If you didn’t get the chance to watch the world’s toughest cycling competition this past summer, you probably still heard about it. The Tour de France recently concluded its 91st race and proved to be more popular than ever. The favored U.S. Postal Service Team captured and kept the lead they established in 1999, and team captain Lance Armstrong became the first athlete ever to win six consecutive individual Tour titles.

How do these athletes remain connected as a team in the chaos of this grueling event? How do they build relationships with Armstrong and with each other? What does Armstrong do to merit the trust of his team? The answers to these questions provide valuable tips for fitness managers who build and motivate staff on a daily basis.

Managerial Focus

According to Glenn Parker, a team dynamics guru in the world of organizational development, a team is “a group of people with a high degree of interdependence geared toward the achievement of a goal or the completion of a task.” He, together with other field experts, writes about key ingredients leaders must focus on as they manage teams. The following components were at work during the Tour de France and provide cues you can use to help create an exceptional, winning team:

Trust. The basic and most powerful layer of any relationship is trust. To build trust among team members, you must first have a trusting relationship with each person on the team. Armstrong enlists riders from all over the world for the U.S. Postal Service squad. Each rider trusts him to recruit others who will fit in with the team culture and chemistry, a crucial responsibility for a Tour de France team leader. As you form your own team, what do you do to build trusting relationships?

For example, does anyone else from your staff get involved in the recruiting and interviewing process? Do you allow potential staff to spend time with your team before they decide if they’ll “fit in”? Building trust doesn’t come with what you say, but with what you do. Act with integrity and make sound decisions. Trust on a team means there’s no second-guessing, there are no secret alliances and there are no hidden agendas. If any of these occur, address the problem immediately and change your approach to prevent future challenges. Be true, be open and be consistent.

Respect. This is a team-building ingredient that you earn as you work together. Some of the respect may come from your years of experience and accomplishments. If team members respect you, they will be more likely to respect each other. The U.S. Postal Service riders say that Armstrong “walks the talk.” He checks out each accommodation and training facility along the Tour. If it’s sub-par for him, it’s sub-par for his team—he will never ask them to do something he will not do himself.

How do you “walk the talk?” Do you roll up your sleeves and teach side by side with your staff? Do you take on the challenging participants and know exactly what your staff is struggling with? Remember that even though you may have several badges of “experience honor,” certifications or degrees, many team members—especially younger ones—judge you on your actions and on the level of respect you show them.

Role Clarification and Diversity. Each year the U.S. Postal Service team enters several riders in the Tour but only one gets all the fame and glory. After his 2000 Tour victory, Armstrong said, “The only part of this yellow jersey that belongs to me is the zipper.” That’s because his team has several types of riders who make first place possible. Some riders are climbers, while others work on the sprints so he can draft off them. Others are domestiques who sacrifice their individual standing in the race to help the team captain gain competitive advantage.

For any team to function effectively, roles have to be clearly defined. Not everyone can have the high-visibility classes on the schedule. Everyone can’t teach the latest fitness trend or get the best equipment and facilities. Roles can also change or evolve. The leader must define these roles and communicate them to the entire group. Address this aspect early in a group meeting. To avoid conflict, think through your plan and discuss each member’s role individually.

Role diversity is just as important to the success of the team. A cycling team with only sprinters will not stand up to the competition on the hills. Just as Armstrong looks for a variety of cycling skills when choosing the most capable team members, you must recruit from a wide background of education, culture, life experience, age and skill. Consider not only demographic range but also personal characteristics. Seek out different personality types that fit the job description; the applicants will be diverse in other ways, as well. Even though the fitness industry is filled with extroverted personalities, not all extroverts are equal!

Relationships. Frank LaFasto and Carl Larson, authors of When Teams Work Best, gathered data for over a decade on more than 35,000 work relationships in a variety of organizations. Their overall goal was to find out what makes teams succeed. One of their main findings was team relationships peer-to-peer or peer-to-supervisor. They found that regardless of the relationship, the two factors that were most important were openness and supportiveness. Openness is the ability to confront and deal with issues objectively. Supportiveness refers to one’s ability to bring out the best attitude and positive thinking in others.

It’s a relief to have staff that look out for one another and take care of business when you’re not around. Armstrong knows he can depend on his team to support him and each other throughout the race. In the same way, solid relationships will give you fewer headaches when you have to find a substitute instructor or when you have to depend on staff to be there when you can’t be. Overall, when potential staff members see positive relationships, they want to be part of the action. Build a bond with and among your employees and the best “apples” will want to join the bunch.

Common Goal. When you’re on a competitive team, the common goal of victory is obvious. The test of a true team, however, is when an individual sacrifices personal recognition for the good of the group. If each rider had his own best interest in mind during the Tour, it would be a different race. Do you take time to discuss with your staff the goals for each year, quarter or month? Do you take time to think of and plan your future direction as a group? If not, consider starting next month. You’ll receive better support and team commitment if you clearly communicate your goals and objectives.

The U.S. Postal Service riders not only know they want to be first, but they also know by what time difference and how many stages and miles they need to dominate the pack. They’re also willing to put in the hard work it takes to achieve this goal. Armstrong’s team is one of the few that rides the entire course at least three times before race day. Likewise, you should be willing to plan ahead, invite staff to share future plans and be very clear about the team’s direction.

A Winning Formula

Teamwork is the glue that brings people together in a group. As you ride your own daily race, ensure victory by nurturing trust and respect, being clear about roles, hiring a variety of talent and encouraging openness. Having a common goal is a team’s unifying factor, and the formula is simple. Put it in action and it will lead you to the road of management success. Enjoy the ride! n

“The test of a true team, however, is when an individual sacrifices
personal recognition for the good of the group.”