To Build a Team

Reflections on Leadership and Team Building for Our Generation

Leadership and team building formulas are required for you to stay the course, yet those formulas shift over time. Trends manifest then quickly diminish and are robustly replaced with new ideals. Culture and custom vary greatly by region. Individual style manifests. To say that there is only ever one way to extend leadership is to speak in error. So how can you best develop and sustain the best possible team? A thousand possible elements in that endeavor would be correct. Here I offer the four constant elements to keep you on course in your leadership paradigm.

Build an organizational mutt. Most of us have experienced first hand the difference in vitality between a pure bred animal and one that has a varied genetic heritage. With little exception, the mixed breed presents markedly more intelligence, better health, and a broader range of temperament, and resists more physical ailments than their purebred kindred. Insightful and progressive organizational leaders intentionally and vigorously blend a multitude of worldviews, a variety of vocational experiences, and a wide range of social and educational backgrounds into their corporate lifeblood. Consciously building this kind of diversity into organizations ensures that in any corporate challenge someone on the team will offer a perspective based in unique insight, experience, and knowledge to meet that challenge. The communal intelligence is enhanced.

The powerful leader both builds this diverse team and establishes a forum where a multitude of insights give voice to strategic adjustments and operational best practices that respond rapidly in changing business climates. Mutt organizations do this best. Specialized organizations lack diversity because of comparatively limited views and will never be as responsive, insightful, and intelligent as their more diversified cousins.

I am repeatedly surprised by the number of executive leaders who spend most of their week either sequestered away in the solitary confines of their office, or on the other hand exclusively engaged with customers. While some solitary office time is important for reorientation, and while our customers need to be the primary focus of the overall businesses, as leaders we too often allow these two issues to take up the entire weekly schedule. Far better to spend the dominant amount of our time instructing our team members how to express our organizational values in every thing they do. Far better to create a formal forum so more experienced members share nuances in product knowledge and service. Far better to keep personal and professional performance at peak levels by constantly updating our technical, organizational, and human skills.

Teach and learn every day. Our employees seem to recognize when our leader needs to go to class. Across the nation, participants in various open enrollment classes, whether in operational refinement, customer service, targeted marketing strategies, or communications skills, exclaim: “Gosh, our leaders, managers, and owners would have really benefited from this class!” Many organizations are so wired in an authoritarian model that educating the team is ineffective if the “Boss” isn’t exposed to the new information and isn’t prepared to champion the new initiative based on the class information. Even where the corporate operational tone is established in a collaborative model, too often no formal integration occurs admitting the new material into the communal intelligence. The powerful team builder seeks ways to install new invigorating information into the entire work culture no matter what the prevailing operational mode. The powerful leader remains teachable and sets the academic example for team members to follow. Imaginative leaders understand that, while teaching, they themselves come to understand the subject better and they create avenues of accessibility for others to learn from the ultimate sages.

While reviewing stores with management teams for operational improvements, I am repeatedly stunned when executives are completely surprised to suddenly see so clearly what they had not seen until they took my guided tour. Most will admit that it has been months or years since they have taken a focused walk of their facilities and operations. Some say they have never done it at all. The glaring results of such a tour are dismal. Paint stores with declining market share, wondering why sales are in decline, operate in buildings that have not had a coat of paint since 1927. Stores are so filled with clutter that employees can hardly breathe, let alone move freely through the aisles to assist customers who are equally overwhelmed by the mess. One owner brags about low vehicle maintenance costs while a rusty cab on a delivery vehicle (yes, the entire cab, including the driver seat) was so rusty it came loose from the frame of the truck and could be lifted off without absolute minimal effort. One executive dismissed the worn and practically bare 220V electrical cord laying in a mud puddle in front of an operating table saw with the words: “Well, no one has gotten hurt yet.” I simply pulled the plug and cut the cord off with a pocket- knife when his grandson went to use the device right in front of us. Neither the grandfather nor the grandson could see the problem or the risk. The mindset was reciting a motto: “That’s the way it has always been.” Blind eyes and unconditioned minds are unable to envision an alternative standard or practice and eventually lose their course.

Adopt fresh eyes and a fresh mind. An important philosophical principle in Japanese culture is called ShoShin. ShoShin translates as “First Mind” or “Beginner Mind” and is a priceless capacity essential for powerful leadership and team development in this challenging era. One way to foster ShoShin is to establish a formal routine of walking though your facilities with a quorum of participants who seek out failures in your established optimal standards. This implies, of course, that you have established standards with a set optimum level of execution rather than a minimum level of tolerance. This also implies a practice of team effort. Taking the walk as a diverse group is healthier than walking alone for several reasons. Touring as a mix of executives and employees allows your senior leaders to teach “on-the-spot” as you review your facilities. Touring as a team brings diverse perspectives to the discovered opportunities for improvement. Observation, recognition, and acknowledgement are persuasive transformational tools as you review your stores, yards, and warehouses. Most important is the “Power of Witness,” when an assembly of influential leaders vested with the stewardship of running an organization all look at the raw truth together and find it darned difficult to pass by a situation, a standard, or a practice that puts the organization at risk in any way. Standing witness for each other creates a heightened sense of urgency to never overlook and thereby endorse poor execution.

I often conduct “Kick-Off” operational walks for organizations that venture into an earnest pursuit of excellence. These training and conditioning walks are eye opening, and usually not much fun as pivotal reckonings that awaken leadership teams who want to manifest pristine and disciplined cultures. Such organizations tend to attract and retain better employees, tend to sustain themselves financially with greater ease and tend to produce pride within all stakeholders, including their customers. After all, do you really want a customer base completely at home in a mess?

Most leadership teams in our industry are dominated by intense operational personalities, driven by the moment and motivated by keen execution. However, with your head down in the day-to-day business activities you might look up from your work to find that you’ve paddled really hard only to arrive at an unintended or strategically inappropriate destination. I still stand amazed at the number of managers, owners and dedicated employees who simply never take a break to rest, let alone to reorient or to make course adjustments. To overcome this dangerous tendency, you must build in a disciplined formal routine of stepping away for periods of introspection, recreation, and rejuvenation for your individual health, and for the health of your organization.

Take pause with a purpose. Conduct a major offsite annual intensive executive retreat for checking past performance, and for mapping and benchmarking future performance. Plan on at least three or four days. If you have never done one of these, or if you anticipate that gridlock or down-right hostility will be the result of setting strong leader personalities in tight quarters with no escape, then I suggest you hire a facilitator to guide you successfully through the rigors of this all important exercise. Ultimately primary executives come to agreement during such a retreat, about their current positions in each organizational realm, finance, operations, human resource development, and marketing. Course corrections set during the retreat ensure that each of these broad areas continue to express your deepest values and vision within the execution of their prospective portions of your organizational mission. Revisit your values and your vision and be sure they currently and authentically express your actual organizational intentions. This difficult work separates stellar organizations bound for success from the mediocre mobs awash with failure as our industry becomes more complex and more competitive year after year.

The age of bragging about how you have not taken a break in the last ten years has ended. Continue to do this and you say outright that you don’t trust your team to perform without you. Continue to do this and you set a poor example. The best and brightest team members value down time and find innovative ways of working smarter instead of harder, lending motivation to create models based on efficiency. Efficiency models encourage winning with minimal effort while productivity models promote winning at all costs. I bet you can guess which model yields the healthier personal and professional results. If we truly seek effectiveness in our organizations then we must intentionally replace both our measurements and our behaviors that promote productivity with those that promote efficiency.

The great leader of a great team has a challenging and rewarding task ahead within this extraordinary industry. The greatest leaders foster diverse perspectives that build strong immune systems in the organizational body. They teach and learn daily, setting academic example for team members. They keep eyes and minds open and fresh as they manifest a pristine standard of operation expressing a fantastic vision and devotion to excellence. They take pause to orient and adjust course in order to reach an optimum destination. There are other elements of leadership and team building, but these four are essential and must be manifest in your organization to stay your course.