Between the Lines: May-June 2006

June 1, 2006

Among the concerns reverberating from the now notorious lacrosse incident is the subculture of college athletics. A faculty report pointed out that the lacrosse team is "small enough to have a remarkable social coherence" and large enough to be "socially prominent as a group."

That sharp sense of group identity isn't surprising to Blair Sheppard, president and CEO of Duke Corporate Education. "Organizations are increasingly organized around teams," Sheppard says. "The classic firm used to be this hierarchical structure of people reporting to bosses reporting to bosses reporting to bosses." But with business seeing itself in an increasingly dynamic environment, the boss' job hinges more and more on managing the team, not the individuals in isolation. Team effectiveness is becoming a point of competitive advantage for organizations, Sheppard observes.

And why might teams fail? Often, he says, it is because they create a strong internal culture--a self-contained identity that makes it difficult for them to operate outside the bounds of the team and to understand the larger environment. That, in turn, creates a tension between team identity and an ethos that is "inviting and connecting rather than isolating," he says. Effective teams are good at resolving that tension, at connecting to "the broader community in a complex, dynamic, interdependent world."

"One reason we have athletics at Duke is because it's a fantastic metaphor for the world these students will enter," Sheppard says. But it's a workable metaphor only when student-athletes realize that they perform in a small and large context alike. The task of the businesses leader--or the coach--is "to build a culture where the team is fantastically effective as a team, even as the team members understand their links to the rest of the community."

"Part of our job with our clients is to say, 'Stuff happens, learn from it.' As a community, we have to take this as an opportunity to learn."