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When leading teams, focus on the principles, not the personalities


According to a survey reported by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in June 2015, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. The HBR report concluded that most cross-functional teams fail on at least three of five criteria: (1) meeting a planned budget, (2) staying on schedule, (3) following specifications, (4) satisfying customer expectations, and/or (5) maintaining alignment with the company’s corporate goals.

As we bound into 2018, the demand for candidates that can manage functions across an organization has never been stronger in the Asian healthcare industry. With clinical trials and product launches being conducted at a global level, there is a demand for employees who can simultaneously be nimble and flexible while having the patience of Nelson Mandela and the people skills of Bill Clinton.

Companies are increasingly on the lookout for individuals who can manage teams across diverse functions. It is one skill to manage with given authority and quite another to manage those who do not report directly to you. For example, a brand manager for a new oncology product that is not yet on the market will have to work with regulatory affairs, medical and other marketing functions without any designated authority. This requires a deft hand in managing talent, personalities and timelines. These are the hot skills demanded across Asia..

Managers may heed the following suggestions for effectively leading cross-functional teams:

1.     Ask the questions. Why are we working together? What are we trying to accomplish? Why should anyone care about our project? Who will it impact? How will this make a difference? In one of the most popular TED talks called “How great leaders inspire action,” which attracted over 36 million views, Simon Sinek explains that all successful teams and companies have a clear answer to why they do what they do.

One of the most overused generic and uninspiring phrases in corporate speak is the term “stakeholders.” As transactional as business can get, remember that you are dealing with people; become genuinely interested in them. What are they interested in outside of work? Find common ground. We love people who are like us.

According to Sinek, when we really get to know people and work from the inside out, we are tapping into the part of the brain that dictates behavior. People are not motivated by facts and figures; they want to know why: how is what I am doing a part of the bigger picture? This is not unlike the two bricklayers who were asked what they were building, and one of them replies “A wall,” while the other says, “A cathedral.” “Arouse in the other person an eager want,” wrote Dale Carnegie in 1936. This is true today as it was then. The former Prime Minister of Australia Paul Keating once quipped, “Always bet on the horse called “self-interest.” A little cynical, perhaps, but we are all on the lookout for ourselves. Leaders speak in terms of what others are interested in. How will achieving XYZ allow them to achieve their goals?

2.     Set the goal. Remember that the project is probably one of numerous things each member needs to be tackling. It is essential to have clear goals that are quantifiable. A project is like a story, a narrative; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. People need to know why, and they need to be able to see the sign posts along the way to success. One thing is guaranteed when working in teams and setting goals: things change. Numerous external forces are in play. It is therefore essential to recalibrate and, like Google maps, reset and start towards your goal. The goal remains unchanged even if life bowls you a googly from time to time.

3.     The wheels come off. Every manager has said, or at least thought, the following: “The world would be such an easy and wonderful place if people would just do as they are told.” Another one is “Working in this team is like herding cats.” What must be done when people are not performing at their optimal level? It is hard to go past the wisdom of Carnegie it comes to getting people back on track, to guide, and coach. First, begin with praise and honest appreciation; it is always easier to swallow the medicine with a spoonful of sugar. We all like to think we are hardened, rational business people who are governed by facts, figures, and logic. The truth is, we are all sensitive to criticism, and we all think we are doing our best (even though we may really know we are not). To paraphrase Carnegie, a surefire way to ensure that your team underperforms and misses their goals is to criticize, condemn, and complain. We need to address our own shortcomings before we start on others. Address other’s failings indirectly where possible. When this is not possible, address the issue, not the person. It is the principles that matter, not the personalities.

Cross­-functional teams are commonplace and essential for products to be developed and launched. The matrix structure of organizations means that leaders must lead, not direct, order, or scold. No one wants a boss. People want to be inspired, have meaning, and be part of a team where they are pushed and encouraged to think and act creatively. They understand that if they do make a mistake, the leader will not come down on them like a ton of bricks.


1. Carnegie, D (1998)                     How to Win Friends and Influence people (New York, First Pocket Books)

2. Simon, (2009, September)      How great leaders inspire action

3. Retrieved from                 

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