THE BLOG
10/09/2014 04:11 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

Team Equity Is Not Equality

When I was improvising professionally in my early days as an actor, there was a funny situation that arose several times. Five or six guys would realize they cracked each other up and decide to do an improv show. The problem was that these guys would invariably look the same, have the same sense of humor, and be old friends from the same neighborhood. They had a lot of fun together. However, how long do you think the show was funny for the audience? Not long. These shows usually ran for one weekend and closed.

The missing ingredient was Team Equity. It's incredibly important to have diversity of talent onstage for an effective improv show. Let's explore how leaders can use improvisational behaviors to ensure their teams are strong, diverse and engaged.

To my gentlemen readers, I apologize if the example above feels extreme. But it happened so many times (and I never once saw an all-female group until I moved to Ohio years later) it became a joke. You see, in order to have a really good improv show, you need many different types of talent. You need someone who's great with one-liners, someone who can riff on current events, someone who can sing, a character-actor, a dancer, and definitely a piano player! Now that's the foundation for a really funny, interesting show that will bring audiences back.

"A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable." - Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith

Diversity of talent isn't the only piece of the pie. As we all know, the people in a troupe or team need to be invested -- that's where Equity comes in. Team Equity is about having all the right people in the right places, doing the right things. It's not about everybody having equal time, equal say in the matter or equal skills. Members of high-performing teams complement each other. And when that happens, discretionary effort and engagement begin.

How can leaders achieve that balance? Ask and listen. Understand your people. What are their skills? What do they love to do? What drives them and what matters to them?

Case Study
A large financial client used regional proximity to decide who went on client pitches. If a big client pitch for mortgages came up in the Mid-Atlantic, John was sent because he lived right there and it was good experience for him. Unfortunately, John hated pitching. He tried his best, but desperately needed support. Although it seemed "fair," the client got a terrible presentation from a novice and the company lost the pitch.

By honestly assessing talent and integrating Team Equity, our client began to change its culture for better outcomes. Specific strengths were identified and everyone, nationwide, understood who to turn to for expertise. That meant the right people supported the local teams for specific pitches. This approach allowed experts to train novices, clients to see that the company contained the skills needed, and teams to leverage their strengths. It all came about because a leader decided to start asking people, "What's your strength? What do you think is the best talent you bring to the team?"

Last thoughts
Leveraging strengths is not an excuse to avoid development. Everyone can improve their weaknesses and work outside their comfort zone. That's what growing and stretching is about -- and when they also get to use their strengths for the team -- everyone puts on a better show.

Karen Hough is the Founder and CEO of ImprovEdge, an Amazon #1 bestselling author and contributor to the Huffington Post. Her second, award-winning book, "Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over" is available from Berrett-Koehler. She is the recipient of the Stevie International Silver Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year and the Athena PowerLink Award for outstanding woman-owned business. She is a Yale graduate and international speaker.