A Small Team can be Enough


volleyball team

recently won a national championship. As I watched the elite eight, the commentator kept reminding us that the team had only 10 players. That is a fairly small team in volleyball circles, where most teams have at least 15 players.

Despite having only 10 players, his team ultimately won the national championship and had a perfect record for the year in doing so. So it got me thinking.

The size of the team doesn’t really matter—in sports or in the workplace—if you have the right people.

In volleyball, for example, if all the women were 6-foot-tall hitters and there were no shorter, quicker defensive specialists, the team would not have been effective. The most successful volleyball teams have a mix of hitters, defensive specialists and setters. And regardless of position, a player or two needs to step up and lead the team on the court. Sometimes that’s a function of the position played, but many times it’s because of leadership qualities. All teams need leaders and followers.

The same is true in the workplace. In my world of business school education, I need a mix of faculty who teach the various business disciplines. Students take classes in accounting, finance, marketing, management and the like. If each of my faculty members only had a background in accounting, my students would not be exposed to all that encompasses a business education. So we have a few faculty in each area. Some take leadership roles in the faculty, while others are content to be followers.

No matter what industry your organization is in, you should have a mix, too. In an office, someone should be the front-line person greeting customers when they come in and answering the phone when it rings. Someone else probably is the point person on all things computer-related. Another person does the marketing, and so on.

But many times, especially in smaller units, employees cross-train. This is always a good idea, as each person needs a backup for when they are out of the office. You don’t want the work to grind to a halt when Suzie is on vacation or John is out after back surgery. But cross-training also has the benefit of helping employees grow their skills, and it’s like an insurance policy in case one of your employees leaves the organization.

Look around your organization. Do you have a big team? Does it need to be big to effectively deliver your product or service to your customers? Can you do the same, or more, with fewer employees?

As employees are expensive, it is incumbent on managers to ensure their employees are earning their paychecks. If you’ve got a couple of employees who seem to have a lot of downtime, perhaps you can consolidate a couple of positions and ensure that everyone is busy most of the day.

Also, you may have employees who are weak links. If she cannot effectively perform her work, please do her and your organization a favor and let her go. If there’s a place in the organization for which her skills and attitude are better suited, please move her there. But if not, get her off the team, as she’s not a contributor.

The size of your team is less important than your employees’ abilities. As my friend’s volleyball team learned, once they had the right mix of women with excellent volleyball skills, they could win with 10 players. I’m betting you could do the same.

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Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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