What Makes Some GIS Teams Stand Out?

Have you ever wondered why some GIS teams succeed more often and stand out from the rest?

We all know a GIS team that stands out. You want your team to excel. We all know a peer who is leading the rest of the pack. You want to emulate that leader.

That’s why you attend that leader’s conference presentation or meet with them to find out why they are successful. You note that they have the same technology, the same software, the same size operating budget (or maybe even a smaller one), and their team structure is similar to yours.

But their teams stand out.

Over the years at meetings, workshops, and one-on-ones, I have noticed that managers and executives rarely talk about their greatest asset: their people. They talk freely about technology, software, data, innovation, and management practices. Managers and executives who do talk about their people—and recognize that they wouldn’t be where they are without them—understand that technology is the tool, data creates the evidence, but people are the most valuable commodity in their business.

I don’t have all the answers to making your team stand out, but I would like to share with you some of my experiences, observations, and the lessons I have learned as a manager of GIS teams and the president of a not-for-profit organization.

I have found that the essence of a successful team is getting the right balance of people to work toward a common goal. A good starting point is understanding the leadership qualities and the skills you can offer your team.

I remember when my director believed I was ready to lead a team of GIS professionals to work on some exciting and innovative projects. The very first piece of advice he gave me was, “We are only as good as the people in our team.” He then told me who would be in my team. Before I could respond, he said, “You will have to make them work together.”

I had such a diverse group of people on the team. I had traditional cartographers who didn’t think that computers could replicate hand-prepared maps. I also had graduates who had only used mobile technology to collect data and GIS software to make maps. I had worked with some of these people for several years, and there were some people I didn’t know. I had people who were older than me that I thought should be the team manager instead of me.

When I first became a manager, I attended some management courses and spoke with other managers about how they managed teams. I thought I would just “copy and paste” this new knowledge directly into my management practices. However, this didn’t necessarily work all the time.

I was quickly learning that managing a diverse team wasn’t easy. I was failing in some parts of my role, while succeeding in other spaces. I knew I had to find a way to unite the team and deliver on my performance indicators. My problem wasn’t management; it was leadership.

This is where my journey took the path less traveled by many GIS professionals. This was the moment in which I went from a technologist to a leader of people and a manager of business.

It is important to understand that management and leadership philosophies are worlds apart, but they intersect daily. As a manager, it is your job to process day-to-day tasks, keep business on track, and direct people to work.

Traditional management works on the principles of punishment and reward for effective performance management, but evidence suggests that this works for a while until staff lose interest in the vision, the manager, or their team members.

In contrast, leadership builds purpose. It develops a collective vision, enables trust, values each team member, and promotes continuous learning. The new millennium workplace demands more leadership, collaboration, engagement, and respect for the skills and knowledge of an individual no matter their age, job classification, or experience.

Some teams excel because they are led by exceptional people who have a passion for their professional discipline along with carefully crafted management and leadership skills.

There is another level of leadership that creates teams really stand out. These teams are led by transformational leaders. These leaders see themselves as moral exemplars. They have a greater understanding of the value of the people around them who are working toward creating significant change in each other, the team, and the organization.

Leadership expert and presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns defined transformational leadership as a process in which “leaders and followers help each other to advance to a higher level of morale and motivation.” This process is more than managing people differently. It is a philosophy in implementing culture change.

At this point I’m not saying that you need to change the whole organization’s cultural environment. But as a leader you can influence the culture in your team or even outward into your division. This is the starting point of creating a high-performing team—one that stands out.

You are now at the crossroads. You have a choice to follow others or to create a new path. The first step in becoming a transformational leader is the hardest step because of the many unknowns ahead of you. There is no one book that will give you a road map and directions to success or describe what success should look like for you.

I can say with experience that blazing a new path is not easy some days. It can be lonely. It can also feel like everybody wants a minute—or an hour—of your time but that there are not enough hours in the day. In the end, you will always find the energy within yourself because you understand that the rewards are greater than the effort you put in.

If you are ready to take the first step in becoming a better leader and building a team that stands out, it is a good time to evaluate your current leadership skills and knowledge while comparing them to some characteristics of a transformational leader.

There is no magic list to become a transformational leader, but you can adopt some of their common traits. Transformational leaders have an inspirational vision, motivate individuals, calculate risks, make tough decisions, have an organizational consciousness, cultivate openness, make sure their actions demonstrate integrity, know their personal values, and capture the hearts and minds of their teams.

Inspirational Vision

Set a realistic and achievable vision. Create a vision that can motivate and be owned by each team member. Communicate the vision effectively with passion and humility within the team and to supporters. The vision will inspire belief, commitment, and purpose.

Motivate Individuals

Take the time to understand what makes individuals come to work every day. What are their strengths? Where do they feel strong at work? What tasks motivate them to excel? It’s more than a formal acknowledgment of a job well done; treat each team member as a valued individual.

Calculated Risks

Bravery is trusting yourself. Be brave and take calculated risks. You must trust your instinct to make informed decisions quickly. When time is on your side, lean on your most valued resource, the team. Empower them to assist with research, gathering the intelligence, evaluating the situation, and making recommendations. This will facilitate growth, respect, trust, and confidence within the team and with you.

Make Tough Decisions

Do not shy away from difficult decisions. They never go away. Make your decisions with a clear focus on the values, vision, objectives, and goals of the team and the organization.

Organizational Consciousness

As a leader, you need to understand the collective consciousness of the entire organization. You need to be aware of what is happening outside your team. Where are the pressure points in the organization? What divisions are doing well, and why? Engage other individuals to tap into the organizational consciousness.


Be open to new ideas and suggestions. Understand that success is dependent on the effort of the entire team. Growth only happens in teams that have a culture of openness to new ideas from all levels. You need to make a deliberate effort to seek new ideas, challenge your intellect, and be prepared to be questioned by team members.

Demonstrated Actions

Be proactive in your approach. Through actions, you will demonstrate that you are a person of integrity. You turn words into actions and are willing to take risks to benefit the team while taking an active role in growing the organization.

Personal Values

Understand your core values. Your values, beliefs, and behaviors influence everyone around you, especially your team. It is important to seek others’ insights to make the best decision for the team and the organization without compromising your own values.

Hearts Plus Minds

You need to connect the heart and mind of each individual to the vision. Engage your team through passion, strength, and belief. If you can connect with them at an individual level, emotionally and rationally, they will respond with passion and feel a profound connection to the vision to drive innovation and growth.

Stand-out teams excel because their leader understands the wisdom of Nelson Mandela, longtime champion of the anti-apartheid movement and former president of South Africa, who said, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

About the author

Gary Maguire is the senior geospatial intelligence officer for the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, South Australia. He has been involved in the spatial industry for 32 years, and during this time, he has led several major state government geospatial initiatives and held executive positions including the president of the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute and a board member of the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy. In 2014, his team was recognized by Esri with a Special Achievement in GIS Award. He is a fellow of the Leadership Institute of South Australia.