Domhnall MacAuley: Creating winning teams

Domhnall MacauleyI spent time at the weekend in the company of some very successful people; high achievers in sport, health, and the public sector—each directing teams or organisations that perform at the highest level. It wasn’t a business seminar, leadership congress, or motivational event. There was no preening, competition, or posturing. No one stood out—they all looked just like you and me.

But talking about their team or organisation released the magic. Their eyes lit up, speech quickened, and they exuded energy. They loved what they were doing and I could see how they inspired others. In sport, their teams had no problems training in the early morning, committing nights and weekends, and rescheduling holidays. In the workplace, everyone turned up before starting time, were happy to work together, and no one rushed home. Absenteeism was minimal and everyone contributed. And it was fun. When I asked why these teams worked they often pointed to one of two key leaders or talismans within the group who provided a focus, encouraged others, and held it together when times were tough. Many of the coaches had themselves been very successful in sport, but I never once heard them talk about using their own achievements to motivate others. These teams were self motivated, they set their own standards, had unwritten team discipline, and everyone knew what was needed. In one sports squad, team members took it in turns to determine the goals for each training session. In every case, they knew what they were trying to do, the objectives were explicit, every one bought into the goals and agreed on what was needed. They attracted the best people and, anyone who saw what they were doing and were prepared to make the commitment, was welcome to join. These leaders were special.

It wasn’t all about magic dust. There was huge commitment, attention to detail, and intense focus on incremental improvement. They prepared for major events with considerable thought, concentrating only on what made the team work best. They were outward looking, open to new ideas, often brought in outside experts to share their expertise, learned from the competition, and international boundaries did not limit their horizons. Hard graft rewarded.

So what has this to do with health?…..Everything. These were not just serial championship winning sports teams or international athletes, they included a prize winning innovative orthopaedic team and an outstanding medical school in one of our top universities. Work or sport, success was articulated in exactly the same words and with the same excitement.

Domhnall MacAuley is primary care editor, BMJ