In the first blog, I said that a meaningful, compelling purpose—a shared aspiration or goal that captures the hearts, minds and energy of every person on the team—is required for an organization to work as one team. Without a compelling common purpose, individuals and groups stray toward self-interest and personal agendas rather than commit to the larger organizational purpose.

The dilemma for a leader is how to get people to commit to the organization’s purpose and act in a way which embraces its vision and strategies. The solution is dependent on the leader’s ability to create and nurture an environment where individuals thrive on teamwork, share in the success and, ultimately grow the capability of the organization. This kind of environment isn’t created by proclamation or mandated by executive order. It evolves because of deliberate, consistent actions a leader takes in two vital areas: relationships and mechanisms that support teamwork.

Teamwork Requires Trust – But There Is More

A foundational element of human relationships is trust. Trust between colleagues, between worker and boss, between employee and company. Without trust people won’t fully believe in a leader’s vision and strategies, or commit to follow them. Without trust people don’t work collaboratively; they aren’t open with their thoughts and feelings or admit mistakes. With trust, openness, constructive debate and collaboration naturally occur. But, trust alone is not enough.

Teamwork also requires mechanisms that support people getting great work done. A leader’s job requires establishing systems and structures that encourage, support, and reward work that is aligned with strategic intent and company direction. Nurturing shared values, streamlining decision making, aligning work groups, holding listening sessions, recognizing excellence, and celebrating accomplishments are all part of the mechanisms that enable teamwork to thrive.

Trusting relationships and supportive mechanisms are the main components of the one-team environment. But, often, leaders dive directly into creating teams and bypass working to improve the environment. These leaders ignore or are unaware of the importance of wrapping teams in a culture that fosters teamwork. Unfortunately, it’s too common an error. It’s like planting crops without preparing the soil. The wise leader understands that teams and the environment they operate in are interdependent. The wise leader develops both with equal attention.

What are the chances that individuals will work as a team if the organization’s senior leaders are not having deep conversations about shared values and goals, the supporting mechanisms required for teamwork, and the leadership behaviors that bring about teamwork?

The answer to this question is likely obvious, but the caveat imbedded in it may not be. If senior leaders are simply talking about values, goals and behaviors without acting in ways that consistently and visibly demonstrate them, their words will fall on disbelieving, even cynical, ears. “Talking the talk” without “walking the talk” is worse than not talking at all. Simply put, leaders must lead. They must go first, set the example and lead by doing.

One Leader’s Success Story

I have been fortunate to work with many extraordinary leaders during my career. One such leader was John Vandegrift, a senior manager in a global document technology company. John once told me, “They report to me, but my role is to serve the team.” Much has been written about servant leadership, yet John lived the role, developing energetic and successful team environments throughout his career.

John did the things good leaders are encouraged to do: articulate a compelling purpose, establish organizational goals and measures, allocate resources, define roles, and improve work processes. John did all this, and he did more. He also passionately nurtured the shared values and behaviors that build trust and commitment. He didn’t just talk—John “walked the talk.” He consistently conducted himself using the values he professed and visibly demonstrated the behaviors he desired. He lived them every day in his dealings with his employees and peers. He listened, he encouraged, he rewarded and empowered; he acknowledged his mistakes and insisted others learn from theirs. He valued honesty and encouraged open discussion. John built a high-performing, successful organization and in the process, earned the respect and affection of those he worked with.

John once described himself as the department’s “social conscience.” He was fluent in discussing his expectations about the personal and interpersonal behaviors that foster teamwork. John expected the leaders who reported to him to do the same. Managing Directors, Operational Managers, and Team Leads alike could articulate how teamwork and trust were based on personal credibility and mutual respect. Leaders could also facilitate conversations with team members to clarify the day-to-day behaviors that nurtured trust and teamwork.

Building Support Mechanisms is Vital

But John didn’t rely solely on deep discussions about the trust-building behaviors. He also searched out mechanisms in the organization that worked against the shared values of teamwork and fixed them. The leadership team looked at everything to leverage the enablers, remove the barriers, and introduce changes necessary to create a one-team environment.

Leadership development training started with an exercise to identify your personal values. John understood that if leaders had not prioritized their own personal values, their behavior could seem erratic and unpredictable to others.

Annual performance objectives included team objectives and trust-building behavioral expectations. Performance feedback mechanisms emphasized frequency and quality—not just the typical semi-annual or annual reviews—to provide prompt, meaningful feedback. Most leaders intuitively know people need frequent and worthwhile feedback. However, it’s easy to fall in the trap of exception management—where supervisors become adept at coaching individuals only when they do something wrong or poorly.

To break this habit and create a new pattern of frequent, positive reinforcement, John’s management team employed a simple approach called “Five Coins.” Each day, we started with five coins in our pocket, or on one side of our desk. Before noon our goal was to move all five coins to the other pocket, or the other side of the desk. The criteria to move a coin? Find someone doing something right and make sure they knew you saw. You told them what you observed and why you thought it was right. Can you imagine the positive energy this creates in an organization that does this habitually? John could. Ours became an invigorated environment, built on energy from people—not posters or PowerPoints.

John and the leadership team initiated a host of effective team development mechanisms.  Over the years, they:

  • Established overarching organizational goals and measures. These included a triad of clear-cut revenue, cost, and customer satisfaction goals which everyone had a stake in through quarterly gainsharing
  • Restructured sales and service departments to align with the customer accounts for end-to-end accountability and support.
  • Moved people who needed to work together to the same location to better serve customers. Before, conversations between sales and service typically happened only when a customer complained. After the move, collaborative conversations proactively occurred. It was common to hear, “Hey, I’m thinking about selling solution “x” to customer “y.” What do you think?”
  • Held All Hands meetings focused on progress toward shared performance measures and significant team Everyone celebrated—or lamented the lack of—gainsharing payouts.
  • Attended employee lunches, informal after-hours social time, and acknowledged team members’ life events.
  • Involved teams in choosing their next leader when leadership transitions occurred. (Imagine how team members feel when they choose their own leader rather than having a new leader thrust upon them.)

To What End?

So, how did these actions impact organizational performance? This business unit of over 500 employees was a top performer year over year—revenues grew as costs were contained, customer satisfaction was high and employee turnover, low. Because of these results, we were frequently asked to test and evaluate innovative ideas and collaborate with other like-minded business units. Our performance was so consistent, corporate leaders would frequently visit to observe and try to figure out the secret sauce. This level of performance remained constant under John’s leadership.

As I look back, I realize this organization exhibited all the characteristics of outstanding teamwork. We were able workers, guided by a visionary leader, working toward a common goal. Individually we each committed to do our best. Together we achieved exemplary results, far greater than anyone could have done alone. In the process, we worked hard, laughed a lot, and developed friendships that thrive some 15 years later.

John Vandegrift and his leadership team taught me that creating an organization that works like a great team requires authentic leaders who think and act on two fronts: deliberately building trustworthy relationships and creating the support mechanisms required to sustain the environment.

In the next blog, I’ll explore the unique language of highly effective teams. Creating and sustaining a one-team environment is complicated whether or not you have the word “leader” in your title. We help companies create environments for great teamwork. Get in touch to see how we can help.

This blog post is the second installment in a series about creating a One-Team organization.

  1. One Team” Lays the Foundation for All Teams
  2. “One Team” Starts with Leadership and Thrives on Trust
  3. One-Team Conversations Connect People
  4. The Four Fundamentals of Successful Teams