5 Things Every Successful Team Leader Needs to Know

Four people high fiving each other

Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.

Andrew Carnegie

Virtually nothing great has ever been achieved without the support of a great team. Apple rose from meager beginnings to become the most profitable business enterprise of all time – and though Steve Jobs tends to receive most, if not all of the credit, this could not have been achieved without the numerous individuals who were at the top of their craft and provided their valuable skills for the greater vision that Jobs hoped to achieve. This model should serve as the paradigm we all strive towards in order to achieve success in our own careers.  This discussion focuses on perhaps the single most important component of professional success in any industry, and particularly in medical practice: creating a successful team.

Define A Successful Team

In order to create an effective team in any organization, a leader must first define the characteristics of these team.  Adam Bryant, author and columnist from the New York Times, who is also managing director of a leadership development firm, described the importance of the initial task of creating a roadmap for a professional team.  He framed this task as determining “where are we going and how are we going to get there”. Similar to the personal mission statement described in a previous entry, the mission of a professional team should be clearly stated and universally understood.  Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, and Built to Last, warned that in defining the mission and culture of a team, there is virtue in simplicity.  In his words, “If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any”.

With the mission and culture of a team clearly understood, an effective team should be comprised of members who first and foremost demonstrate a commitment to this mission.  An understanding of the mission leads naturally to an understanding of the identity and importance of the team’s client or customer. In the case of teams in medical practice, members will all appreciate that the patient lies at the heart of everything the team seeks to accomplish: empathy, compassion, clear communication, and of course excellence in clinical care.  These members will ideally demonstrate mutual respect and an appreciation for each other’s differences and unique skill sets. “

There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

Saying amongst Navy Seals

Understand Yourself As Leader

Effective leadership is paramount to the creation of a successful team, and the path toward effective leadership begins with self-awareness as a leader.  Drafting and executing your personal mission statement is the first step in this process. On a more granular level, an effective leader must also assess their own strengths and weaknesses before evaluating or developing other members of the team.  Once weaknesses are identified, a good leader should confront these weakness and mitigate their negative impact. An example that manifests often among physicians is the application of the lofty expectations we place on ourselves to the work of our clinical team.  Maintaining unrealistic expectations for the performance of others based on your own expectations for your own work may engender disappointment, frustration, and resentment.

A leader addressing her team

Along similar lines, a leader should critically assess the methods and processes that one applies to their own work, and understand the role of other team members through this prism.  With a clear understanding of how you work, you can then cultivate a team in which other members complement your style to maximize effectiveness. Common examples are communication style or organizational skills.  A physician that demonstrates a more stoic or impersonal communication style with patients will come to value a clinical team member with communication skills that incorporate a more casual, warm, or outgoing approach.    Similarly, a physician who might perhaps lack the organizational skills required in modern clinical practice will depend more on team members who complement this potential weakness with a structured, organized approach to their work.  Leadership does not demand unfaltering excellence. Instead, leadership relies on a willingness to identify liabilities in one’s own performance, and identifying and rewarding skill sets in other team members that complement these weaknesses.

Understand Your Team

Just as you should perform a critical assessment of your own style, you should learn how your team members complete their work.  This will allow you to create an environment in which they can be most effective. Get to know your team on both a professional and personal level.  Learn what motivated them to choose their profession and what motivated them to chose to work in your organization. At least some of this motivation will likely be personal.  Therefore, learning more about their background, family, and interests outside of work can provide a deeper understanding of them as individuals. This understanding leads naturally to a deeper knowledge of how to cultivate optimal performance as a member of your team.   

Define Roles and Responsibilities

A common source of discontent among professional teams is ambiguity regarding one’s role in the team.  It is exceedingly difficulty to be an effective teammate when one’s responsibilities are not clearly defined.  At the very least, a leader must be clear and concrete in establishing expectations for each member. Lynda Gratton and Tamara Erickson in “Eight Way to Build Collaborative Teams”, published in the Harvard Business Review, stated, “Collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood—when individuals feel that they can do a significant portion of their work independently.”

Understanding the core competencies of each individual on the team allows a leader to strategically assign responsibilities in order to accentuate these skill sets.   Glen Llopis, a former corporate executive and successful entrepreneur, columnist for Forbes, and director of a workforce management consulting firm, stated, “A team should operate as a mosaic whose unique strengths and differences convert into a powerful united force.”  

Communicate Proactively

This is perhaps the single most important component of building successful teams.  Keep in mind that this encompasses both positive and negative feedback, and can be accomplished both formally and informally.  Adam Bryant of the New York Times stresses the importance of setting clear expectations for feedback at the outset to decrease surprise on behalf of other team members.  Communicate with other members of your team early and often about some of the issues mentioned above, including the mission, policies and procedures, as well as roles and responsibilities.  

Course correction and constructive feedback regarding performance is exceedingly important, and a future entry will focus exclusively on difficult conversations and providing negative feedback.  

Until then, keep in mind one simple and intuitive tenet in this area: provide feedback that is always supportive, and avoid the tendency to communicate with a vindictive or frustrated tone. Early feedback will help to minimize the ‘boiling over’ of frustration with other team members.  Another principle to keep in mind is to avoid email whenever possible. Email can be impersonal and often misinterpreted. At best, email communication has the potential to be counterproductive, and at worst destructive.

Besides negative feedback, working with members of your team to improve performance can optimize job satisfaction.  In their article from the Harvard Business Review, Gratton and Erickson argue that, “Informal mentoring incorporated into everyday activities enhances collaboration within a team”.  As physicians we all have some interest in teaching, and even those of us who do not practice in an academic environment can find opportunities to mentor other members of the clinical team, including medical assistants, nurses, physician assistants and nurse practitioners.  A few minutes of practical teaching can go a long way to improving their knowledge base, performance, and enthusiasm for their daily work.

Finally, as the leader of a medical team you should find frequent opportunities to acknowledge success.  Thoughtful and sincere recognition, in addition to simply being the right thing to do, can also go a long way to building trust and cohesion among team members.  In addition, rewarding excellence can cultivate a more intense commitment to the common mission.


Ideally, the team you build from the outset of clinical practice will be the same team you work with throughout your career as a physician.  A strong team is not only beneficial, but I would argue essential to successful clinical practice. While you may not have the ability to recruit team members de novo, we all absolutely have the ability to the create the team we need to provide excellent clinical care with compassion, as efficiently as possible.  Skills in team building are not intuitive, and this process can be quite labor intensive. However, early and consistent effort will pay dividends each and every day of clinical practice.

Take Home Points

  1. Identify your own weaknesses as leader of a clinical team in order to identify team members who will mitigate or complement these weaknesses.
  2. Know your team members on a personal and professional level.  Understand what brought them to this profession, and to your organization.
  3. Explicitly define roles and responsibilities of each team member.
  4. Provide both formal and informal channels for feedback among members of the team.  Assure that feedback about performance is delivered in a constructive manner. Reward success early and often.  Mentor members of your clinical team to improve both performance and group cohesion.
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