This month, I am relishing those few weeks that come only once every few years: The Olympics. I love watching, cheering, and dreaming. Although my dream of standing atop the podium to receive an Olympic medal never moved beyond a dream, the Olympics still give me lots to ponder not only about sports but also about grit, perseverance, and teamwork. I am fascinated watching the hockey players anticipating their teammates’ moves as they skate and pass at blinding speed. Just as fascinating are the relay teams (like the cross-country ski teams) comprised of athletes who race alone – yet have a strong team identify, loyalty, and mutual support.

As a professional or volunteer leader, you likely are part of many teams. Management teams. Event teams. Department teams. Some teams last for years, some only a few months… or even just for a few days or weeks. How do you develop a team that is strong, productive, and successful – whether working like a hockey team on the ice together or in relay fashion, like the cross-country skiers?

Last week, I took a break from watching the Olympics to facilitate a retreat with staff and volunteers from a client organization. The goal was to develop recommendations on how to best leverage volunteers in responding to disasters. Everyone in the room was involved in emergency response in one way or another – but these 35 people had never all been together in the same room before. In fact, only 2 of the participants knew everyone else in the room. My task, as facilitator, included creating a team out of these disparate individuals so that we would be successful in developing strategic recommendations. With a mix of senior managers, direct service staff, new volunteers, veteran volunteers, and some with titles that denote status such as Captain or Sergeant, I had my work cut out for me.

To achieve this, within the first hour, I prioritized the following:

  1. Establish a shared vision of success.
  2. Ensure all participants knew that they were there because their input is valued (no matter their position or title).
  3. Create a comfortable space for all participants to contribute ideas and ask challenging questions (again, no matter their position or title).
  4. Set the parameters for the scope and timeframe of our discussion.

Here are some of the ways we achieved those priorities.

  1. We assigned seats. Yes, we did. Departments and teams were broken up intentionally so that, for example, no volunteer could sit back and wait for the other volunteers to speak up at the table. No department member was overwhelmed by having 4 senior staff members at the same table.
  2. As people arrived, got settled, and snacked on their coffee and bagels, they were encouraged to write answers to questions posted on flip charts around the room. Questions asked them what they wish to contribute, what they hope to gain, what challenges they anticipate, etc. In other words, we got everyone’s voice in the room before I even stood before them to say, “Good morning.”
  3. We explicitly stated that every person was invited because of their unique experience and expertise and that we relied on them to share their perspective.
  4. We established norms for the day and ensured everyone was comfortable abiding by these agreements. One of my favorite norms is this:

Your voice is as important as others’ and is only as important as others’.

The day was successful. This team was successful in accomplishing a remarkable amount of work in just 7 hours – including a break for a tasty lunch.

On the same day that I was facilitating this retreat, the New York Times published this article about the secrets to the Norwegian Ski Team.  In short, the Norwegians’ rules include:

  1. No jerks.
  2. No class structure (in other words, no heroes, no rookies).
  3. The social fabric of the group is paramount.
  4. Talk to each other, not about each other.
  5. Friday night is taco night.

These may be concise, but they sure are deep in their implications. To create a culture of respect and success, this team has developed rules to guide their behavior on and off the ski slopes. The same is true of work teams – the most successful ones establish guidelines for behavior that extend beyond the walls of the conference rooms.

Developing and supporting successful teams begins with rules and agreements that underscore each person’s value (No rookies, no heroes), that create a comfortable space for everyone to contribute (Your voice is as important as others’ and is only as important as others’) and create space and time to celebrate and relax together off the playing field (Taco night).

What norms and agreements do your staff-volunteer teams develop and hold dear?