Team-building is a continual challenge in the banking industry — especially now, when the sector is still emerging from a dramatic restructuring and facing mounting regulatory obstacles. During the 40-plus years that I have been involved with team-building in banking and other private-sector industries, I have learned a few important lessons. The most important lesson is this: the strongest and most successful teams include people who are reflective, purposeful and holistic in their approach to their jobs.

Good team players are typically valued for their reliability, integrity, and work attitude. But even among people who have all of these characteristics, a few intangible qualities set a handful apart.

First, they are reflective. They are their own toughest critics, setting very high standards and expectations for their own work. They welcome constructive feedback but are largely intolerant of superficial stroking. When working with people of this type, one never has to wonder if deadlines will be met, meetings attended, or correspondence completed. It is always done. Tough or challenging tasks inspire heightened efforts and are met head-on. When they need help, they are not afraid to say so.

Second, they are purposeful. They see a world beyond themselves and their immediate families and have interests and priorities beyond their own jobs and lifestyle. Typically, they have causes or beliefs that are important to them. For some, these are religious beliefs. Others support the environment or enhanced educational opportunities. People who commit to issues or causes beyond their immediate sphere are usually strong team players. Conversely, I have yet to meet great team players who limit their external activities to hobbies or activities relevant only to themselves.

Third, they are holistic. They instinctively understand how their jobs and contributions relate to the task at hand as well as to the organization more broadly, rather than focusing only on what the organization can do for them. This type of person can be initially difficult to identify. When people first join new firms, they have a natural tendency to focus on how the new job fits their interests and skills set.

But great team players quickly recognize the synergy that comes from fulfilling their individual responsibilities and committing to the collective effort. By contrast, people who focus primarily on how the organization relates to them want projects, deadlines, and work assignments to reflect their personal priorities. These types focus intently on job titles, desk and office sizes, and relative compensation levels. They tend to accord themselves outsized credit for their organization’s successes but distance themselves from problems. They also tend to have a strong sense of entitlement. 

By contrast, strong team players focus on completing the task — not just their own role — and share the benefits of that success. And when the occasional but inevitable mistakes occur, they share the responsibility and look for lessons learned.

As bankers continue to improve their enterprise-wide risk management capabilities, they recognize the importance of breaking down silos and increasingly focusing on team efforts. Thus identifying the qualities that enhance team leadership are of growing importance.

This distinction is particularly important in how it affects hiring and promotions. Self-focused leaders will seek to either hire or retain people who are supportive of them personally and not necessarily supportive of the best interests of the organization. This can quickly lead to a weak team or direct the organization toward inappropriate goals.

Team-building is a continual challenge. The strongest players on any team have multiple external opportunities and often move on unless the organization can continually provide a strong and holistic value proposition. The weakest team players have fewer external opportunities, so they often over-stay their welcome. But when an organization finds a core team of people with reflective, purposeful, and holistic capabilities, there are few limits to what can be accomplished.

Mark W. Olson is chairman of Treliant Risk Advisors LLC and can be reached at molson@treliant.com. His former positions include Federal Reserve Board Governor, chairman of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, chairman of the American Bankers Association and bank president and CEO.