ost of us probably have a dream to be the best - better than every one of the other seven billion people on the planet. A few of us pursue that dream all the way. It means dedicating your life to the project - sacrificing time with friends and loved ones, being open to criticism and pain in the pursuit of self-improvement, putting financial security aside to chase perfection. It’s as true of the jazz saxophonist as it is of the chess grandmaster and the 110m hurdler. And skiers are no different.
Liminal Collective has been fortunate to partner with the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team on several occasions. They are an extraordinarily talented group of individuals. Yet, even though many of the on-mountain winter events appear to be about individual performance, there is a significant infrastructure of coaching, safety, fundraising and other support staff that contributes to every success. The preparation that goes into positioning an athlete for Olympic gold is a huge team effort. So we thought we’d share some of what we've learned with them about building strong team environments and a common culture that breeds excellence. This is known as “teaming”.
U.S. Ski & Snowboard comprises more than 250 athletes and staff, all from diverse backgrounds and of differing experience, from rookie to veteran. In spite of this diversity, they all have one objective in common: to stand on the podium at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing having succeeded at the greatest sporting arena in the world.
We know that constantly striving to become a high-performing team, even in perceived individual sports, is the goal of every team competing. And that it takes up to five years to build a high-performing team. With a four-year Olympic cadence, a team infused with new coaches, athletes and other staff has only two to three years to gel and deliver an elite performance. This is not a challenge unique to Olympic teams. We see it in high-performing teams in every domain: in major sports leagues, in businesses prone to churn, in special operations teams and in surgical theatres. How do you build an elite team at an accelerated rate?
It was our good fortune to be able to work alongside U.S. Ski & Snowboard, helping them accelerate a transformation within their Aerials team and answer that question. Together we tackled a number of areas that drive elite teaming:
- Accountability and integrity: questioning at an individual level why we do what we do, what it means to do the job to an elite level and how to do that every day. It’s not a question of just showing up and giving 100%, but your accountability to demand that of yourself and others on the team every single day.
- Pushing limits: it’s one thing to be demanding of yourself and the team, another to do that and break boundaries. Boundary-breaking requires the mental strength to push limits, as well as to catalyze and use the creativity and leadership team members bring. And it’s inspiring - it drives the whole team forward.
- Trust and communication: we place a strong emphasis on these skills, supported with evidence drawn from programs we have run in elite sports and other extremely high-performing teams in the creative arts and military, among others. Trust and transparency are often the key to building a foundation of excellence from which we can layer complexity and pressure to the environment. This allows each member of the team to build the skills and experience to perform at their best when it counts
- Fun: always have a smile on your face. Everyone enjoys having fun.
People often talk about how a team “just gelled”, and without science, you are just leaving the formation of a great team to chance and time spent together...if you have several years and don’t experience churn in your team. Nevertheless, there is real science behind building an elite team and, taken seriously, the process can be accelerated.
It’s less about finding superficial commonalities like common tasks, gender or age. At a neurological level, deeper connections like mission and common purpose, motivations, experiences, beliefs and perceptions are what make an elite team. Our work with teams taps into that by accelerating trust, vulnerability, concise communications and by providing a clear ethos based on aligned values.
Why...aka the benefit
A great team of average individuals driven by a shared purpose and discipline will out-perform a misfit group of high performers any day.
Any team can benefit from applying high performance teaming techniques. Whatever domain you work in, whatever industry, whether you’re stepping onto the podium or support staff, a well structured team accountable to their ethos and processes will deliver phenomenal results. Imagine a society where teaming principles were well understood and practiced with discipline and accountability in businesses, the arts, in government, NGOs, science, education, medicine etc. When great teams in those organisations come across others, then humankind as a whole will be better.
What you can do
Count how many teams you’re on and consider how you can make them better. Always strive for a culture of excellence in your team...and it can always start with you.