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The Secret to Building a Cohesive Team

Posted on April 10, 2019
silhouette of a leader facing their team. The team members are clapping and raising their arms in agreement.

An Interview with Assistant Dean Tim Gilrain

Whether on the basketball court or in an office, building a team is not done haphazardly. It is a thoughtful and methodical process. One that has long-lasting consequences. The old proverb, “you are only as strong as your weakest link” is especially true when it comes to building a team. At Goodwin, I am part of a dynamic, engaging, and productive team, where I feel supported and valued, so I thought I would ask Assistant Dean, Tim Gilrain, who is responsible for building this team, to share his secrets.

Building a successful team who works well together, laughs together, and supports one another begins with a vision. “A cohesive team has a shared sense of responsibility with goals that focus on a specific purpose,” said Tim Gilrain. He added, “Team members must have a part in the development of this shared vision or else there won’t be any buy-in.” This does not happen suddenly; garnering buy-in occurs because a leader allows, encourages, and fosters it through their own actions. “People work for leaders and the right leadership helps to shape the culture of the team,” Tim shared.

One specific element leaders need is the ability to be vulnerable. Brené Brown speaks in detail about vulnerability. Through her research, she has come to argue, “Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability.” She adds, “There’s probably not a single act at work that requires more vulnerability than holding people responsible for ethics and values.” Since vulnerability plays a significant role in leadership, and thus fostering and developing a team, I asked Tim about vulnerability. He said, “Being vulnerable can be challenging for everyone. Leaders don’t like to admit when they don’t know something while others struggle to draw the line between friends and friendly. Being transparent and offering clear information helps to share and create some level of vulnerability.” When I asked him how to be vulnerable, he said, “Being honest and authentic is what strong leaders do well. When people feel like they know a little more about you, individuals and teams begin to build strong bonds.”

While building a dynamic and cohesive team takes vision, it also means leaders need to look at potential hires through a team-focused lens. I asked Tim what he looks for through the interviewing process as he has built our staff at Goodwin. He identified cultural fit, ability to deal with ambiguity, and drive as necessary elements to building a high-performing team. “I typically ask questions that help identify the types of cultures an individual works best in. Also, asking how they have contributed to a cohesive team in prior roles helps to determine if they have actually done it.” He added, “Vague responses typically act against a willingness to be part of a team.”

Finally, vision, and making the right hires are lost if the leader does not foster growth and camaraderie over time. This is accomplished through interactions, decisions, and support. Tim recommends, “Finding common interests amongst a team helps to identify opportunities for various individuals to come together as a team.” More specifically he notes, “There has to be some level of desire to do this and leaders need to draw this out in their teams.” And he brings us back to vulnerability. “Allowing oneself to be a little vulnerable, the willingness to share and listen to others will help as well.”

Tim also recommends more concrete activities, such as finding opportunities for members of different departments to work on projects as a means of creating “bonds across teams.” For example, the Goodwin staff competes yearly in the annual Employee Olympics, and we have volunteered at Philadelphia Share (providing emergency food relief to low-income Philadelphians), tried our patience and talents in an Escape Room, spared ourselves some embarrassment bowling, and attended a Phillies game together (too bad for Tim – the Phillies beat the Mets).

The reality is when a team is cohesive, supportive, and collaborative, it is naturally more productive. And from an individual perspective, being part of something bigger that is both challenging and supportive, allows one to take risks, which boosts creativity and innovation. In my experience, few leaders would argue about the benefits of building a cohesive team, but few actually do it — it’s not so easy.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department Head of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University
Posted in leadership-management-skills