Having the best talent is good. Having the best team is better.

Anyone who’s played or followed sports can tell you that a truly great team goes far beyond sheer talent—it has a special “something” that separates it from the rest.

I’ve spent my entire life involved in team sports. And, for me, there’s something really beautiful and inspiring that happens when a group of individuals comes together as a team to work toward a common goal. Time and again, I’ve seen teams with a mix of solidly talented players of varying backgrounds and win/loss records work seamlessly to rise to the top and become champions, while teams loaded with amazing individual talent—superstar players, winning coaches—fall short. The same is true in business. It’s been my experience that high-value work is accomplished not by the best individual performers, but by the best teams.

There’s a pretty good chance that no matter what you do for a living, you’ll likely be asked to work on a team at some point. So what are the building blocks of a great team in business? Here are a few tips from my athletics playbook that can help anyone build—or contribute to—a high-performing team both on and off the field. 

Set a strong culture

A strong, positive, and clearly defined culture grounded in values and respect is the foundation for a solid, top-performing team—not to mention for creating a productive and enjoyable work environment where people enjoy each other’s company, spend time together, celebrate together, and want to see each other succeed. But a strong, positive culture very rarely happens in a vacuum. With or without intention, a culture will emerge and become the guiding force that team members will live and work by. When it’s a culture you’ve intentionally set, your team (and company) will grow according to the values and guiding principles you want to be known for. You’ll base hiring decisions on your culture. Employees will live by it. It will influence employees’ relationships with each other, their relationships with clients and stakeholders, and the work they produce. A strong culture based on values and respect will help get all team members working on the same mission. It will serve as glue that keeps your team together. And it will get you through difficult times. 

I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of different teams, and a lot of different cultures—successful and not so successful. Here are what I see as the building blocks of a winning team culture: 

  • Create the culture that you want. A work/team culture will emerge no matter what. Your job is to make sure your team’s culture aligns with your beliefs so that it attracts the kind of people you want to rely upon and work with every day.
  • Make sure all team members are aligned with team values and guiding principles. When team members are aligned, behavior will reflect those values and help create success. 
  • Model the desired behavior. Effective teams have effective managers and leaders who, above all else, live the culture authentically.
  • Reward effort before results. Great team leaders and team members believe in and adopt behaviors such as accountability, honesty, resilience, team focus, and rewarding effort. If everyone is putting in their best effort (and you’ve picked the right team members) the results will come.
Promote team diversity

I’ve found that teams bringing different backgrounds, experience levels, and perspectives tend to outperform other teams. Why? Simply put, when you include differing perspectives, your efforts and your end product better reflect and connect with the world around you. Diverse viewpoints and experiences bring a variety of skills and approaches—and, better still—a variety of solutions. 

Diversity comes in many forms, from lifestyle and personal characteristics to economic and political backgrounds, work experience, age, and many others. And once you start bringing fresh voices into teams organically, diverse viewpoints and perspectives will begin to flow through into your work—authentically. Here are some steps to creating diverse teams:

  • Start by looking at the focus of a project. Who is your audience? What are you trying to accomplish? Really understanding your end game will help you build the team that will get you there.
  • Actively seek different voices, experiences, and skill sets. What perspectives are you missing? Where could your team benefit from a different POV or unique experience that would bring insight authentically? Do you need someone with a sense of humor or a critical thinker? Stretch the boundaries of what “diversity” could mean for your team.
  • Don’t fake it. Add team members who authentically bring whatever perspective you need. For example, if your team project is trying to reach a certain target audience, get someone on your team who intimately understands that target audience so that whatever is messaged is said authentically.
  • Promote a safe environment for communication. Encourage team members to speak up and offer fresh perspectives. No well-intentioned ideas should be out of bounds.
Focus on a common goal

Keep in mind that not all goals are obvious to everyone. Team members may have different personal and professional goals (and as a leader part of your job is to support them as individuals), but there must be a clearly defined and regularly articulated “team goal” that everyone buys into and is working toward. With high-performing sports teams, the players not only understand what each of their individual roles are, they also understand that achieving the team goal depends on each individual executing their defined role, and that together they have a collective responsibility for success (or failure). 

The same is true in business. Clarity and focus on the one common goal will work to keep everyone on track, even as individual team members can and should shine in their own unique way via their own unique contribution. Here’s how to ensure that team members are rowing in the same direction:

  • Clearly define the goal and how you’re going to get there. Structure, organization, and a team strategy are critical to getting a team running smoothly. Review the plan with the team and open it up for refinement and fresh approaches before the work starts. This is where team member diversity can be a huge help right off the bat.
  • Break down big goals into more manageable chunks. Regularly assigning important tasks to individuals but not necessarily telling them exactly how to execute is a great way to keep people engaged and on the same page, while allowing everyone to maintain creativity and autonomy over their work.
  • Make sure everyone understands their role. When team members understand their role, other team members’ roles, and how everyone’s contributions will help move the team forward, a spirit of collaboration and cooperation naturally develops. People become unselfish. They want to see other team members succeed because it helps them—and the team—succeed.
  • Foster a “we” attitude and competitive spirit. Great teams leverage the best in all of their members. A “we” attitude reinforces the need for everyone to pull their weight while a “we’ve got this!” mentality will help drive you forward, no matter what twists and turns present themselves.
  • Continually reinforce the need for adaptability. Plans are important but teams and team members need to be able to pivot quickly and change tactics, if needed. If you incorporate adaptability into the plan from the start—making it okay for team members to shift gears—pivots will feel less disruptive and more like a natural part of the process.
Time to take the field

Truly great teams work on the belief that every team member brings something unique and important to the table. And that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While there are, of course, a ton of nuances to running or contributing to a team successfully, if you start with a clearly defined culture based in values and respect, encourage and invite diversity of thought, and get everyone focused on the prize, you’ve got the building blocks of a high-performing championship team. Success is inevitable. 

About Piper Cook-Cochrane

Piper Cook-Cochrane is a studio lead, associate account director with The Shop at Firewood, managing multiple Google Ads marketing programs. Piper played Division 1 soccer at Santa Clara University in California and semi-pro soccer for the Sacramento Storm and Minnesota Lightning teams. Most recently, Piper played soccer for the Olympic Club women’s program and, as a member of Women in Sports & Events (WISE), led the WISE Within Mentor Program.