Obama’s Cabinet-Creating Challenge

President-elect Barack Obama has shown courage and imagination by inviting a now famous team of rivals to serve in his cabinet. Much has been made of the comparisons with Abraham Lincoln’s similar strategy. However, we know now that it did not work out so well for Lincoln, at least for the first few years. If Obama is to get the most from his newly forming group, he is going to have to take the next step and help the members become a team.

We know much more now about what converts a group into a team than we did during Lincoln’s presidency. But that makes the task no less formidable. While no one is calling me from the Obama transition team, this seemed like a great time to review some of the more important facets of forming a true team and guiding it toward high performance.

Probably the most important characteristic of high-performing teams is a fierce desire to achieve the goal that the team exists to achieve. Creating and sustaining that fierce desire carries with it implications for team leaders.

Taking advantage of that focused desire requires a clearly articulated vision. High-performing teams are not at all casual about this step. Sadly, many teams step over the process of clarifying vision in an effort to act immediately. This tactic often makes for a strong beginning. After the low-hanging fruit is picked, however, progress will suffer as the team members begin to discover places where they are not aligned.

True high-performing teams also require that team members be more invested in the outcome than in their own personal opinions about how to get there, no matter how well informed they may be.

The good news about a team of rivals is that they will debate vigorously and are likely to look at challenges and solutions from a wide range of viewpoints. The question is, can they settle on a strategy and march in step to carry it out, making the goal more important than the rivalry? While this may be a major hurdle for a political team, it can be an equally thorny issue for business teams.

In his acceptance speech for his nomination as secretary of the Commerce Department, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson made an important distinction when he contrasted rivals and competitors. Many executives have learned over the years that today’s competitor may be tomorrow’s partner. The ability to relinquish an old and bitter rivalry is essential to creating a high-performing team, no matter what the environment.

Underlying and supporting these performance traits is the ability and willingness to listen really well. OK, I can hear a chorus of “What, listening again?” I know that this trait shows up often in this column, but it is so necessary to leadership that it bears repeating.

As a practice in listening, I often have coaching clients listen to speeches of those whose political views they fiercely oppose. But listening for rebuttal with exasperation and judgment does not count. What matters is listening to truly see the world through the other person’s eyes. You need not agree; however, if you are really courageous, you might adopt an opposing point of view for an hour or so. Teams that listen for true understanding achieve more because they can engage in a much richer and more constructive debate.

The debates were full of differing points of view about economic and foreign policy. But they are just that: points of view. No one knows for certain what will happen based on any strategy. Trying to turn our beliefs into undisputable truth and betting everyone’s future on that policy is a high-risk game. The team is in it together, and in the case of the president’s Cabinet, we are all in it with them.

If Obama can truly create a team composed of his former competitors, we will all benefit. Business leaders would profit from the same strategy.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, December 15, 2008.