What Makes Teams Work?

Unit of One


Ray Oglethorpe

President, AOL Technologies
America Online Inc.
Dulles, Virginia

What’s the secret to a great team? Think small. Ideally, your team should have 7 to 9 people. If you have more than 15 or 20, you’re dead: The connections between team members are too hard to make.

Two and a half years ago, AOL was feeling hamstrung at the technologies level. There was a bottleneck at the top. We decided to make that division team based, and created core teams that were empowered to make decisions about products.


It was the best thing that we could have done. The core teams spun off satellite teams (also made up of small groups of people) that focused on specific projects, with specific goals and expectations.

The management challenge is to understand that the people who report to you may get most of their direction from another person or from several other people: their team leaders. And people can be on more than one team, of course. It’s the manager’s job to think about whether this person is being stretched too thin, or whether that person needs some special training.

Size is the key. Have the smallest number of people possible on each team. Another rule: no delegates. You don’t want people who have to take the team’s ideas back to someone else to get authorization. You want the decision makers.


Ray Oglethorpe leads AOL Technologies, which includes the network that supports AOL’s member services worldwide, as well as host- and client-software development. Oglethorpe is responsible for maintaining and developing AOL’s core technologies and operational resources and for the company’s integrated-systems architecture. He is based in Dulles, Virginia.

Jon Katzenbach

Senior partner
Katzenbach Partners LCC
New York, New York


Teams work when they are created for the right reasons, and when they are created in the right way. The organization that I think does the best job of meeting these requirements is the U.S. Marine Corps. Most people think of the USMC as a command-and-control organization. But when they put a team together, it’s in the right place for the right reasons. The corps is extremely disciplined about assessing whether it really needs a team for the task at hand. The notion that a team is always better is misleading, yet all too often, that’s the path that managers choose.

The critical decision for any manager or leader who wants to get higher performance from a small group of people is determining whether the group should try to work as a team, or whether they should be satisfied with what I call “single-leader unit” discipline. Single-leader units are intrinsically faster and more efficient than teams. Tasks are more clearly defined by one leader, and members work on their own much of the time.

Most organizations proliferate with groups that call themselves teams but aren’t. It’s too common for single-leader units to be labeled as teams, and it’s disturbing how many managers and leaders assume that being a team is what a group effort is all about. That’s a confusing, frustrating, and costly assumption. And it causes big problems in the workplace. If a group tries to become a team when the performance challenge requires a single-leader approach, performance and morale suffer. The opposite is equally true. In fact, both miscues produce the dreaded “compromise-unit syndrome”: weak leadership, low levels of commitment, wasted time, and poor performance results.


Jon Katzenbach ( is a senior partner at Katzenbach Partners LLC, a New York-based firm that specializes in leadership, team, workforce, and organization performance. He has written Peak Performance: Aligning the Hearts and Minds of Your Employees (Harvard Business School Press, 2000); Teams at the Top: Unleashing the Potential of Both Teams and Individual Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 1998); The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization (with coauthor Douglas Smith) (Harper Business, 1994); and Real Change Leaders: How You Can Create Growth and High Performance at Your Company (with the RCL team, Frederick Beckett, et al.) (Times Business, 1995).

Michael Leinbach

Shuttle-launch director
John F. Kennedy Space Center
Kennedy Space Center, Florida


Where I work, having a well-functioning team can be a matter of life or death. The most critical element of a successful shuttle-launch team is an open channel of communication from each member to the team leader.

With my team, I make sure that everyone knows to inform me immediately if there’s a glitch in his or her work — any glitch — even if it’s just something that’s marginally off, but still within normal specs.

But there are a couple of human factors that can work against us. People tend to be intimidated by those who hold leadership positions. And often people don’t want to stand out. It takes about four months to prepare for each mission. By the time the launch date arrives, everyone wants it to go. It’s natural not to want to be the person who gets the mission scrubbed.


I tell people that being on a team is like getting a huge family ready to go on a picnic. Say you have to get 50 or 60 people ready to go, and then one of the kids gets sick. Picnic scrubbed. You go when the kid is better. It’s as simple as that.

I make it clear that nobody should ever feel bad about being the reason that we scrub a launch. If we didn’t launch that day, it’s because we put safety first — and that’s what is really important. We’ll try to make the launch happen later.

I also try to get to know everyone on the team in an attempt to do away with that intimidation factor. I came up through the ranks here, so a lot of people know me anyway. But I make it a point to spend at least half of my time in my office in the processing area, rather than in my office in the corporate area. It’s good for me and it’s good for the team, both personally and professionally. A team works better when people are at ease with the leader. Members are more likely to say what’s on their minds. I suspect that’s true of any team.


Michael Leinbach ( is the shuttle-launch director at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he leads a team of about 500 people. He started working with NASA in 1984 as a structural engineer.

Martha Rogers

Peppers and Rogers Group
Bowling Green, Ohio


You can’t say, “teams work because of this” or “teams don’t work because of that” — because it depends. But if you’re looking for one quality that most good teams share, I’d have to say that it’s the culture of the company in which the team exists. Is the culture one that rewards groups? Is it one that rewards individuals? Or is it a culture where no one gets rewarded? Look around. Watch how people act and interact, regardless of whether they’re on a team. Do people do things for one another? Do they pick up coffee for others when they’re going out? If the culture is full of give and take — if it’s supportive and trusting — there’s a good chance that you’ll see successful teams at work.

It’s also important that the leaders and the members of good teams have realistic expectations of motive. Sometimes I work with teams that are made up of people from all different areas of a company, with leaders who expect that each team member is going to put aside his or her own personal goals and work selflessly for the common good. Not realistic.

People from different parts of a company are going to have disparate styles, expectations, and reward systems. The best teams have leaders who recognize those differences. Communism has fallen all over the world, and it doesn’t work for teams either.


Martha Rogers ( is a partner in the Stamford, Connecticut-based Peppers and Rogers Group, a consulting firm that specializes in customer-relationship management. Rogers works mostly from her office in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Tony DiCicco

Former head coach
U.S. Women’s World Cup Champion Soccer Team,
and gold-medal winning 1996 U.S. Women’s Olympic Soccer Team
Wethersfield, Connecticut


To have a successful team, you must have a shared culture. My team’s culture is largely built on fitness, intensity in training, individual respect, and respect for the group — both on and off the field. You know you have a good team member when she arrives at training camp fit and ready to play. That kind of preparation shows respect — for herself and for her fellow team members.

I’d also put an emphasis on leadership. When Brandi Chastain scored a devastating goal for the other team last summer, team captain Carla Overbeck walked right up to her and told her, “Brandi, we have 85 minutes to get that goal back. We need you focused and fully into the game. Let’s play.”

A long-term team must have a way for new people to join in successfully. To survive, new players have to buy into the team’s culture. However, your current team members can’t be afraid of new talent or new ideas.


The natural inclination is to protect what you have and not allow a new star to rise to the top. Team members have to fight against that. The bottom line is that new talent can force everyone to play at a higher level.

One time, Michelle Akers was telling someone what happens when a new player joins the team. She said, “Tony wants us to be real nice to her. And we are. But then the next day we kick the shit out of her on the field. We want to show her what we’re made of.”

When I retired, I told the team, “First, never forget how it felt in the final against China last summer when you regained your world-champion status. Second, never forget how it felt in 1996 when the Olympic Gold Medal was placed around your neck. Third, never forget hearing the final whistle blow in Sweden in 1995, when you knew you had been beaten by Norway. Remember all three situations, because each offers incredible motivation.”

Tony DiCicco ( is the former head coach of the U.S. Women’s World Cup Champion Soccer Team and of the gold-medal winning 1996 U.S. Women’s Olympic Soccer Team. His international record is 103 – 8 – 8. Now he is acting commissioner for the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA).

Janine Bay

Director of vehicle personalization for automotive consumer-services group
Ford Motor Co.
Dearborn, Michigan

A team should be made up of people who have different opinions about things, people who approach their work in different ways. Diversity is one of the keys to a successful team. But I’m sure that on every good team, a member has gone home at the end of a day thinking, “This isn’t going to work.”

So my advice is this: Bring in a facilitator. Someone from the outside — an unbiased third party — may have insights about what’s working, what’s not, and why you are just too close to the project to see clearly. A facilitator may be just what team members need to make the most of their diversity, and to help them overcome any personal agendas or conflicts.

At Ford, we always have team-effectiveness coaches on hand. It’s an unusual skill set for Ford, but the coaches are available and invaluable. I’d recommend that you get some.

Janine Bay ( is the director of vehicle personalization for automotive consumer-services group at the Ford Motor Co. ( She also chairs the professional-women’s network within the company. She was the leader of the Ford Mustang team for 10 years.

Thomas C. Leppert

Chairman and CEO
Turner Corp.
Dallas, Texas

A successful team boils down to two things: mutual respect among team members and a common vision about where the team is going.

At Turner, we are completely dependent on teams — not only on teams that exist within the organization, but also on teams that are made up of all sorts of people from the outside, such as architects, designers, and suppliers.

We put teams together to build stadiums and commercial high-rises. Sometimes those teams are easier to manage because there’s a clear sense of what the outcome should be. But we also put internal teams together to work on smaller-scale projects, such as figuring out what our new operating system should look like. Those sorts of teams can be more difficult to create and sustain, because the expected results aren’t as clear. But in the end, it boils down to those two elements. Respect. A common vision. That’s what you need.

Thomas C. Leppert ( is chairman and CEO of the Turner Corp., which is based in Dallas. The Turner Corp. is a holding company for Turner Construction (which was founded in 1902) and other subsidiaries. Last year, the Turner Corp. completed more than $4.8 billion worth of construction. Among its many projects, Turner is working on the new Broncos Stadium in Denver, the Bear Stearns building in New York, and several assignments at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Michael Schrage

MIT Media Labs eMarkets Initiative
Executive director
Merrill Lynch’s Innovation Grants Competition
Cambridge, Massachusetts

I view teams skeptically, because so many organizations treat them cynically. Teamwork has become a euphemism for organizational politics. Guess what? People sense the dishonesty there. People aren’t stupid. They know when they’re being used.

The tough question that managers need to answer isn’t, “How do we build better teams?” The question is “What kind of conversations and interactions do we want to create?” Innovative managers understand that they must do more than manage people. They need to manage the interactions between people. That’s not a subtle distinction. The best managers get their people to interact in creative ways.

How do they do that? It takes shared space to create shared understandings. Shared space could be a model or a prototype of a proposed new product.

It could be the mock-up of a Web site. What gives a conversation weight, dimension, and relevance is having a shared space where people’s ideas can play out in front of one another. The Net is the greatest medium for shared space ever invented!

The point is that new kinds of shared space allow new kinds of collaboration and creativity to take place. These spaces let people seriously play. Isn’t that what teams and teamwork should really be about?

Michael Schrage (, codirector of the MIT Media Labs eMarkets Initiative and executive director of Merrill Lynch’s Innovation Grants Competition, is the author of Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), and No More Teams: Mastering the Dynamics of Creative Collaboration (Currency/Doubleday, 1995).

H. David Aycock

Former chairman, CEO, and president
Nucor Corp.
Charlotte, North Carolina

There are seven key ingredients to building a successful team. Number one, the mission must be clearly defined and articulated, and everybody has to understand it. That includes an understanding of the project’s purpose, the strategy for getting the work accomplished, the ultimate goal, the benefits people will receive if the goal is met, the measurement system that’s going to be used, and how differences of opinion (or other conflicts) are going to be handled.

Number two, all team members have to be positive thinkers. A team just can’t function with an excuse-driven, “no-can-do” member on board.

Number three, selfish people spell doom for a team effort.

Number four, each team member must have enough self-confidence and self-respect to respect other team members.

Number five, the team leader must always be on the lookout for distractions, tangents, and unproductive or ancillary issues. If the leader spots the project going astray, it’s his or her responsibility to get it back on track — fast.

Number six, each member must trust the motives of the other members.

Number seven, the team has to be as small as possible. If you have more people than are absolutely necessary on a team, members will start functioning like a committee.

We do a lot of team-based work at Nucor: Teams put steel joists together; teams work on the rolling mill; teams work in the corporate area. None of these teams would work without those seven ingredients.

H. David Aycock is the former chairman, CEO, and president of Nucor Corp., a company that manufactures steel products, has 7,500 employees, and owns operating facilities in eight states. Nucor’s products include carbon and alloy steel, steel joists and joist girders, steel deck, and cold-finished steel. Nucor’s sales are in excess of $4 billion per year. Aycock joined Nucor in 1962, when the company (then known as the Nuclear Corporation of America) bought the Vulcraft plant in Florence, South Carolina, where he was a sales manager.

Millard Fuller

Founder and president
Habitat for Humanity International
Americus, Georgia

The most essential ingredient of a successful team is a cause that everyone agrees on. In our case, it’s providing housing for low-income families — people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford a home. We operate with what we call the “theology of the hammer.” People may differ religiously or politically, but we can all agree on a hammer as a way to help people in need.

The second essential ingredient is preparation. In our case, that means doing all of the background work: having all of the materials, plumbers, electricians, and so forth scheduled to be on-site. That way, the work goes smoothly, because as soon as the volunteers arrive, they have something productive to do and someone there who is qualified to show them how to do it.

We’ve had so many different types of people working together to build Habitat houses as part of one team or another. A company’s CEO and janitor can be on the same team. And you know what? It’s good for both of them.

Nobody works for nothing. Some people work for money, and some people work for recognition. But I’ll tell you this: People will stick out an unpleasant assignment, but they won’t do it again. We have a great record because it’s a good experience. Everyone who works on a Habitat house gets something of value out of it. That’s an important part of building a lasting team.

Millard Fuller ( founded Habitat for Humanity International 24 years ago. The organization is all about teams; it brings volunteers together every day all around the world to build housing for low-income families. Many are church-sponsored projects. Increasingly, though, companies are taking on the construction of Habitat houses as team-building exercises for their own organizations.

Jonathan Roberts

Managing director and partner
Ignition Corp.
Bellevue, Washington

Teams mostly come down to the classic “good guy” question: If everyone on the team is able to say “I can work with this person” about everyone else on the team, then you’ve got a good thing going.

Generally, a good fit starts with shared values. Are the team members passionate about the work that they’re going to be doing together? Are they going to try to game one another in some way? Are they political animals? Or are they straight and true? Are they humble when it’s appropriate to be humble? There’s going to be contention on any team. That’s to be expected. But at the end of the day, team members have to like one another — and they have to like what they’re doing.

When I’m assessing a team, I use my “three ‘P’ ” test. The “P”s stand for people, process, and product. If everyone on the team isn’t clear about the product (whatever it is that you’re trying to create) and the process (how you’re going to get where you need to be, who drives what, who is the ultimate decision maker), then there are going to be people problems. Whenever I go into a tumultuous situation, I always step back and ask, “What are we trying to build here?” Then I ask, “How are we trying to build it?” Usually, debugging those two issues will clarify what the people problem is all about. If not, you’ve got a fit problem.

Jonathan Roberts is managing director and partner at Ignition Corp., a holding company designed to fund, mentor, and build wireless-Internet startup companies. He works with the senior-management teams at the startups to solve management issues and to address business-development needs. Roberts is a 13-year Microsoft veteran, and he was recently a general manager for Windows CE for intelligent appliances.

Mike Maerz

Cofounder, chairman, and CEO
etrieve Inc.
Hillsboro, Oregon

Four things characterize a great team. One, the team members must be galvanized by a common goal. That’s what spurs people on and drives them to excel. Two, the members need to be driven by the team’s results, not by individual results. For that to happen, you have to deal with the whole compensation issue. People must be able to subordinate their own goals — realistically — in favor of team goals. Three, the team has to be diverse. The team should be made up of people who think differently too — intuitive thinkers as well as logical thinkers. John F. Kennedy’s cabinet comes to mind as a great example of a team made up of diverse thinkers. Four, on the best teams, no one hesitates to act out of a fear that what they’re about to do isn’t in their area of responsibility. Good team players take action. They don’t stew about whether it’s their job or about whether they’re going to offend someone.

There are some common pitfalls in team building. But they’re mostly the inverse of the characteristics that I just mentioned. The biggest one is not having a well-defined common goal. A lot of work environments are so fast-paced that people don’t take the time that they should to agree on common goals. They get lost in the tactics before they figure out what they’re trying to accomplish. Then the team runs like an engine that’s totally out of whack. The pieces don’t operate together the way that they should, and eventually — usually pretty quickly — the whole thing just breaks down.

Mike Maerz cofounded etrieve Inc. in October 1998 and now serves as its chairman and CEO. He is responsible for strategic planning, partnership development, market positioning, and team management. Before he started etrieve, Maerz founded and served as CEO of the Palace Inc. (a virtual-world online community where users can communicate, play, and attend events), and he was a vice president and general manager at Intel. Etrieve Inc. ( provides wireless email solutions that enable mobile-business professionals to manage email communications while away from the office.

Aaron Cohen

Concrete Inc.
New York, New York

This moment in history is about individual collaborative thinking. That’s almost an oxymoron. But it means that people need to be fiercely independent and intensely collaborative at the same time.

Teamwork is at the heart of the creative energy of the Internet industry. It’s important to take advantage of each player’s best insights, but we’ll all get farther, faster, if we work together to solve problems.

Today’s companies need lots of aspiring leaders. That doesn’t mean that a company needs to have 15 chief executives, but it does mean that the top manager has to know how to check his or her ego and encourage everyone else to do what he or she does best.

Great teams operate without their members knowing what’s going to happen to them in the future. The key is that each individual has a belief in the others that enables him or her to carry through. Members need to believe that everyone is working toward a common goal.

Aaron Cohen ( leads a team of nearly 200 people who are focusing on a very particular part of the Internet economy: helping large corporations build new Internet businesses. Concrete Inc. (formerly Concrete Media) offers an integrated suite of services that includes strategic consulting, software engineering, brand positioning, and strategic-technology and design services.

Franklin Jonath

Jonath & DiMeo Inc.
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Given a group of talented people and a project that is worthy, it’s the leader who makes a team succeed.

In theater and in sports, teams get a chance to practice a lot before the main event takes place. It should be the same in the corporate world. A good team leader will create an environment in which people can practice and make mistakes before they’re pressured to produce.

A skilled leader will also focus on managing the interactions between people, as opposed to managing individual behavior. That allows individuals to manage their own behavior.

A good leader recognizes that everyone is competitive to some degree. He or she is careful to accentuate people’s different strengths, rather than stigmatize them for their weaknesses. There’s no need to stop people from competing, but that rivalry has to be channeled into cooperative competitiveness.

The idea is for the team leader to be at the service of the group. It should be clear that the team members own the outcome. The leader is there to bring intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources to the team. Through his or her actions, the leader should be able to show the others how to think about the work that they’re doing in the context of their lives. It’s a tall order, but the best teams have such leaders.

Franklin Jonath ( is the president of Jonath & DiMeo Inc., a management-consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His work focuses on addressing individual- and group-communications issues. He specializes in diagnosing individual and group problems as well as designing and implementing practical solutions.

Jeanie Duck

Senior vice president
Boston Consulting Group
Atlanta, Georgia; Miami, Florida

Most teams are so eager to start thinking about work plans and output that they don’t spend nearly as much time as they should setting up.

Are the team members all on the same page about the project’s goals? Do they all understand how their work is going to be measured? What are they going to do if one team member doesn’t do his or her homework?

Too often, what happens is that teams get right down to work, and then some sort of conflict arises. It gets ugly and personal very fast, because everyone has been blindsided and no one knows what to do. Here’s an example: You start working as a team. One person is behaving like a star — he wants special treatment. Well, did you all talk about that possibility before you launched into things?

My advice for any new team: Don’t shortchange your startup. Take the time to understand what you’re going to do and how you’re going to deal with the possible bumps along the way. Trying to undo a conflict between two team members when no one is prepared to handle such a situation is at least three times harder than taking the time to set up some ground rules at the beginning of the process.

I saw it happen in a merger, and it was painful. There were two companies, both with the same type of business. Why would there be any conflict? I’ve also seen it happen in internal teams. The ones that are particularly vulnerable are those that try to come up with a new approach to something. Such teams are made up of departments that have different interests. One of them has to give. Who is the team sponsor? Has the whole team agreed that one person has the authority to make the call?

Don’t say, “It won’t happen to us.” Spend the time up front. Please.

Jeanie Duck, who is based in Atlanta, is a senior vice president at the Boston Consulting Group. Duck’s work mainly focuses on large-scale change. She has a book coming out called The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change (Random House, Spring 2001).