5 Lessons Learned to Create Successful Teams

The best of each of us is amplified when we work on teams that are structured to support effective teamwork but what makes these effective teams work can feel somewhat elusive at times. For starters, a group of talented individuals working together does not make a team. For teams to work together and do their best work, there must be shared purpose and structures that support effective teamwork.  This requires constant attention to ensure individual efforts align and support the vision instead of each individual on their own moving in different directions. This article, GoogleSpent 2 Years Studying 180 Teams.  The Most Effect Team Shared these 5 Traits shared the follwing:


Team members get things done on time and meet expectations.

Structure and clarity.

High-performing teams have clear goals, and have well-defined roles within the group.


The work has personal significance to each member.


The group believes their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good.

Psychological Safety.

A situation in which everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture where managers provide air cover and create safe zones so employees can let down their guard. That’s psychological safety.

In the article, it goes on to say that when these traits were present in teams, employees were “less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, were more successful.” These findings immediately made me think of how these 5 traits of effective teams align with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s hierarchy builds on the foundation of physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem and to ultimately reach self-actualization. Similarly, you can’t have high functioning teams that achieve great success if people are afraid of sharing their ideas or challenge existing norms.

The following chart depicts how I see the Google findings meshing with Maslow. In a hierarchy, these 5 traits build on physiological safety as well as structure and clarity that allows for teams to come together and work effectively. Both dependability and meaning are critical for people to feel like they are part of something worthwhile and when teams work, the ultimate measure is the impact they have on desired goals. 

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Teams Succeed Because They Are Exceedingly Human

To become and stay a high functioning team, like any relationship takes constant work and attention. I love this quote from Patrick Lencioni, author of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team:

Successful teamwork is not about mastering subtle, sophisticated theories, but rather about combining common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence. Ironically, teams succeed because they are exceedingly human. By acknowledging the imperfections of their humanity, members of functional teams overcome the natural tendencies that make teamwork so elusive.

When I think about high functioning teams that I have been a part of and what makes them effective, it is this notion of acknowledging imperfections that speaks volumes. Only when we are open enough to be ourselves and show our imperfections can we truly come together as a team to support one another and leverage the team to be better together. A common misconception is that shared goals have to be determined from the top of an organization.  While at times they are, leaders at all levels should and could support the team in creating shared goals to move forward. It takes courage to turn meetings around and it is natural to look at the behaviors of others and pinpoint how they are contributing to the dysfunction of the team but pointing fingers will not change anything, and will likely make it worse.  All team members play a critical role in developing the team and anyone can take steps to improve collaboration.

Here are 5 lessons that I have learned to create more successful teams.


1. Build on Strengths

Building on the premise that people are more confident, passionate and do better work when you focus on what right with them instead of what’s wrong with them, we created a culture that was based on strengths rather than focus on deficits.  Everyone on our team took the Gallup strenghtsfinders assessment to identify our top 5 strengths.  The premise is that there are 34 research based talents and the assessment provides each individual with the language for naming and claiming unique strengths. When individuals are aware of what they are good at and leverage their strengths to do their best work, everyone benefits. To lead and collaborate with others, one first must understand themselves and their own strengths in order to maximize the talents of the group to do their best work.

Some good questions for team and individual reflection:

  • How did you build on your strengths this week?
  • Were there times your strengths were not utilized?
  • How can you continue to leverage your strengths to support the team?

2. Ensure Equitable Voice and Choice

Early as a team leader I really wanted our collaboration to be different so I read up on how to improve meetings and did everything that I thought I was supposed to do. I created an agenda and set times and held to them, identified who was responsible for each task that I wanted to accomplish my goals.  I was motivated by my “activator” strength and wanted to overhaul everything but in the end, it was all about me and what I wanted.  I had great aspirations and I was seeking change in service of our students. I thought that because I had the best intentions, I was justified in my approach but I failed to involve the team in the process.  In turn, the team was compliant; they showed up and sat through meetings, filled out necessary paperwork but rarely offered up suggestions, pushed back or built on anything that was said.  We survived our weekly team meetings but this was not a place of deep learning and growth.

Over the next few years, I had the opportunity to learn a few things that helped me take a different approach to shift the meetings and effectively the culture.  I learned about cognitive coaching and facilitative leadership and I developed skills and a new mindset that allowed me to more effectively facilitate meetings.  Instead of pushing my way through an agenda, I learned the importance of establishing community guidelines as a team and I learned to ask better questions and use protocols to provide more structure for equitable voice in our discussions. Most importantly, I learned that if for our team to provide more voice and choice for their students and let them lead their learning, telling teachers to change wasn’t going to cut it, we had to create the space for all of us to learn.

3. Focus on Desired Impact

I apologize to any English teachers reading this but I have been in too many conversations about whether or not the Outsiders is an 8th-grade book or 9th-grade book and mitigating arguments because the 7th-grade teachers wanted to teach Farewell to Manzanar. And if you know English teachers, these conversations can get heated. One of many problems with this focus is that it becomes about the book and “territory”, not about what’s best for kids.

To achieve our goals, our English department had to shift our meeting structures from what we wanted and what we were teaching to looking at student work to find out what they were learning. We wrote a proposal to our principal for 8 books– 7 Strategies for Teaching Reading, requested stipends for the teachers to meet regularly after school for 8 weeks. We read the book on our own time, came together after school to engage in collaborative conversation that allowed teachers to experience the new strategies in their own reading and learning and then plan for how to support students in their diverse classes. The team made the commitment to try out the new strategies, they picked a time for me (as the literacy coach) to come observe and discuss what we were learning and we all shared what was working and challenges each week. We shifted our conversations from what content and page number we were teaching that week to what we were learning and how we could impact student outcomes.

The biggest shift was when we committed to bring evidence of student work connected to our desired outcomes and move beyond the spreadsheets of numbers to actually understand what was happening in our classrooms, dig deep into our problems of practice, engage in dilemma protocols. We began to interrogate our own practices to ensure we were truly meeting the needs of the learners. Innovation is not about creating something new, but doing something that leads to better outcomes because of what we have created. We asked questions like, How do we know that our idea is working? What is the impact on desired student outcomes?

Does your team know what it is that you hope to accomplish? When we focus our efforts on what we want to accomplish, not simply the metrics or data from an isolated test or standards, but the type of student that we want to create, we might find that our meetings become more meaningful and impactful. Test scores might be easy to track, measure and rank (teachers and students) but it’s important to understand the extent to which they serve your purpose.  I’m not saying they don’t have a place but they aren’t the only goal that we should be focusing on.

4. Learn to Improve

To develop the professional culture and community, build relationships and model the type of learning that we wanted to see in the classroom. I recognized that one of my many mistakes early on was that I thought I had to have all the answers. Instead of dictating what would change, one of the first things that I did differently, and continue to do with any new team, is create the space for people to share what was working and what they wanted to improve. This requires a level of vulnerability and openness and is foundational to developing strong teams.  If you don’t create the space for people to be open and honest or you are defensive about people’s frustrations, don’t bother asking. I also learned (and continue to be reminded) how important it is to create multiple entry points for people to share their thoughts- whole group, on one one and some way to give anonymous feedback to ensure that all voices are honored.

As an example of the power of multiple feedback channels, it became clear that the team meetings were becoming stagnant and we were just going through the motions. We had been creating agendas that were reacting to events rather than prioritizing time to delve into the real challenges we were facing.  Seth Godin points out that, “there’s a queue of urgent things, all justifiable, all requiring you and you alone to handle them. And so you do, pushing off the important in favor of the urgent”. If you always react to the urgent, there is never time to get better. To intentionally spend our time together minimizing the logistics and to create time to deepen our practice, we created a list of things that we needed to spend time doing and what wanted to spend time doing to deepen our practice, or as Seth frames it the urgent and the important. We ended up crafting a new template for our weekly meetings to deliberately schedule time for learning and innovation.

5. Invest in Relationships

You can have all the right structures in place but if you haven’t built the relationships and created a community with shared goals, where the individuals are valued, none of it matters.  If we don’t invest in the relationships and build connections between people and our ideas we limit the potential of what we all can achieve together. High functioning teams value the team as a whole and understand the relationships are at the core of the work. They ensure they invest time in building those relationships to best serve the team so they accomplish the desired goals. A willingness to ask for and receive input characterizes the best teams. It shows the team members respect one another’s opinions, and strive to incorporate diverse viewpoints to become more productive and efficient.  In schools where empowerment and collaboration are norms, teachers often have higher morale and stronger commitment, as well as the desire to remain in teaching.

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This quote from Henry Ford captures the difference in calling yourself a team and working together as a team, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”  Too often in team meetings or staff meetings, I think we have become accustomed to showing up and counting that as our duty, but this is not success.  Showing up is the first step but to come together as a team or as a staff and leverage the collective expertise to work towards something that will improve outcomes for all learners is what we should be working towards every day.  There is too much to do and the stakes are too high to go at it alone.

3 Replies to “5 Lessons Learned to Create Successful Teams”

  1. Paul Mendeika says: Reply

    Hi Katie
    Really good blog. I’m a patient representative in the NHS and the main stumbling block is the style and practice of senior managers / leaders. Lead by title , power , hierarchy etc

  2. HOWARD JOHNSON says: Reply

    I truly believe this and it is our responsibility to make it happen.
    HOWARD Johnson

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