The greatest of team traits.

What’s the most valuable quality in high performing teams?

It was only when I left corporate life that I began to realise how fortunate I had been.

It turned out that, by some strange process of osmosis, a career in largely blue-chip management roles had equipped me with a wide array of management skills and some passable leadership ones too, that only became fully apparent when I found myself working in environments in which they were far less commonplace.

But the more curious thing I discovered was that, even without many of these skills, there were plenty of leadership teams who were at least as productive and effective as those well-trained ones from whence I’d come.

It’s a phenomenon we can sometimes observe in sports, where the tight-knit team, often of “mere journeymen” players, becomes far more than the sum of its parts, taking down “all-star” squads who on paper should wipe the floor with them.

The more clients I worked with, the more I found that the qualities I’d been trained to expect in managers and leaders were extremely valuable, but they were only half the story. What made those qualities of much greater impact was the dynamic within the team, most notably in the teams that performed best.

The way people all around the table would question and challenge each other in positive ways, and the positive manner in which those challenges were received. The way peers would anticipate each other and slot in to support, often without being asked. The way one person would come back from a visit with a customer or supplier, share their observations and suggestions, and have them picked up by colleagues and not simply picked apart.

The quality of decisions, the pace and agility of movement, the inflow of innovation and the cross-fertilisation of ideas, in fact all the things we look for as signs of a great team, were invariably driven far more by this collective behaviour, than by the skills and talents of the individuals.

It’s tempting as a consultant to start listing and categorising at this point. The top-ten characteristics… The seven secrets… The five qualities model… and so forth.

But, stepping back, I think there is just one trait more than any other, that strikes me when I reflect on those individuals, and the dynamic they created among themselves. That trait is curiosity.

It was only by remaining curious about their colleagues, their teams, their motivations, plans and passions, that those leaders developed the empathy and understanding to anticipate each other’s needs.

It was only when it was prompted by and received with genuine curiosity, that direct questioning and challenge between team members would unlock, not defensiveness and territorialism, but a higher level of thinking and ideas.

It was only by being actively curious that those same individuals could find and bring back new ideas from elsewhere, to colleagues who would be open to them, asking each other how they could, rather than telling each other why they couldn’t.

Skills are easy. You can buy them in, you can train them up, you can build them one on top of the other, and your people will carry them for life wherever they go, just as I did. But curiosity is much harder. It is fragile and ephemeral. You can bring it in, but you have to nurture it, to foster and embolden it, and to culturally embed it as “this is how we are” if you want it to sustain and endure across your team.

So, a curious question to finish: how could you personally help grow the curiosity of your people?