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What does role clarity have to do with leadership? Everything.

Posted by Brad Palmer | 3 min read

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This year, the youngest team in the America’s Cup, Emirates Team New Zealand, swept the competition, overwhelming their American competitors 8 races to 1. Innovations in leadership and teamwork are widely acknowledged as key factors in their win. In an astonishing break with tradition, they functioned as a self-managed team on the water.

They had no leader, no tactician, no verbal communication. Instead, they relied on crystal clear role clarity. Every person on that boat knew what they—and every other team member—was responsible for.

This clarity is bringing them win after win, and there’s no reason it can’t do the same for your business.

What leadership lessons can you learn from Emirates Team New Zealand?

The leadership lessons here are impactful. They help us answer questions such as: How do you best divide up the work in your organization? What unnecessary communication and coordination does this cause? Does everyone understand exactly what their role is, and how it fits with those alongside them?

Here are three things to learn from Team NZ:

1. Divide up the work

Team NZ have divided the work into roles that can be performed independently. Each crew member is a cog in the well-oiled machine. As the boats fly through the water at 50mph, each person is fully committed to their own personal task—they fully trust that together as a team they will get the job done.

The result? Team NZ is by far the most consistently operated boat in the race.

Lesson #1: Be deliberate about how you divide up the work on your team—take advantage of specialists. Find the best way for team members to get their work done independently. Don’t introduce collaboration for collaboration’s sake.

Mapping out how teams work together on processes can help you optimize this. What are the specialized roles that get this job done? What information needs to be exchanged along the way?


2. Communicate roles clearly

Every cog in Team NZ is aware of where they fit into the overall machine, and they know what every other cog is responsible for. As other teams chatter ad infinitum, communicating about what’s going on and what needs to happen next, the Kiwis work in silence. Pure productivity. Can you imagine such alignment and productivity in your own team?

Lesson #2: Every person in your team should know what each team member is responsible for and what the teams around them are doing. This will allow them to work smartly with their teammates, predict bottlenecks in work, and see any unaccounted for “white space” between the roles.

For this to work, people also need to understand how their role fits into the goals and purpose of their organization. And they need to see that collectively things are getting done. There are many tools that can make this a lot easier. Role clarity is one of the five basic needs of people at work—the right employee intranet platform can help you deliver this as teams form and reform.


3. Take a step back

On every other boat (the ones not winning) the skipper is overloaded with tasks. He provides play-by-play directions to his team, he drives the boat, he communicates with the tactician... he’s a busy boy. He’s so busy that when the racing action gets intense, miscommunication is inevitable. Things slip through the cracks and mistakes get made.

And on board with Team NZ? The smart division of work means they don’t even need a skipper! They’ve innovatively combined and divided traditional roles, drastically reducing miscommunication. The driver is free to focus on steering the vessel to victory as his teammates do their part to keep the boat at maximum speed.

Lesson #3: Leaders should get out of the weeds. If you’re trying to steer your organization safely through a course of growth and businesses challenges, you shouldn’t also be doing the hard labour. Hire and train people that are specialists in their field, ensure they know where they fit within the company and what you expect from them, and then let them get on with it. That’ll give you the time you need to focus on your job—leading the way and setting strategy.


What’s the key takeaway for leaders?

Team NZ have shown us that role clarity really is the secret sauce to success, allowing them to work seamlessly and efficiently as a team. Leaders, your people need to understand their roles and how they contribute to the greater goals of your company. This will help you release your white-knuckled grip on command and navigate the way to success.

 
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