Self-directing Teams

If “leadership” is not the most overused term in business, then it is probably “team.”

While groups, bunches, committees, gaggles, herds and such are common, true teams are rare. So, I am thrilled this month to be able to talk about a very unlikely team that models many of the most identifiable behaviors of successful teams, self-named “The Friday Group.”

This loose confederation of people was meeting on a regular basis to see what could be done about the future of Little Rock’s first public park, MacArthur Park. Meetings were on Friday mornings, hence the name. Since I had just finished working on a Rotary project to plant about 150 new trees in the park, I decided I would attend just to be certain that no one was planning on turning the new grove into a soccer field.

I have to be honest here. My first exposure left me scratching my head. This is a citizen group, not a business or government agency. And no two people in the room had the same agenda. Some were interested in development, others in preservation, still others in the eastern corridor, tourism, preserving the neighborhood or specific commercial districts. Like me, everyone had his own agenda. This could easily have been another of those committees that cannot find its way to useful action.

But a hallmark of successful teams is a passion for the outcome or result that the team is there to produce. The first lesson that any business can take from this group is that it remained in conversation, despite often differing priorities, long enough to find that outcome for which the group could unite. The entities involved advocated what could have been polarizing interests, such as historical preservation versus new development or tourism groups versus local residents. As the group kept talking, the members started seeing common ground and involving others who could inform the group, orchestrate change, develop a charter and give it the substance needed to move from dream to action.

Another trait of high-performing teams is that of shared leadership. There were a lot of constituencies at the table with not only differing views but differing capacities for participation. City government, commercial districts, museums, developers, residents, businesses, restoration and history groups as well as those with other local projects were all around the table. As ideas came forward and action was needed, leadership for getting things coordinated and done passed easily from one to another, based on ability, resources and interest in completing the task.

Teams share leadership exactly this way. Some, like the park’s museums, could provide meeting space. Others, like commercial district offices, coordinated meetings and opened access to information. Still others, whose resources would not support the same level of involvement, showed their willingness to develop ideas, make calls and enroll others and look for added resources. And still the team kept talking, coming back week in and week out to share progress and listen to new points of view.

There is a much longer story to tell here, and too many people and organizations to mention in space this brief. However, the bottom line is that by making the team outcome more important than anyone’s individual agenda, this group — which could have become a citizens committee that did nothing — has established a walking tour that includes MacArthur Park and the points of interest surrounding it, raised the money needed for a master plan for the park, created interest sufficient to garner the attention of other nearby commercial groups and put in place ambitious plans for continued progress.

Note to business leaders reading this: All this was accomplished without a boss, an assigned project manager, a single executive sponsor or even a budget. All those jobs got done on the strength of the passion and collaboration of The Friday Group and a genuine willingness to listen to others.

For more information on the MacArthur Park Friday Group, contact Sharon Priest at the Downtown Partnership.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, July 23, 2007.