Leadership is now a team sport. According to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends Report, more companies are organizing themselves around highly empowered “networks of teams” who can respond quickly and drive innovation. Only 26% of large companies (over 5,000 employees) are functionally organized, and only 14% of executives still believe that hierarchical job levels are effective. Everyone else is embracing the Modern Organization where people aren’t organized by functions, but missions.
The Team Structure: designed for speed
Companies can define teams by project, product category, market segment or location. But don’t abandon one rigid corporate structure for another – these teams are designed to be flexible, and they’re given the tools and information to quickly complete specific business goals.
“For a company to stay agile, teams must be formed and disbanded quickly. High-performing companies today may build a “digital customer experience” group, select individuals for the team, and ask them to design and build a new product or service in a year or two. Afterward, the team disperses as team members move on to new projects. This ability to move between teams without risk is a critical attribute of today’s high-performing companies,” says Deloitte.
Image source: The organization of the future: Arriving now (2017)
The new workplace needs a new kind of leadership
This also means that the era of the General Manager has ended. As one CEO told Forbes in an article on why teams are now the key to business performance, “If our leaders aren't functional, hands-on leaders, I don't need them around. Information flows easily from team to team and city to city, I don't need managers in the middle to generate reports and tell me when one team is behind or problems are taking place."
That’s why even the most experienced business unit heads can struggle when dealing with smaller, agile teams. Everyone’s going through growing pains, and even the smartest executives have to unlearn what used to work for them. Industry experts and CEOs of successful team-centered companies share what helped.
Build an “Always-On” listening process
According to Forbes, team leaders need to focus on employee engagement because of a millennial workforce that look for values and a sense of personal mission at work. Consider this: Fortune' Best Companies were also part of Glassdoor's Best Places to Work and also LinkedIn's Most In-Demand Employers (Forbes). Their reputation for positive corporate cultures helped them get and keep the best people, and bring out the best in them too.
You can’t create strong culture and engagement with company posters and slogans. It’s built by sincere, constant communication with your employees. “We have to build an "always on" listening process, one the opens up streams of feedback and concerns,” says Josh Bersin for Forbes. “That helps leaders immediately spot problems and design solutions that make employees more productive, aligned, and engaged at work.”
Build teamwork as soon as a new employee walks in the door
Lauren Adams, career and hiring advisor, suggests an onboarding process that immediately makes new hires feel supported by a team. She usually assigns a mentor or coach to help them in their first week, then partners them with other employees who can “shadow” their work as they adjust. Later on, employees are grouped into mini-teams for small projects so they can all get a chance to work closely with new people. By the end of the rotation, the new hires feel more comfortable with their co-workers and have gotten the positive, empowering message that “we’re all in this together.”
The principle can apply to old employees too. In the same article, fellow leadership and human resources experts recommend similar programs that build a culture of collaboration. Their ideas include job switching (allowing team members to understand each other’s goals, tasks and processes) and cross-training. Both break down the communication gaps that can often occur between people of different backgrounds, disciplines or work styles.
Encourage ideas and innovation with BPT
BPT (Brainstorm Prioritization Technique) can help you bring out your team’s best ideas to solve problems and get their commitment to follow-through.
First, get your people together (maximum of 10) and then lay out the problem you want to solve. Write down their ideas, then get the top three and have everyone analyze the pros and cons. (If you can’t narrow it down to three, group them into categories of three and use votes to whittle them down to the top pick, repeating as necessary). “Once you’ve completed the BPT, you’ll have achieved the Nirvana of management: knowing which top one or two things to focus on, and consensus around those ideas.”
Build psychological safety
A Google study found that the single biggest factor in productivity and team success wasn’t the individual players’ skills or experience, but psychological safety.
“In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”
While there are several articles and commentaries on how to build psychological safety, most boil down to the team leader setting an example and establishing processes that remove politicking and favoritism. You need to encourage people to share ideas. You need to protect transparency and accountability for individual actions and allow no room for abuse of authority or the formation of cliques.
“When I first joined my company, I noticed factions between senior employees who had a direct line to the CEO because they were founding members and the younger employees who felt they had to play along or prove themselves,” says Charles R., who stepped in as team leader for the Southeast Asia arm of a tech company. “That’s when I saw that the team was being driven by personalities and not results.”
It was stressful, yes. But Charles realized that he had to be the voice of reason – as a team leader, he had to represent the culture that he wanted to create.
Charles broke down the silos by trading the weekly group status report meetings among department heads to smaller meetings with people responsible for a task. He also put everyone on a project management software that helped him objectively monitor a project’s progress and zero in on a delay. When he saw a problem, he would stay calm and ask, “Tell me what you think: what caused this, what can solve this, what do you need, and what do you anticipate can happen in the future? I did not get involved in their personal politics, but I did show that it mattered nothing to me. I was looking for their ideas and their commitment to their tasks – I valued them equally, and I treated them the same.”
He says that in a situation where there is no psychological safety, the best way to build trust is to first assure people that you are fair and objective, and show that you believe in your team. “Being dogmatic and dictatorial puts everyone on the defensive. It is natural to ‘cover your ass’ when you are afraid. You have to go in there and convince them that you want them to succeed, while creating a workplace where they won’t be afraid to fail.”
“In Grow, we have regular team retrospectives. This allows us to examine our actions and decisions in the past month or two and talk about what went well and what can be improved,” shares Rudi Ramin, Grow CEO. “It’s important for us to keep our communication lines open for honesty and transparency so we can continue to build trust and provide avenues for feedback.”
Invest one hour of your day in one person
Camille R. runs a successful global e-commerce business that distributes popular Asian beauty products and aesthetic machines all over the world. She chalks up her success to “having a small team, but knowing exactly what each one does really well.”
When she first started out, she had just 5 people with very different backgrounds, but the fact that they were “lean and mean” meant she had a chance to spot their skills and personally mentor them. “Don’t get trapped by their resumes or roles. I discovered that one of my staff was very good with people, and the other was quite methodic and could keep track of all details. I assigned them to the tasks that fit their personalities, and I supported their training if they didn’t have the ‘knowhow.’ It is easier to teach skills than to change the way they think or work.”
Now that she’s working with people across the world, with sales teams in different regions and content marketing writers assigned to different channels, she realizes that digital does not replace personal – especially when you’re the leader. “I still see myself as the person who had a big idea but can’t do it alone, so I rely on other people to make it happen. I let them manage their tasks, but my role is to make it easier for them to succeed and make them feel that they matter.”
To this day, Camille meets with her staff individually: one hour a day, over lunch or a teleconference, to understand what’s going on. Their calls include status updates and anecdotes about family or personal hobbies. She takes notes of birthdays, kids’ birthdays, personal hobbies – everything goes into her notebook, so she remembers random things like buying medicinal tea for an employee who complained about arthritis.
For Camille, digital can disrupt the workplace, but it doesn’t change how people think, feel or behave. “At the end of the day, your company is run by people. You are asking them to give you their 100%. What are you giving them? Listen to them. Care about them. See them as a person. And when they go to work, they will know that whatever they do is seen and appreciated. For me, this is something that doesn’t change: good leaders or good brands will always care.”
With networks of teams, collaboration and clear communication are more important than ever. Team leaders must mobilize teams while maintaining clear and honest communication and encouraging collaboration.
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