In the blanket media coverage of Apple’s extraordinary success, it’s hard to believe that any angle has gone underreported — but here’s one. “Most of Steve Jobs’ top lieutenants were with him a decade or more,” observes consultant Ram Charan. “He was the only person to build such a team in a big company.” Jobs not only found and kept knockout technologists, marketers, designers, and others but also welded them into a unit through a unique managerial system that included the famous marathon Monday meetings. He created a genuine dream team — the main reason he was so confident that Apple’s success would survive him.
In the 2012 edition of Fortune’s Executive Dream Team series, that’s what we’ll be looking for: superstar performers who can work together, pushing a larger agenda than just their own advancement. In today’s light-speed business environment, companies with such teams hold a powerful advantage. Apple’s tight-knit team has changed product pricing 48 hours before launch — inconceivable at most companies and possible only with an exceptionally integrated team.
Look at teams of all kinds in business, sports, and other fields, and you quickly spot a central lesson that’s easy to understand but hard to apply: A bunch of stars don’t necessarily combine into a great team. Everyone remembers the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team, the original Dream Team: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing. They won the gold. Hardly anyone remembers the star-filled 2004 team (LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony), which managed to beat Lithuania for the bronze after losing to Argentina and Puerto Rico. Great players, yet not a dominant team. The same principle — that even superstars may not be enough — applies in business. It’s a myth that “smart people do everything better,” says University of Michigan leadership expert Noel Tichy. The reality: “Smart people with aligned values and trust create high-performing teams.”
In business even more than in sports, teams composed entirely of stars pose perils. That’s because top-tier executives may all be focused on getting the same job: the CEO’s. When one person’s victory means defeat for the rest, expecting the group to cooperate may be asking too much. So a team of potential CEOs may well fail.
Research offers further insights into assembling the best group. Differing experiences, differing ways of thinking, and differing strengths are good; it’s especially important that the team compensate for the CEO’s weaknesses. Differing values are bad. The most effective corporate teams are rarely larger than nine, which is one reason that’s the size of our Dream Team. (Conveniently, that’s also the size of a starting lineup in baseball, the model for this summertime exercise.) Studies show that when corporate teams exceed that size, an “audience effect” takes hold; team members stop talking to each other and start grandstanding for the group.
The ability to strengthen a team is one of today’s most critical business traits, so we’ll be looking for it as we choose our squad. Trustworthiness is key because trust is the most important element in team success. Insistence on confronting the real conflicts inside the team is also vital. Postmortems on failed teams almost always reveal unaddressed issues — competing agendas, embarrassing problems. The best team players face the deep issues fearlessly.
In coming months we’ll be looking not just at outstanding business people but also at excellent combinations — winning executive pairs, for example. Many of the best performance records in the past 50 years have been achieved by legendary duos at the top: Roberto Goizueta and Don Keough at Coca-Cola (KO), Tom Murphy and Dan Burke at ABC/Cap Cities, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA), Michael Eisner and Frank Wells at Disney (DIS). The power of trust and alignment, even if only in a pair, can be stunning.
Sustaining teams larger than two is tough. But heck, we’re dreaming after all, and Apple (AAPL) has shown that it can be done. So we’re going to choose nine terrific businesspeople and combine them into a fantasy unit that we believe would crush any miserable competitors in its path. We’ll unveil the full 2012 Executive Dream Team in our Aug. 13 issue. Who will make the cut? Just remember that putting up outstanding numbers is important, but it isn’t enough. This is more than mere math. It’s chemistry.
This story is from the May 21, 2012 issue of Fortune.