14 Steps to Building a Highly Successful Team

14 Steps to Building a Highly Successful Team

Most managers dream of having a group of talented individuals who work together so well that they can’t help but deliver amazing work. But it’s tough to get a group of unique personalities, life experiences, beliefs, and backgrounds to gel into a single well-oiled machine.

However, when you follow these 14 steps to building a successful team, you can bring any group of people together to accomplish incredible things. Team members can be made up of employees, independent talent, consultants, agencies, or a mix of all four. Some people may be working onsite and some remotely. None of that matters, so long as you provide the right skills, tools, and environment for success.

Common characteristics and qualities of successful teams

When we talk about a successful team, we're talking about one that works together so well that they deliver high-quality work on time and hit their goals. The vibe of the team is so positive and supportive that members feel safe, seen, valued, and supported. They may even have fun at work, even on stressful days.

Who’s on your team may change over time, or from project to project, and that’s OK. By maintaining these traits in your team, you create an environment that enables everyone to succeed together:

  • Shared goal. Members move in the same direction knowing what they’re working toward and why they’re there.
  • Curious and adaptable. People are open to learning new things and adapt quickly to changing circumstances and new information.
  • Trust and commitment. Members hold each other accountable and trust each other to do their work and look out for the team's interests.
  • Diverse. Diversity of experiences, backgrounds, and even locations and work status (e.g., employee versus independent talent) provides the perspectives, knowledge, and creativity required to solve problems well.
  • Open communication. Everyone feels safe being authentic and constructively shares their concerns and feedback.
  • Inclusive. Members respect each other's perspectives, feel heard and safe enough to take risks and be vulnerable.
  • Complementary skillsets. Members have the skills and knowledge to deliver on their responsibilities.

14 steps to building a successful team

The more you can rely on your team to regularly deliver remarkable work, the more comfortable you may feel taking on greater responsibilities and launching bigger initiatives.

Remember that great teams consist of anyone required to get the work done. This may be a mix of employees, independent talent, consultants, agencies, and people working remotely and onsite. Here’s how to create an environment that enables everyone to contribute at their highest potential.

1. Set business goals

Setting goals provides your team a framework by:

  • Giving them purpose, which may increase their engagement, motivation, and productivity
  • Aligning their work with business goals
  • Informing them what the team’s structure should look like, roles required, people’s responsibilities, and skillsets needed
  • Identifying hiring priorities, such as when specific skills may be required and for how long you’ll need them
  • Reducing risk by flagging potential challenges like the equipment and processes needed for a project

2. Define roles and skillsets required

Now that you know what your goals are, you can determine the skillsets required to achieve them. Knowing each person’s responsibilities will also guide you in writing accurate job descriptions and determining what success looks like for each person.

You may also identify what work should be handled by independent talent versus an employee so that you can effectively allocate resources. For example, a content team is made up of people managing the operations and people producing the content. You may find the most efficient way to generate quality content at a reliable pace is by contracting independent writers and graphic designers.

Content org chart

3. Maximize the skills of each team member

The objective of this step is to get the best work out of people by utilizing their strengths to the fullest. Regularly review the capabilities of each team member, including their strengths and weaknesses. Then determine where people have complementary skills. Knowing who can back up another person and the type of work someone does well and enjoys most may reduce their stress levels.

Knowing each person’s strengths and interests may also show where to invest in learning and development (L&D). Workers, especially the younger generations, often appreciate companies that invest in their career growth. They may show their appreciation by staying in their jobs longer and working harder.

If you don’t have a formal L&D program, that’s OK. You can show employees you care about their career growth by paying for an online training course or webinar, pairing them up with a mentor, or sending them to a conference.

Related: 7 Ways To Ensure Learning Opportunities for Remote Teams

4. Set expectations from day one

Every team member should know what’s expected from them, their deadlines, the support you’ll provide, the processes available to facilitate their work, and how you’ll evaluate their success. They should also know what doing a good job looks like.

Setting expectations includes how they should communicate. In addition to establishing respectful communication guidelines and using inclusive language, you can improve team communication by proactively addressing questions like how quickly should they respond to emails? When should they have conversations over the phone versus on a video call? Is it OK to turn all email, text, and messaging notifications off after work hours?

5. Embrace diversity

Studies have long established how diversity exposes people to different perspectives, which can lead to new ways of thinking. And those new thoughts may result in greater innovation, faster problem-solving, and deeper customer connections.

Working with people from different backgrounds, beliefs, lifestyles, and life experiences also benefits the individual on a personal level. When teams have regular exposure to people outside of their normal circle, they become more aware of their own biases and stereotypes.

As people become more self-aware, their minds may open. Open minds then lead to open hearts as they begin communicating and collaborating with greater empathy and adaptability.

Whether for business or personal gain, there’s no downside to building diverse teams. In fact, a Pew Research Center survey shows most U.S. employees (56%) support more efforts toward it.

Dive deeper: How To Be an Inclusive Leader

6. Allow your team to take risks and experiment

Taking risks helps your team grow and find creative solutions to problems. When given the opportunity to test ideas and fail, they may find a way to do something better, faster, or cheaper. They may even uncover untapped opportunities.

Some of their experiments may fizzle and that’s OK too; they’re still stretching themselves and growing from the experience. And they may be able to apply some of those learnings to future projects, which increases their chances of success.

If you’re thinking, “There’s no time to test ideas, we’re scrambling just to get our regular work done!there’s a solution. See how PGA of America finds the time and budget for testing new ideas.

7. Give authentic recognition

Everyone wants to feel their work matters and that they’re appreciated. Generally, the more sincere and frequent the recognition, the more engaged and excited a person feels about their job.

Although there are many ways to recognize someone—an award, money, or promotion—saying a quick thank you during a weekly stand-up meeting may be enough. Whatever you do, be authentic as most employees (64%) prefer authenticity over frequency.

So when giving a pat on the back, don’t just say, “Hey, good job last week.” Specify the person, what they did, and how their work made a difference or provided value to the organization.

Recognition

Read: How To Show Appreciation to Employees: 10 Simple Ways With Big Impact

8. Promote individual development

Over the last several years, companies have had a tough time keeping and attracting people with in-demand skills. Trends suggest that it’s going to get tougher, which is why a LinkedIn Workplace report shows 81% of companies are leaning on their learning and development departments (L&D) for help.

L&D priority

Why L&D? “People who are top learners are also top performers. And those top performers are helping build a stronger employer brand name, and share what they learn with other employees,” said Ariel Mendes, HR Global Learning and Development Leader at Rock Content.

You don’t need a formal L&D function to develop team members. Effective talent development strategies include:

  • Offering professional training on the latest technologies and tools
  • Connecting team members with coaches to level up their communication or management skills
  • Mentoring employees by teaming them with leaders from other functions
  • Giving time, and possibly funds, to pursue relevant work certifications and higher education
  • Having them work with external talent on a project to learn new skills and ways of thinking

Related: 7 Ways To Ensure Learning Opportunities for Remote Teams

9. Don’t micromanage

According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, people who feel micromanaged at work are more tense and stressed than those who are given their space, to the tune of 64% vs. 36%. So let your team complete tasks with the appropriate level of autonomy.

Be the person they feel comfortable going to when they want guidance or feedback. If you hire the right people and have the right processes in place, they will get their work done without you staring over their shoulders all day. You can check in during weekly standup meetings or monthly 1:1s, depending on the work and role. And here’s a side bonus: when you give people more freedom, you have more time to get your own work done.

Stress management

10. Motivate your team with positivity

Your team will go through many ups and downs throughout the year. The more positive their work environment, the more resilient they may be to change and stress. And the faster they may recover when something goes wrong.

Many of the top ways to promote workplace positivity are the same characteristics and practices that build successful teams. You must honor each person’s individual needs and provide an emotionally and physically healthy place to work, as well as opportunities for growth. The U.S. Surgeon General calls these the “five essentials” and believes they’re so critical for workplace well-being that he created a framework for achieving them.

Workplace wellbeing

11. Establish strong leadership

To paraphrase author Simon Sinek, the difference between a manager and a leader is that managers are responsible for the job and leaders are responsible for the people who are responsible for the job. What he means is that managers must know how to get the job done. Leaders must know how to inspire and motivate people to do their best work, excel through challenging times, and keep everyone connected and moving toward a common goal.

Being a strong leader requires looking inward first. You must know how to leverage what you do well and recognize areas that you can improve on. Be the example by holding yourself accountable when you make mistakes or go back on decisions that didn’t work out. You may find it difficult to be vulnerable enough to admit fault or ask for help, but it gets easier over time. So ask your team where you could improve and regularly solicit feedback. As teams see you do the work toward personal and professional growth, they’re encouraged to do the work too.

Related: How To Be an Inspiring Leader

12. Create a team culture

Every company has a unique culture. And teams create their own subcultures based on the leader, the team members, and the work they do. Team cultures became more critical to a team’s success in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. For most people working from home at that time, their immediate team was their main connection to the company. When offices opened back up, subcultures remained strong and still heavily influence how teams perform today.

What that time in history also proved was you don’t have to be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder to create a strong team culture. If you’re intentionally inclusive, remote workers can feel just as valued and connected as their onsite colleagues.

Related: The End of Corporate Culture (and Here’s What’s Next)

13. Foster connections within the team

Connections bring more humanity, and sometimes a little levity, to stressful workdays. When people feel a closer bond with each other, they develop trust. That trust is what encourages them to collaborate and communicate more honestly with each other. If they trust someone’s work, they may be willing to lend a helping hand. If they trust what someone says, they may be more willing to resolve an issue when it arises.

Here are a few ways to start fostering team connections. Be mindful that people have different comfort levels when talking about their personal lives. You can encourage but never force someone to share or attend an event:

  • Start team meetings with a few minutes of casual conversation before launching into business
  • Have a fun channel on Slack where the team can share non-related work thoughts and pictures
  • Practice open and transparent communication
  • Assign new hires to an onboarding buddy
  • Host regular social events
  • Encourage employees to recognize and thank each other publicly via a shared team channel or platform

Read: 15 Fun Virtual Team Building Activities for Remote Teams

14. Communicate frequently and effectively

All of the other 13 steps on this list require effective communication, from how clearly you state your expectations to how you motivate your people to deliver their best work. However, many teams don’t realize their potential because they don’t communicate well. So invest in the training and tools to avoid the common reasons for miscommunication, as shown in this Ted-Ed video.

Experts define “What is a successful team”

No matter what their industry or mission, experts over the last century have defined successful teams as having these attributes:

  • Leaders encourage and create a safe space to take risks: “Remember, we all stumble, every one of us. That’s why it’s a comfort to go hand in hand. — journalist Emily Kimbrough
  • Members know their strength is in collaboration: “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.” — humanitarian Mother Teresa
  • Everyone is committed to a shared purpose: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed. It is the only thing that ever has.” — cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead
  • The team is made up of the right skills: No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team.” — LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman
  • People feel recognized for their contributions: “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it.” — head football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant

Examples of successful teams in the workplace

The 14 steps for successful teams may seem too simple to be effective. These companies show that the biggest results can come from applying simple ideas.

Pixar

Pixar Animation Studios is known for its critically and commercially successful computer-animated feature films. Their key to creating one box-office hit after another is communication. Employees are encouraged to share ideas, provide feedback, and actively participate in the creative process—no matter what their role. Their culture of open communication facilitates creativity and innovation.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is famous for its award-winning customer service. They remain one of the top airlines each year because they work as a team to deliver the best customer experience possible—from booking their flight to arriving at their destination. The company prioritizes training and development to create a collaborative team working toward a common goal. And they invest in providing employees the resources to do their job well.

NASA

Teams at NASA have sent humans to the moon, collected samples from an asteroid, and made countless scientific discoveries that contribute to the quality of life people enjoy today. NASA’s goals are magnificently ambitious, extremely complex, and so risky that failure can result in the ultimate catastrophe: loss of life. The throughline for their success is trust. Teams actively create and maintain a culture of trust, which facilitates open communication and fuels a shared passion.

Build successful teams with Upwork

While reviewing the 14 steps we’ve laid out, you might have realized that you had a few skill gaps to fill. Perhaps you need someone to offer a training course on communication. Maybe you want help with organizing your next team-building event. Or you need a developer to create an employee recognition platform. With more than 10,000 skills available, Upwork provides the help you need to start building a more successful team. See the many ways you can get work done with Upwork.

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Author Spotlight

14 Steps to Building a Highly Successful Team
Brenda Do
Copywriter

Brenda Do is a direct-response copywriter who loves to create content that helps businesses engage their target audience—whether that’s through enticing packaging copy to a painstakingly researched thought leadership piece. Brenda is the author of "It's Okay Not to Know"—a book helping kids grow up confident and compassionate.

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