Using Teams to Advance Your Career

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When every advantage counts, working effectively on a project team can make you stand out - and increase your chances for promotion or that new job.

Globalization and increased regulation are making business more complex and causing multifaceted challenges for large and mid-sized businesses. To face them, more companies are creating cross-functional teams that include professionals from a variety of disciplines. This means opportunity for candidates who can be effective team players as well as great technicians.

"Cross-functional teams are becoming increasingly popular because they link the company's operational and strategic resources and they provide fluid, multi-functional problem-solving disciplines," says Paul Ruwoldt, a trainer and consultant for Training Resources Group, a management consulting and training firm in Arlington, Virginia. "Technically trained employees such as those in accounting and finance are now being required to wear their operational hats and then lend their expertise to one of these teams, either as an intermittent subject-matter expert or as a standing team member."

So, by augmenting those accounting and finance skills with team skills, you can take advantage of the opportunity to strut your stuff by serving on a cross-functional team. The payoff? It just might land you that new job or promotion.

What are the talents you need to make the most out of your involvement on a team? You should be:

1. An Effective Role Player

Every member of the team has a part to play. Some provide emotional or social support, others provide technical expertise, but there can only be one team leader. Know your role and play it. Don't try to take over someone else's.

2. Comfortable with Ambiguity

Teams often operate in uncharted waters because they're creating new solutions. Avoid frustration by preparing for this up front, and expect the solution will most likely evolve over time, not be ordained.

3. Flexible

You won't get your way all the time, so learn to compromise and pick your battles. Also, don't get stressed out if things don't go well all the time. It's common to face resistance, especially if you're proposing change within the organization, so the team might have to make some adjustments along the way. Endurance rather than speed is the mantra of effective team players.

4. Supportive of the Team Goal

Being a good team member means putting the team's goals first, your individual goals second. If the team succeeds, you'll be recognized for your contributions. If you're viewed as someone who is only out for themselves, you can damage your career rather than help it. Oh, and don't forget to volunteer for assignments.

"Playing effectively on a team means being a giver first and a taker second," says Mel Weinberg, president of Accounting Career Consultants, an accounting and finance placement firm based in St. Louis. "If you support the other team members, they'll return the favor later. You have to see the bigger picture and know that the rewards will come back to you."

5. A Consensus Builder

Since there's little to no hierarchy within project team structures, decisions aren't mandated - they're reached collaboratively. Use persuasion and one-off conversations with other team members to help build consensus, and be sure and ask others for their input.

6. An Excellent Communicator

It's important to offer up suggestions, but don't hog the floor. Contribute something at every meeting and make sure you're listening at least 80 percent of the time. Also if you're a subject-matter expert serving on a cross-functional team, explain concepts in a way that everyone can understand.

Be sure to document your team playing prowess. Make notes each time you return from a meeting, because you want to be able to cite specific examples of your capabilities during performance reviews and interviews. Also, be a presenter or to brief upper management if the opportunity presents itself, and be sure to build relationships with other team members.

And remember: Although the team player label might seem like a cliché, it has real value: Very few people have learned to play well.

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