I have learned from the benefit of time and trial and error that the secret is really quite simple. Possibly it is our beliefs or paradigms that make team success seem complicated and difficult to achieve. Many teams have achieved greatness and accomplished amazing feats, so they are true and possible. But what do we need to do to create them? Is there a secret formula? As stated by Richard Branson, “Complexity is your new enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple”. So below I have begun to share what I see as the simple secrets to building great teams and I hope I don’t become the fool and lose you with too many words.
I have studied teams my whole career. I have been a student of the teams that I participated in and those that I led, examining what worked and what didn’t work. I was and still am always trying to determine the factors that make the difference. Over the years I have passionately sought to uncover the secrets to team success to help both my clients’ and my own teams succeed. I experimented, learned, relearned, failed, and succeeded. After 30 + years I think I am getting closer. I am grateful for the many brilliant researchers and research companies who keep discovering and sharing their insights and prescriptions for success that have helped me illuminate and fine tune my own discoveries. But most of all I appreciate my teammates and clients who go on this journey with me every day to work towards building awesome teams that can and will change the world.
STEP 1 – Attract top Talent
For the last 9 years I have led a recruiting firm because I felt that getting the right people on the bus, the saying Jim Collins made famous, was the greatest service I could provide leaders. It was something I had done well over the years and was a key factor in the success of my teams. However, when I started at Premierehire my knowledge of recruiting was limited so I read, asked questions, researched, practiced, and fine-tuned our methods every day to determine how best to find and attract the right people for our clients.
What I learned on how to attract the right people and consistently hit the mark could fill a book or two, especially if I got down to the application level, but to keep it simple, let me just outline the critical elements.
To attract you must know what you value, where you want to go, and what you need (what problems do you need solved). In other words, you need to put out your food, food that has a message with integrity, to attract the right creature. What’s the point of attracting a lion when you need an elephant? More applicants is no guarantee you are any closer to the right person.
Then you need to ensure you look good – at least to the outside world. Benefits, perks, salary levels, reputation, reviews, and more. You need to make sure you are at your best or you might scare away the top shelf folks who have many options on where to dine or are just fine where they are with no interested in new food.
Now you need good process. First, we need expert trolling and sonar to find the best potential catch. A significant pipeline of potentials increases our ‘luck’ in finding the best and not settling for only what swims in on its own. Then we need to look attractive (as above) so the right fish bite. Next, we need to respectfully engage in a give and take process of mutual assessment. Not pulling to hard and not leaving them to run. If done well, both the candidate and the company will be confident if this is the right bus and the right fish. Okay putting fish in buses is a strange analogy but I think you get the idea.
Last is great onboarding. This is more than just setting up benefits and a desk. This is bringing on a new team member, a new person in the family. First, we need to ensure we affirm their decision and help avoid buyer’s remorse. Then we need to help them assimilate, learn the rules, the expectations, and the players. There is a lot to do in this step but the one key to success is to have one person responsible to ensure the first 90-120 days is an exceptionally effective process from both the candidate’s and the company’s perspective (this should not be their boss or a too busy HR employee).
The next step, Step 2, is critical to ensure a new hire can solve the problems you need solving and that he or she stays for the long term. See, only 2 steps – so simple.
STEP 2 – Engage & Team
(Note: to team is the active process of building and sustaining a team – yup I made that up, but it works right?)
Now you need to ensure you reap the benefit you set out to find. This is all about creating a team that everyone loves to be a part of. If you want to change the world, you need to consider the experience of each team member and create a team that is able to solve hard problems efficiently and effectively. No one person can do it all – you need a team. You can have very smart people but without a team to innovate, solve, implement, and repeat; it is just an exercise in their heads or stored in their laptop. No value can be delivered to the end customer, no scale can be achieved.
We are all unique and bring unique strengths to the problems and projects. We are wonderfully typical and atypical – but 1 awesome person + 1 awesome person is not enough! You need speed and agility to adapt to changes and no one person can address the now and the anticipated, the outputs and the improvements, all at the same time. Only a diverse team, with diverse perspectives and diverse expertise, that knows how to collaborate can succeed. You need 1 + 1 = 5, 10 or 20 to succeed. We become exponential when we work together, when we complement each other. We need to generate energy internally, so we have full energy to meet the external needs and deliver value. If, due to our poor structure, process, and/or behavior, we suck all the energy internally, we will lose to a competitor or disruptive innovation or we will just disintegrate, become unhealthy and, eventually, die.
To achieve Step 2, to Engage & Team, WHAT do we need our team members to experience & HOW do we accomplish this?
Research done by the ADP Research Institute in 2018 to better understand engagement across 19 countries found eight universal themes that were present in successful teams.1 This is what we want to accomplish.
Four came from the individual’s experience derived from their relationships at work – the team:
- I am enthusiastic about the company mission.
- I am surrounded by people who share my values.
- My teammates have my back.
- I have great confidence in my company’s future.
And four from the individual’s experience derived from their own work:
- I understand what is expected of me.
- I use my strengths every day at work.
- I know I will be recognized for excellent work.
- In my work, I am always challenged to grow.
Books and studies upon studies provide insights, ideas, and many solutions on how to achieve the above. This is a big topic, and I don’t pretend to understand it all BUT I am convicted that the 2 key secrets to healthy teams are Mutual Respect & Trust. Of course, I am not alone in this conclusion and a significant body of research supports this, but for me I am satisfied from my own qualitative research these are the answer.
All done? Is that it? No, of course not, because how do we build and sustain Mutual Respect & Trust in the face of our differences, idiosyncrasies, frustrations, constraints, and deadlines? Time, change, problems, and stressors are life, and part of every team’s reality so how do we build vs. fall apart. In my quest to keep it simple, I have boiled this down to four simple criteria to achieve mutual Respect & Trust:
1. Know and manage thyself – Our assessment of self is a mirror to help us grow and improve our capacity to adapt to meet the needs of those we lead. Knowing how our ‘glasses’ impact our perception and how other people’s ‘glasses’ impact their experience, increases our awareness beyond unconscious conclusions (biases, judgements, assumptions, beliefs) and reactions, and increases our ability to make conscious choices. We can consciously choose to be curious, to ask questions, to set aside assumptions, to pause, to reflect, and to be grateful.
2. Create a Learning environment (that is safe) – This requires rules of engagement and rules of process. This is HOW you agree to communicate and collaborate (and make good decisions). Our values of how we will treat each other and how we will get our work done. When we agree on the rules it makes playing the game easier – we start faster, play better together, accomplish more, and when the game is over, we can celebrate or commiserate together. We certainly have more fun than arguing over and deciding on the rules every time we want to play a game. The worst is when we lose good players because the conflict, disrespect, or feeling like they don’t belong have them quietly sneaking out the backdoor.
3. Have the right structure to meet current needs of the company lifecycle to ensure the authority, power and influence (information) are engaged to enable implementation of the good decisions. The needs for a start up, to growing, to established companies are very different and must be considered in the structure and where the focus needs to be.
4. Collective knowledge of what hill we are taking and why. If we all know the destination, we can trust each other enough to set aside our differences or immediate needs for the greater good of the team or company. We can trust each other to use our intelligence, expertise, and shared information to work towards the hill along that crazy path towards success of try, fail, adapt, ‘rinse and repeat’.
I would argue from my own experience that to build a healthy team, or to restore one, we just need to start with 2 and 3. Fix the rules of engagement, rules of process, and the structure and, most often, the behaviors will begin to align and now we can agree on the hill we are taking and how we will do it. If you try to change people first, you will never be done.
This doesn’t mean that it in not important to hire self-reflecting, mature people, it is! However, this element only enhances the team – it doesn’t make the team. This enhancement with mature people is why I am an advocate of the interview techniques I have developed and the in-depth psychometric tools we use to help team members quickly understand each other so they don’t get distracted and off-course with misunderstandings and misjudgments. Learning more about ourselves and each other, so we can work better together, supports achieving mutual RESPECT. We are respecting the individual by supporting them in a manner that recognizes their unique needs, interests, and motivations.
Yes, there are other well documented criteria that are important, but they are only of value after we have created this baseline in a team. My favorite, having been a financial analyst for many years, leading sales teams, leading finance teams, and turning around three companies, is information. Not just copious spreadsheets but dashboards of meaningful information to help monitor, course correct, project, and know what is happening now.
So where do we go from here to build great teams? We keep it simple.
Using the tried-and-true principles of the agile methodology of imperfect iterations of action, feedback, and improving, we start with short sprints and simple steps.
Three simple steps to get started:
1. Each person lists what is important to them in how the team gets the work done and how we talk to each other. The team then compiles and agrees on the starting rules and holds each other accountable in a fun way. This way, if I mess up, we can all acknowledge that I broke a rule, I pay the penalty, and we all move on – no shaming or guilt needed (both are unproductive energies that only serve to reduce motivation and safety). Also, always refer to the rules as evergreen rules since they are meant to adapt to the changing needs of the team.
An example of meeting rules might be: Be on time, no interrupting, prereading is sent out at least 24 hrs. ahead, no yelling or attacking, there are no stupid questions, we rotate roles, etc.
2. Adopt a methodology for decision making and implementation (rules on how to). Assign a facilitator, project manager, or scrum master to keep the team on track for each problem or project. There are many tools and models, so start with a basic framework and go easy on the tech.
3. Get to know each other. Be intentional and use meeting time to talk about how we can best communicate with, relate to, and support each other. We use STG to help us be intentional.
The training and tools we have developed in the Premiere Leadership programs are designed to help leaders with all the above to build or rebuild teams that engage people and deliver exceptional results. We have tools and online workshops for simple starts or we can engage in more in-depth process to quickly get a team back on track and build the framework for continued success. Our coaches and programs will help you determine what steps to take, what tools to use, when, and how so you can build and sustain a healthy team. We help you go from simple to simple in an evolution of success.
And the answer to life, the universe and everything is, of course, 42.
1 Nine Lies About Work, Buckingham and Goodall, 2019