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Illustration by Carl Wiens

It Takes Teamwork

Leading effective teams is a perpetual challenge for leaders such as CSOs, CISOs, and all types of security managers. In some ways, building an effective team is similar to conducting a risk, threat, and vulnerability assessment: the essential task is to gather and join together all the appropriate skill sets—often spread out over several departments within the organization—to ensure that every business risk is addressed, so that the organization’s bottom-line objectives can ultimately be achieved. 

But to build and lead an effective team, leaders must first understand the immediate environment in which the organization is trying to accomplish its objectives. Often, this immediate environment, which is usually the specific market that the company operates in, exists within a larger complex ecosystem of regulatory requirements, standards, economic pressures, ongoing business processes, customer-vendor interactions, and security threats and vulnerabilities, with all components interacting via a throng of technologies.

This complex ecosystem can be difficult to navigate, so for a team to succeed, the different levels of the organization must be on the same page. Executive management must be willing to listen and participate in the process. Team members must be willing to adopt a different approach to achieving success. And all stakeholders must realize that, while not every effort will be prosperous, setbacks provide a valuable opportunity for learning and improvement.  

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate enough to manage and direct diverse teams in both the private and public sectors. In the federal government, I led teams with the U.S. Secret Service and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that is responsible for enhancing national security. In the corporate world, I led teams at two multinational professional service firms, Deloitte and CACI International, and also served as CSO of a telecommunications company. 

The concept and practice of leading teams can be broken down in several ways. First, there are the cornerstone principles that underlie many, if not most, effective teams. Second, there are specific elements to focus on when putting those principles into practice. Third, there are processes that are critical to building a team, from identifying needs to developing roles to measuring effectiveness. Fourth, there are the individual components of the process that leaders can focus on during the team’s operations, to maximize the chances of success.  

This article will elucidate these principles and practical components of team building and team leading. It will also use real-life examples to sketch out some best practices that illustrate how key principles often come into play.​


A leader who wants to build an effective team can learn from leaders who have already done so. Mentorships, therefore, were key to my success. When I met with challenges in trying to build a successful team and a security program, I turned to trusted peers such as Mike Howard at Microsoft; Peter Dowling at AXA Equitable; Tim Janes, CPP, at PayPal; and Brian Allen, CPP, at Time Warner Cable. These leaders divulged that three factors form the cornerstones of successful teams—leadership, communication, and collaboration.

Lead. These accomplished professionals all had established track records in building effective teams. And they also demonstrated through example that the key driver of team building is leadership. Effective teams have great leaders. What makes these leaders great is their ability to craft and hone a vision, express that vision and own it enthusiastically at all times, and continuously drive it to complete realization.

Even more important, these individuals cultivate support for their mission by maintaining an open leadership style that touches on every function within their organizations. In this way, they ensure a culture of empowerment, in which others are encouraged to use their talents to contribute to the effort. In addition to vision and an empowering leadership style, these leaders possess another key asset: a facility for masterful communication.  

Communicate. The link between superior communication and superior business results is a well-established one. For example, in Towers Watson’s 2010 communication ROI study, Capitalizing on Effective Communication, researchers found that firms considered the most effective communicators had total shareholder returns over a five-year span that were 47 percent greater than firms considered the least effective communicators. “Companies that communicate with courage, innovation, and discipline, especially during times of economic challenge and change, are more effective at engaging employees and achieving desired business results,” the study found.  

Communication is crucial in building teams because it fosters team chemistry. The act of successful communication builds connections between teammates by building trust and respect. Communication is about more than just trading knowledge—it’s about appreciating the emotion and intentions behind the information. In essence, effective communication is the glue that connects all members of a team. It promotes interdependencies among team members, which leads to a tighter-knit and more efficient working group. This facilitates decision making and allows for better problem solving. 

However, effective communication is difficult. It is always a work in progress, takes constant effort, and requires more than simply listening and sending clear messages. For example, when I was CSO of a telecommunications company, communication was initially a struggle; the biggest obstacle was understanding the varying viewpoints among employees. 

This was evident, for example, when we launched our crisis management operation. The project was challenged by various groups within the organization. Security won over naysayers by effectively talking through all the operational challenges. While not every discussion was smooth, we did manage as a team to come to a level of understanding and put together a comprehensive and effective crisis management plan.

Collaborate. Another quality on the list of attributes of a successful team leader is collaboration. Security leaders and their respective teams are frequently unaware of the business component of their efforts, and how the work that their team accomplishes advances the overarching objectives of the organization. Fortunately, this is becoming less common in the current business climate. The notion of security as a cost center has begun to change in light of two continuing developments: the emergence of the CSO as an influential player in the C-suite, and the growing understanding and acceptance that security touches every aspect of organizational operations.

In this context, collaboration is essential for security to be perceived as an integral part of an organization’s business objectives. Through collaboration, the team can effectively share relevant safety and security information throughout the organization. But for this collaboration to take place, team members must understand the obstacles that are blocking, or may potentially block, any channels of communication involving stakeholders. 

For instance, while on an assignment with the federal government, certain officials failed to pass along the correct information needed for successful implementation of some programs. I approached the officials in question and diplomatically discussed who needed information in a timely manner, including the short- and long-term political and budgetary benefits. This collaborative approach succeeded in establishing rapport and bridging a communication gap. It also cemented a clear understanding that nothing would be compromised in implementing the program.​


A leader can build and expand upon these cornerstone principles in assembling and leading teams. In practice, I have found it imperative to ensure that my teams focus on four key elements: communication, listening, motivation, and reason-based conflict resolution. 

The importance of these elements was highlighted when I led a team with the NNSA in the DOE’s Office of Defense Nuclear Security. Our team included engineers from different laboratories, and we were charged with completing a complex project that would assist in the protection of certain national assets. In practice, this meant an intense four days of dialogue and problem solving. 

During this process, the team measured threats, initiated mitigation plans, recognized risk acceptance practices, managed incidents, and directed risk owners in developing their own remediation efforts. The other directors and myself were able to play to the strengths of each member of our team to overcome any obstacles, eventually leading to solutions that benefited the agency. 

When the project was concluded, the leaders held a “lessons learned” debriefing in which we considered the success of the project and the attributes of the team, so that we could evaluate and pass along what we learned from the experience and enhance our teamwork in future projects. Key to the success of the project, we found, was the diversity of the team and the varying experiences and subject matter expertise that members brought forth. Another crucial factor was the desire and motivation among team members to do something that at that time had never been done before. We learned that this resolve and type of project could be replicated.

Effective communication and listening were also essential to the project’s flow and focus, especially given the condensed time frame. Furthermore, in an effort to resolve conflict efficiently, we concentrated on leaving emotion out of the discussion, even though passion for the success of the project was high.​


Following cornerstone principles and focusing on key practice areas usually results in effective teams. Diving in deeper, I would also like to discuss the process that can be thought of as the roots of team leadership—assembling and establishing a team, in the context of a common professional goal of developing an effective team within 180 days. 

In accomplishing the 180-day goal, I have found that the process of building a team can be broken down into eight components. They are sketched out below. 


1. Identifying needs. This starts the entire process: identifying that a certain situation in your organization can be best addressed or resolved by a team, rather than an individual leader or a consultant, and that effective work by such a team will facilitate the success of the organization.

2.  Framing the drivers. Setting expectations and parameters is crucial. Teams may specialize in day-to-day problem solving such as working through complications, overcoming challenges, and discovering solutions. Keep in mind that more fundamental issues—where to begin, what systems to use, what exactly will constitute success—may also be problems in need of solving. These may call for strategic decisions that require a deep understanding of your organization’s competencies and weaknesses.

3. Developing roles and responsibilities. Understand that your team needs both leaders and doers. Some members may focus on developing strategy, others on raising awareness of the team’s efforts, others on cultivating trusted partnerships and ensuring that security has a seat at the table in all areas of the organization.

4. Gaining executive management acceptance. Executive management must be willing to listen, and then commit to the team’s mission and goals. Given this, attention must be paid to how the effort can be framed and presented to senior management, so that it is clear how it will add value to the organization.

5. Identifying ideal candidates. Composing the team is one of the hardest challenges because of all the qualifications that might be factored in, including general knowledge, expertise and experience, ability to learn, willingness, and drive. Sometimes, what works best is not selecting the most experienced or knowledgeable people available, but choosing those with the greatest capacity to collaborate and work together to accomplish a greater good. 

6. Developing and delivering training. Critical to a team’s success is its collective knowledge, which is supported by continuous training. A leader must ensure that team members have good technical and process knowledge, and are receiving enough training to keep it current.

7. Measuring effectiveness. As the saying goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Metrics should be developed and progress recorded.

8. Cultivation and growth. Once metrics are measured, they should be evaluated so that they point toward ways in which the team can be more effective and efficient. This is the basis for further development and growth.   

These components come into play in assignments where the focus is on establishing and formulating security design, integration, and maintenance for commercial, industrial, and government high-security facilities, through the use of state-of-the-art hardware and software. These assignments require a team with members who have the ability to be cross-functional—strong in their particular area of expertise, but also able to jump in and cover other aspects of the project if necessary. 

By emphasizing the key elements and principles of effective teamwork, security managers can build teams that are committed to achieving a common goal and mission. These successful teams will work together and share responsibilities, holding each memeber accountable for attaining the desired results.