Your project is gridlocked. Your team is dysfunctional. The goals aren’t clear. There's rampant "mission drift." Your team leader keeps changing direction. You can’t figure out what completion, much less success, even looks like. There’s no coordination, no communication, no cooperation. You're not even sure who's on the team anymore. You use the term "team member" loosely, and usually say it with a smirk. You're at a loss to know exactly how you fit in. You're not sure why you're on the team in the first place.
- Diagnosis: Team hell.
- Cure: Synergy.
- Prescription: The Synergist.
Sounds like a Marvel Comics action hero, right? But having launched countless creative teams, I know from experience that when they're in the throes of team hell, they in fact need a hero: someone with a special talent for being at once the glue and the grease that keeps the machine working at peak effectiveness. Someone who can lead them to predictable success.
That's where the "Synergist" comes in. Synergist is a term used by Les McKeown, the President and CEO of Predictable Success. Les has started over 40 companies, was the founding partner of an incubation consulting company that advised on the creation and growth of hundreds more worldwide, and consults with American Express.
I know what you're thinking: the term “synergy” has been long been bandied about, to the point of becoming a business cliché. But Les has some smart, practical, and credible ideas in his new book called The Synergist. Here he answers a few questions about Synergists.
What’s a "Synergist"?
It's someone in a group or team who sets their personal interests below the best interests of the team as a whole, who can see the big picture of what the team or group is there to do and works tirelessly to make that happen, without manipulating the process or its outcome to their own personal advantage.
Isn't having someone like that on a team just basic common sense?
You’d think so, but we’ve all been stuck in gridlocked teams and sterile meetings countless times. In practice, it’s actually a very hard thing to do. The main reason it’s so difficult is that most of us aren’t Synergists by nature. We’re more likely to be one of three other much more common types: a Visionary, Operator or Processor. And unlike the Synergist, we Visionaries, Operators and Processors will fight tooth and nail to get our own way—often subconsciously.
OK, you just laid some labels on us. Can you explain them, preferably with an example?
Visionaries work at 30,000 feet on long-term, strategic issues, embrace change and risk, are often charismatic communicators and build a tight, loyal team around them. Steve Jobs was a great example.
Operators are self-starters who bulldoze their way through obstacles using determination and brute force. They don't have the Visionary’s grand view of things and are much more practical and task-focused. Steve Ballmer is a good example of an Operator-leader.
Processors deliver success and growth by iteration and constant improvement rather than a grand vision or brute force. Risk-averse and skeptical by nature, the Processor eschews intuitive leaps of faith and bases decisions only on measurable, objective criteria. Warren Buffett exhibits a lot of the Processor style.
Got it. Why aren't the Visionary, Operator and Processor not capable of sorting things out among themselves? Why do they need a Synergist?
Because they each see the world so differently, when they get together in a group or team they’re doomed to gridlock at worst, or compromise at best.
Take meetings for example: the Visionary wants to grab control of the meeting, hyperlink from topic to topic and quickly find a creative (usually risky) solution to the problem. The Processor wants to work slowly through a pre-planned agenda in an orderly fashion, examining all the data in great detail, and come to a considered, risk-averse solution—which they then want to thoroughly test before implementing. Meanwhile the Operator sits idly by in an increasing state of frustration, checking e-mail and waiting for the other two to come to some sort of a conclusion.
For such a disparate group, the only result is compromise or gridlock. Without a Synergist—someone to lift their vision beyond their own natural interests—they will never arrive at the very best solution for the team as a whole.
Where does the Synergist come from? Is this someone who is brought in from the outside?
Sometimes a group will see that they’re gridlocked and will reach outside for someone to help—an external facilitator for example. This is, in essence, the group trying to find itself a Synergist.
But much more commonly the group or team will stumble around for some time with the Visionary, Operator and Processor clashing over their different personal agendas and styles. Successful teams learn to act as Synergists over a long time and by painful trial and error. It’s like Darwinian evolution; only by learning to become Synergists can the team survive and reach its goal.
But there are ways to short-circuit that lengthy process and learn to be a Synergist quickly and painlessly.
So you’re saying that anyone can be a Synergist—even the Visionary, Operator or Processor?
Not only can, but should. The more people in any organization who can act as Synergists, the faster and more effectively that organization will achieve its goals.
Because they think creatively Visionaries are usually the first to see the need for the Synergist style, followed by Processors (who work it out like a puzzle). Operators tend to take longer than the others to adopt the Synergist style because to them it sounds too hypothetical; they need to see it in action, first.
But eventually, everyone in any organization, business, division, department, project, group or team can and should learn to act and think Synergistically.
Give us a couple of examples of highly effective Synergists.
I believe Steve Jobs was originally an out-and-out Visionary who returned from his ‘exile’ at Next and Pixar as a Synergist. Although he used his Visionary side as ambassador and figurehead for Apple, I think we’ll find that behind the scenes he was acting as a Synergist, driving everyone to do their best for the company as a whole.
Bill Gates has become a great Synergist, but too late for Microsoft. It’s really his philanthropic activities in later life that transformed him into a Synergist, but while he was at Microsoft, he was much more of a Processor.
Jack Welch is another leader who transformed into a Synergist over time. The early, ‘Neutron Jack’ was an Operator/Processor (as many engineers are), but as he learned to grapple with the complexities and nuances of leadership he gradually transformed into a Synergist.
Happen to know any Synergists we can send to Washington D.C.?
Ha! I predict 2012 will be a year of compromise, if not gridlock, as the political parties maneuver to deliver something—however suboptimal—to their base. We’ve already seen that start with the debt negotiations in Europe. It will be interesting to see if any Synergists do emerge.
You can take the free Synergist Style quiz to see whether you're a Visionary, Operator, Processor, or a natural Synergist.