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Team first

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The ingredients for building and maintaining winning teams in business

By Erik Cassano

Business is never conducted in a vacuum.

No matter what industry you’re in or how your organization is set up, it takes a large amount of effort from a variety of people with different backgrounds and different areas of expertise, all engaged in and focused on a common set of goals to succeed.

That makes effective team-building among the most important skills that any manager or executive can possess.

“Unless you are a solo performer, like an artist, songwriter or stockbroker, work gets done in teams,” says Josh Leibner, founder and president of Strategic Commitment Group, a New Jersey-based business consulting firm.

“Manufacturing, design work, research and development, banking — all of it gets done in teams. The days of being a lone wolf are getting rarer and rarer. Any organization is going to have people who depend on each other, and coordinating that work is essential to building trust.”

There is no team-building method that is applicable in every situation. The essential components, skills and personalities necessary for success depend on the nature of the task, the size of the company, the motivating factors in play and a host of other variables. But there are common traits that virtually all successful teams — and all successful team-builders — share.

“You have to develop an understanding of what your team needs in order to be successful,” Leibner says. “You need to know what structure they need, what resources they need and what motivates the people on your team. It’s more complicated than it maybe sounds, because teams are comprised of individuals, and each person has different buttons to push. As the leader, you have to manipulate the controls to steer the team toward the overarching goal.”

Setting the ground rules

Leibner says every team has to answer three fundamental questions before the group can function as a team and any work gets done.

  • What are we here to accomplish?
  • How will we measure success?
  • How will we interact?

The answers identify the goals, the standards and the player roles.

“You must have a reason for being,” Leibner says. “And it has to be a compelling reason that engages everyone on the team. You can be organized as a small management group working on a narrow-scope project, or leading an entire company. In all cases, having that bold, compelling mission is essential.”

On the second point, measuring success means developing clear, specific and measurable objectives.

“That might seem self-evident, but it’s remarkable how often you can ask members of a team what defines success and the wide range of responses you can get. And that’s not a good thing. The objectives have to help ensure understanding and alignment.”

The answers to the first two questions are mission statements that need to be clearly communicated. The third answer is less about mission statements and more about management tactics.

It’s an ongoing task to define and manage the interpersonal dynamics of a team. It involves defining roles, having a chain of command, identifying areas of expertise and continuing to ensure that the right questions and right decisions find their way to the right people.

“It’s an ongoing management task that includes prioritization, maintaining team focus and dealing with the inevitable setbacks that always seem to creep up,” Leibner says. “There is also what I’ll call a ‘spirit’ factor at work. How you manage the group tasks and individual work flow will go a long way toward determining the morale of your team.”

Hand in hand with that is the enforcement of accountability — ensuring that not only is the work getting done, but that the work is getting done by the people who are supposed to get it done. As important — or perhaps even more important — than making sure you have no slackers on your team, you have to make sure overly eager or overly aggressive team members aren’t overstepping the bounds of their authority.

“Task management and mood management are very much related,” Leibner says. “That falls on the manager to ask — Who owns a given task? Who has the authority to make decisions and who needs to be informed about something but might not have decision-making power in that area?”

Performing regular maintenance

Maintaining the focus and cohesion of a team should be done as part of regular meetings. Much as with the style of management, the form and frequency of team meetings depend on the type of team and the scope of the project.

“Some meetings are more about large-scale strategic updates, whereas some are more tactical or about removing roadblocks,” Leibner says.

He says he generally puts meetings into three buckets. Wide-angle meetings to discuss long-term strategic decisions are usually not necessary more than quarterly, or every six months. These meetings may involve executives above the team, such as members of top management who want to be briefed on the team’s progress and offer their input.

The next meeting tier is weekly or twice-monthly updates. These are less strategic, involving smaller-scale decisions on the direction of the project or task at hand, and smaller-scale resource allocation affecting the next few weeks or month.

The third meeting tier is the least formal — usually daily huddles. These meetings are almost entirely tactical, dealing with the removal of minor roadblocks to progress and individual concerns, and celebrating incremental accomplishments.

“That’s when you try to nip things in the bud,” Leibner says. “If there are communication breakdowns, if one person isn’t delivering what they promised and it’s creating tension, if someone feels undermined or like their work isn’t being recognized, that’s when you want to air those things out so they can be addressed before it festers and becomes a bigger problem.”

The role of company culture

The effectiveness of a team can be profoundly impacted by the environment in which it operates, and you can’t overlook the role of your company’s culture as a driving force in how effective your people operate in a group setting.

Every business has a culture, whether it’s by design, or something that simply developed over time. The companies with a designed culture built around set principles are generally healthier than those that just let a culture develop without structure.

“Having a productive atmosphere for team building is heavily dependent on the culture you create within your walls,” says Byron Hebert, director in charge of entrepreneurial advisory services at PKF Texas. “Best-laid plans can end up ruined if you don’t have a healthy operating environment — consultants like to say that culture eats strategy for breakfast — and if you just let your culture take root without cultivation, it can develop in ways you don’t want.”

Culture plays a key role in defining organizational goals and organizational structure, as well as the type of people you bring aboard to operate in that structure.

“Culture determines whether you’re going to be a flat organization that values collaboration and will put processes in place to enable those things to happen,” Hebert says. “Teams flourish when roadblocks are removed and collaboration is encouraged, but that doesn’t just happen. It’s something that has to be mandated and overseen by management.”

If you know what type of organization you want to have and are taking steps to make sure it exists, laying that groundwork helps ensure that you’re hiring people who can thrive in that type of environment and who can fit together to form operational and project teams that are greater than the sum of their parts.

“If, for instance, you’re hiring someone who thrives in an organization that has a lot of structure, who needs a strong authority figure, you don’t want to put them in an environment where there is low structure,” Hebert says. “That’s how culture creates a cascading effect that influences the effectiveness of team-building. You have to know the type of organization you are building before you decide who best fits within it.”

A sense of purpose

Culture lays the foundation of a great team, and talented people form the engine that drives the team toward a successful conclusion. But every engine needs fuel, which comes in the form of motivation.

As Leibner said, teams need defined goals and accountability, both of which are central to strong morale. Apart from that, the leaders within an organization need to know what motivates individual members of a team to perform at their best. Those motivating factors can vary depending on an individual’s personality, life situation and career goals, among other factors. But there are some universal rewards that nearly every team member considers motivating.

Money and material rewards are not necessarily high on the list, particularly for younger employees.

“I subscribe to the three primary motivators as outlined by business author Daniel Pink,” Leibner says. “Some people are motivated by autonomy, or a desire to have more control over their lives. Some are motivated by mastery, or a desire to continuously improve. And some people are motivated by a sense of purpose, that they’re serving a cause greater than themselves. I think a lot of motivation comes down to determining who on your team is motivated by which of those three factors.”

Younger employees, those between 20 and 40, were raised in a world that has become increasingly global and socially conscious, and as such, are often motivated by the above factors even more than their older counterparts.

“They’re used to fast-changing environments where there are many opportunities to learn, grow and achieve that sense of purpose,” Hebert says. “If you want to hire, groom and keep younger employees, you have to give them what they’re looking for — a challenging environment and a path to growth. That’s the only way they’re going to flourish at your company.”

That means an ability to quickly ascend from team member to team leader. That’s not to say you should automatically promote younger employees just to keep them, but the pathway should be there for young associates who show the promise and work ethic you’re looking for.

“If you challenge them, and they trust you to keep challenging them, you’re not giving them a reason to leave,” Hebert says. “You have to give them something to climb. Maybe some climb it and others can’t cut it, but the hill has to be there.”

As for money’s role in team-member motivation, it’s certainly a factor. But dollar signs aren’t the make or break that will determine whether you can construct and maintain great teams that produce great results.

You should view monetary compensation as a basic need. If you’re not paying competitive salaries, you’re not attracting qualified interview candidates. But it’s a long jump from there to a great organization with a team-first culture — and money isn’t going to help you make that jump.

“If you’re paying the market rate, I’d say an increase in pay is probably about third or fourth on the list of why people leave for another job,” Hebert says. “More important is the work environment you provide and the question of whether you adequately challenge your people. If you’re not providing that, then money might come into play a bit more.”

Other traps

In addition to individual motivating factors, other stumbling blocks can arise, and leadership has to remain vigilant about removing them. Hebert identifies out-of-touch leadership and inconsistent workload among the other issues that can undermine the success of a team.

“If leadership isn’t advancing with the pace and abilities of the staff, that can be disheartening in a team dynamic,” Hebert says. “That can certainly cause poor attitudes to creep in.”

Workload is difficult to get right all the time. Workflow is often dependent on external factors, including resource availability and the cooperation of customers and clients. But it still requires as much sanding and polishing as possible.

“It’s like any other problem you might encounter within a team,” Hebert says. “Maybe you can’t fix it outright, but your team wants to see that you acknowledge the problem and are working on it. If they see a path to fixing the problem, they’ll be a lot more understanding. If they don’t see a path, or don’t see any empathy from management, it will, in turn, pave their path out of the company.”