The ultimate success of any organization—whether it is a business, a non-profit organization, or even a social club—is determined by the effectiveness of the team that leads that organization. There are numerous books written on the subject of team work and team building. I’ve had the opportunities during my career prior to consulting to be a member of senior leadership teams, and now as an adviser to senior leadership teams.

A natural tendency that I have is to make complicated stuff simple. Rather than come up with twenty keys to becoming an effective team, I have found in my experience that it really comes down to two things—focus and relationships. I think you can take everyone else’s list of principles and put them into one of these two categories.

Let’s start with focus. Most teams fail to be effective because they lack common focus and direction. Rather than work from a single agenda that belongs to the team, each person on the team is working from a personal agenda. Too much emphasis is placed on the relationship aspect of teamwork and not enough on the focus aspect. While I have nothing against activities that bring a group of people together for some activity called “team building”, these in themselves do little to improve effectiveness.

Often in a speaking engagement or workshop, I can take people who are total strangers, i.e. no relationship at all, and have them perform as a team very effectively on a task that they are given. I observe high levels of energy and commitment to the task. When I analyze what causes this, I reach several conclusions. First, the task is clearly defined. The team know exactly what it has to accomplish. Secondly, since there is usually competition with other teams involved in the activity, the “enemy” is not members of their team, but rather the other teams. I’ve seen senior leadership teams act and behave like the competition is within their own organization rather than outside.

Third, there is urgency created because the time to perform the task is limited. If teams are busy trying to get things done and achieve a goal, there is little time to worry about personal agendas or petty relationship issues. Finally, there is one other dynamic that is subtle, but very important. When I have a group in a seminar, they do not have distractions that keep them from fully participating on the team. In the work environment, members of the leadership team often have competing priorities for their time.

So establishing focus for the senior leadership team involves having clear direction and goals, focusing on winning the game against external competition, creating urgency to achieve team goals, and removing distractions that prevent the team from operating effectively. The first thing I always do when working with a senior leadership team is ask them to independently write down their organization’s top five goals. Then we compare the list. If the combined list has more than five different items, then the senior leadership team is not focused.