03/05/2012 02:18 pm ET Updated May 04, 2012

About Leadership - #1: Building Best Teams

In the very center of BP's competencies for the leadership of the Corporation is "Builds Best Teams." I suppose we would all salute that one. Yes, sure, best teams. Of course you have to be able to do that. But what does it mean? And how do you go about doing it?

I started to think about this before the BP competency framework ever saw the light of day; I suspect that most people who aspire to leadership think a lot about how to build a "best team" in whatever management role they have. When I first thought about this I was leading something called the Oil Division at the BP Research Center. We had about 15 research teams, and the leaders of these teams, plus a few other key individuals in staff roles, more or less constituted my team to lead the division.

When I talked with the Team Leaders, and also with my insightful HR director for the Division, it was clear that although we used the word "team" a lot, we had not given any thought to what it meant, or whether we were a leadership team, a collection of research teams, or perhaps just a few hundred people, with specific projects and skills, coming in to work to do our jobs every day -- something very different than a team. I think this is characteristic of the overuse and misuse of the word team in today's corporation.

So I had a thought: Why not get someone really successful from one of the major football (soccer) clubs here in the U.K. to come and talk to my leadership "team" about how to achieve really high performance? At that time, George Graham was the leader of Arsenal Football Club, and was among one of the most successful managers in the league. I wanted to know what he does to achieve this sort of success. Is it in getting the best players and just letting them do their thing? Or was it inspirational speeches? What I knew from my much longer history with baseball and football in the U.S. is that there were individuals (such as the late Billy Martin) who moved from one team to another and achieved excellent results pretty much wherever they went. I wanted to learn their secrets.

But before I could put this cunning plan into action, I had a call from someone in "Group Learning" who had heard of my interest. Great, I said, how do I get George Graham over here? "Well, interesting idea," he responded, "but perhaps I can suggest a better idea. We recently met some sports psychologists by the name of John Syer and Christopher Connolly, and they have been working with athletes at successful football teams, and also with businesses. Why don't you give them a try, because we think they actually understand this business of team building better than most people?"

So here is the first lesson on how to build best teams: Get some professional help. Yes, you can have good instincts about what to do, and using these instincts you can have some success. But pros like John and Christopher have a lot of techniques they can use to help you be much more successful.

I took a chunk of money from a tight budget and allocated it to team workshops with these professionals. We started with an afternoon just with my leadership team -- just a taster session. When that ended, I am sure that some of the crusty team leaders thought their boss was a madman, but one of them came up to me and said, "I want my team to have the first workshop with these guys."

If I step back from the various exercises we did that afternoon and in many subsequent two-day workshops, and ask what John and Christopher seemed to be trying to accomplish, I think: First, the team members need to get to know each other better. It may not be a characteristic of teams everywhere, but it certainly was the case for us that people could work together every day for years and not know very much about one another. This slight deepening of knowledge is the beginning of finding new ways to motivate and stretch performance.

Second, we needed new ways of talking to one another. They recognized that all of us slip into ways of speaking that are vague, evasive, and indirect. But more importantly, that better ways of one-to-one communication can be learned, and that that learning, if practiced, can be quite enduring.

Third, in every existing team there are problems, between individuals, between the leader and some or all of the team members, and between the team and the organization in which it sits. With professional help, these problems surface in a controlled way, can be explored, and sometimes can be dealt with or even resolved. But even when there is no resolution, a professional guided exploration of the problem is helpful.

I was very struck by this last point and its effectiveness, and remain convinced that if you can afford it, the team building workshop using professionals is one of the best investments you can make. By contrast, if you feel that team building is necessary and can't afford the investment to do it right, you need to be very careful about what is done. In particular, surfacing problems with only amateur help can make things a lot worse than they were when the problems were buried.

About Leadership:
About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?