is to help support our employees to feel confident, focused, motivated, aligned and selfless enough to give their best in FLOW, when the team really needs to step up their game.

For a confidential discussion about your transformation needs, please contact us at the address below or click the Contact Us button below.

G Burns & Associates | 40 Ingram Street | Forest Hills, NY 11375

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