Five Steps to Creating Leaders & Successful Teams

I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.

It is my belief that many of the employee and management problems we see in the workplace are directly related to our early programming from the school system. Many of us learned that the way to succeed in the classroom was to do everything ourselves in an ongoing competition against others. However, on the school playground or in sports, the system favors teaming and so begins our confusion. So it’s no surprise to me that employees come into our company initially unwilling to share and collaborate.

My partner and I are committed as employers to develop individuals into team players, yet many of our employees, including senior managers, still subconsciously write off collaboration and team meetings as some kind of exercise to make everyone feel good, and so they struggle. If you can teach people to cooperate, you will create a winning team with shared values and an environment oriented to trust, joint creativity, open communication and cohesive team effort.

At MC companies, we understand that in order to unite teams, we first need to teach them to unlearn and then relearn. Trying to get people to unlearn is more difficult than getting them to learn. Old habits can be hard to break.

An effective team works collaboratively and with a keen awareness of interdependency. This defuses blaming behavior and stimulates opportunities for learning and improvement. This point was described perfectly in a book I recently read by Phil Jackson called Eleven Rings. Phil Jackson is arguably the greatest coach in the history of the NBA. He holds the highest-winning percentage of any NBA coach, and holds the record for the most NBA championships: six with the Chicago Bulls and five with the Lakers.

There are many reasons Phil Jackson was successful, and it was not because of who he had on his team. He created teams of leaders out of the individuals on the team. Coach Jackson describes his style of coaching as, “leading from the inside out,” “benching the ego” and “letting each player discover their own destiny.”

This is also true for me as a leader in my own company. The more you exert your power directly, the less powerful you become. If you can distribute power widely without surrendering final authority, this approach will strengthen the team’s effectiveness and free you up to work on the overall vision.

One thing I have learned is that you cannot force your will on people. You have to figure out a way to inspire them to change themselves. Phil Jackson uses a great example of this when he says, “Most players are used to letting their coach think for them. When they run into a problem on the court, they look nervously over at the sidelines, expecting a coach to come up with the answer. Many coaches will accommodate them. But not me. I’ve always been interested in letting players think for themselves so that they can make difficult decisions in the heat of the battle.”

This style of leadership works and can transcend into a household, a business or a sports team. The great Michael Jordan used to call this style of basketball “think power” because it gives each player the freedom to carve out a role for themselves within the team’s structure.

The overall goal is to build a star team, not a team of stars. As Ervin “Magic” Johnson put it, “Everybody on a championship team doesn’t get publicity, but everyone can say he’s a champion.”
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Every team member “has a role to play, and every role has its part in contributing to the bigger picture. Without that perspective, the team cannot accomplish its goal, whether the team’s ‘game’ is sports, business, family, ministry or government,” says John C. Maxwell, the author of The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork.

Here are five basic things I have learned over time that I believe can help develop the individuals on your team into leaders:

  1. Keep your mouth shut (at least at first).
    Teams often look to leaders to make the final decisions or assume that the leader has veto power on any decision in the end. If you really buy the team approach — that you want and need everyone’s input — you have to keep quiet. If you are the first person to talk on a subject, the amount of discussion and idea flow will drop. Because of your position, you must abstain from the early part of a dialogue on any issue, and share your thoughts nearer the close of the conversation.

    If your employees are hesitant to make decisions without asking your opinion first, you haven’t properly empowered them. Let your employees know that you trust them and that you have faith in their ability. When they ask what to do about a situation, push the question back into their court and ask them, “What do you think?” They might be surprised at first, but after you do that several times, they’ll start thinking it through and come to you fully prepared to discuss the matter and make a recommendation.

  2. Understand the WIIFM Factor (What’s In It For Me). 
    I love the Stephen Covey quote, “Begin with the end in mind.” All people are motivated differently, and your job as a leader is to figure out their motivations. The way to get buy-in from people is to help them achieve their objectives, and if you do, you will find few obstacles stand in your way. But . . . you must approach this with sincerity to develop deep loyalty and trust.
  3. Get the right people on — and off — the bus.
    Another great book my company studied was Good to Great by Jim Collins. In that book, he says you can’t expect to only work with “A” players — otherwise, your leadership wouldn’t be needed.

    Years ago, my partner and I decided that the best hiring decision we could make was to hire the person with the best attitude. I’ll take attitude over technical skill any day. People with great attitudes want to succeed. As Herb Kelleher, former Southwest Airlines CEO used to say, “We can change skill levels through training, but we can’t change attitude.” Southwest, Google, Apple and The Four Seasons also all hire for attitude, and it’s a big part of what makes these organizations so successful.

    Of course, there are also those who lack critical skills or a positive attitude. Business can suffer and sometimes fail through inaction in dealing with these people. Do not underestimate the negative impact that these individuals can have on the team’s success.

  4. Align people with the stuff they are passionate about.
    This is a key point. If people love what they do, it will not seem like work to them and they will stay with you for the long haul. Take stock of all the talents you have on the team and reshuffle the deck if it means that your team has a better chance of success. Don’t keep someone in a job role just because they’ve been doing it for long time if you truly think their talents could make a bigger contribution in another role, even if they don’t have much experience in that area. Their previous work history and passion will fuel a strong desire to learn and can become a strong driver of innovation and growth.
  5. Develop your people and frequently interact. 
    One of the great quotes on leadership by Wendell Willkie is, “Education is the mother of leadership.” I believe that if you can make learning fun, the education comes easier.

    Every year, we fly in about one hundred of our key management people and we study a book together as a group. Last year, we studied Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan. It might surprise you that when we are together, we do not review spreadsheets, margins or budgets. This is important, but that is what the rest of the year is for. Rather, we use this time for personal development. We study and discuss topics on management and leadership. We debate and have fun.

    Last year, we did a game-based exercise to create a “MC Companies — Code of Honor.” This is an example of managing from the inside out. When great ideas are generated by our employees, it makes it easier to hold them accountable for things they themselves adopted.

    We frequently interact as a company to discuss new initiatives and strategy changes. The worst thing you can do is surprise your staff members about a new way to do something that will drastically alter their day-to-day work. This naturally makes people defensive and skeptical. Whenever possible, give people an informal heads-up that a change is coming and let them know some of the reasoning involved. They will be glad you kept them in the loop. If they don’t agree with the reasoning, and you have fostered an environment where they can express their dissent, you need to listen.

    Understanding the big picture promotes collaboration, increases commitment and improves quality. Too often, people are asked to work on part of a task without being told how their role contributes to the desired end result, much less how their efforts are impacting the ability of others to do their work.

    I believe my role as a leader is to capture and communicate an inspiring vision and to keep it before myself and my people. As it says in the most famous book of all time, the Bible, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” – Proverbs 29:18

About The Author

Ken McElroy

Ken McElroy is the co-partner of MC Companies in Scottsdale, Ariz. He is the author of the best-selling books, The ABC's of Real Estate Investing, The Advanced Guide to Real Estate Investing, and The ABC's of Property Management. McElroy is also a contributor for The Real Book of Real Estate by Robert Kioysaki, and The Midas Touch by Donald Trump and Robert Kiyosaki. McElroy's fourth book, The Sleeping Giant, is dedicated to the new class of entrepreneurs who are emerging in today's economy.

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