Recent Lessons in Teamwork from Project Runway

I can’t wait for tonight’s episode of Project Runway.  Heidi Klum is a glamorous, winning host and Tim Gunn is a warm and talented business man, artist and leader.  I love Nina Garcia and Michael Kors and enjoy the guest judges that contribute their perspective.  Last week, on the team challenge, designer Anna Sui was the guest judge and gave input on the relationship between team work and the quality of the collections.

Teams are (supposedly) randomly selected, but sometimes the matchups seem planned.  Regardless, these are always fun, especially on seasons like this when the personalities of the designers are so prominent.  There’s Elena, who is incredibly volatile.  She has huge problems controlling her emotions, evident on every show and with every designer.  There are the super confident (Ven and Dmitri), the quietly confident (Melissa and Fabio), and the dramatically confident (Christopher, Gunner), each with his or her own unique style and personality.

Each team had three designers.  All had different ways of working as a team that impacted their success.

Team Strength (Christopher,Sanjia, Gunner) started with some conflict between Gunner and Christopher but ended up being very functional and successful.  They each worked on their own garments, complementing each other’s work.  As Gunner described the process to the judges, Sui commented, “Well of course, you’re all using your strengths.”  Later she said, “One of the key things in designing is teamwork.  That was really smart to use each of your strengths too.  They worked together to develop a cohesive collection but they used each other’s strengths.”

Team Hostility (Elena, Alicia, Dmitri, ) was in the bottom two.   They bickered and fought in the workroom and in front of the judges.  Sui summed it up nicely:  “The conversation reflects in the clothes.”   Nina added, “It was an angry coat.”


Team Nice Guy (Ven, Melissa and Fabio) was so agreeable that their clothes were boring and not cohesive.  They were so accommodating, they didn’t challenge or push each other.   In fact, they deleted the strongest piece, Ven’s, which led to a struggle to produce a unified collection.

There are teamwork lessons to be learned here, some more obvious than others.

  1.  Use your strengths.  But don’t just use yours – use the strengths of others too.  This is always a sound approach with lots of evidence to support it.  It’s smart and simple.  In the words of Tim Gunn, “Channel your inner winner.”
  2. Use your emotional intelligence (EI).  Elena is extremely lacking in EI.  She has little self-control and is not attentive to the feelings of others.  Few people would act that way in a professional situation, but this is Project Runway, so the interpersonal rules, boundaries and expectations are a bit more fluid.  Nonetheless, the teams that exhibit more empathy, self-control and interpersonal skills are more effective.
  3. Lack of overt conflict does not preclude problems.  Just as extreme hostility will trip you up, so will extreme agreeability.  Yes, you can be too nice.  Effective teams challenge each other to succeed.

There are other patterns here too.  What did you notice?  What experiences have you had working in teams when people are (or are not) using their strengths?  How do you “make it work”?

Gloria M. Miele, Ph.D. is a Business Development and Leadership Coach and Victory Circles facilitator in Southern California.  She is passionate about helping others discover and develop their strengths to achieve greater business success through coaching programs, workshops, staff training, executive coaching and keynote speaking.  Visit her website at to sign up to receive helpful business development resources, including a free Business Planning Template. You can also connect with us at