How to Bring Out the Best in Teams

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By: Andrew R. McIlvaine for Human Resource Executive, Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

Retention is increasingly becoming tied to the strength of an organization’s teams, which have the ability to power business success. 

Marcus Buckingham believes the concept of “corporate culture” may be a tad over-rated.

In fact, although culture is often touted as one of the most important factors in attracting and retaining talent, he believes there’s a much more important element that often gets overlooked: teams, and the people who lead them.

In Buckingham’s latest book, Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, the world-famous consultant, along with co-author Ashley Goodall, writes that too many leaders (HR and otherwise) have bought into certain notions about what motivates and inspires people. This has led to processes and structures that serve only to reinforce these stereotypes and ultimately cause employees to become disengaged.

Lie No. 1, Buckingham and Goodall write, is that people care which company they work for. While there may be a surfeit of “best places to work” lists, and many HR leaders are desperate to get their organizations onto such lists to help them stand out in the war for talent, research shows that the quality of work you’ll get from people once they do join depends very much on the team they’re on, not the company.

Employee engagement, productivity and retention (all vitally important to HR) are primarily influenced by the teams that people work for and the leaders of those teams, Buckingham and Goodall write.

“Teams still matter, we’ve just lost sight of them,” says Buckingham, author of the bestselling First, Break All the Rules and head of people and performance research at the ADP Research Institute. As assembly lines started to play a dominant role in the workplace, the work done by teams became obscured by “process,” he says.

From the outside looking in, people are often interested in an organization’s culture and perks. But once they join, says Goodall, “all of that stuff vanishes and the culture becomes much less important than the people around you every day: Do they help you and support you? The product of work is the product of the team.

“This is not a new thing; it’s eternal, but somehow we’ve missed it,” adds Goodall, senior vice president of leadership and team intelligence at global technology firm Cisco.

Cisco itself routinely ranks as one of the best places to work, coming in at No. 6 this year on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For. At the company, all work is done by teams, says Goodall.

“We want to do three things: create amazing tech, sell it and service that tech for our customers,” he says. “Each of those things is done by a team working together.”

Adds Buckingham: “Cisco is a great example of what happens when you make teams your source of insight and curiosity.”

What Makes a Great Team

Teams are becoming increasingly important throughout all industries, not just the tech sector.

At Combined Insurance, a Chicago-based firm with 5,400 employees in North America, project-based teams are playing a prominent role as the company adapts to changes in the insurance sector.

“We have more advanced initiatives that require larger team-based projects,” says Assistant Vice President for Talent Acquisition Melanie Lundberg. “Process automation is big in insurance and requires a lot of stakeholders.”

Whether it’s dynamic process improvements, new-tech implementations or redesigning end-to-end processes, the need for more cross-collaboration among different functions at Combined Insurance has never been greater, says Lundberg. “I think, because of the level of complexity and how agile we all need to be now, it just requires more work with people from different functions collaborating together.”

At Surgical Care Affiliates, which operates 215 outpatient surgical centers throughout the U.S., having effective teams is critical to the company’s mission of growing its business by offering high-quality surgeries at lower costs than hospitals. So far, it’s seen success, with 92% of patients indicating they’d recommend the company’s services to others. However, keeping the momentum going requires highly engaged teams, says Vice President of HR Warren J. Cinnick.

Each of SCA’s centers is considered a team, comprising about 40 people led by a CEO. The leaders are designated “CEO” instead of “administrator,” as is common in the healthcare field, for a good reason, says Cinnick.

“They interact with the physicians who are co-owners of the facility, they interact with the community and with patients, and they own the [profit and loss] of each center,” he says. “As a result, we thought we’d elevate their vision of themselves by calling them CEOs.”

The job of team leader is a vital one, yet most companies have not prioritized it, says Goodall.

“For anyone seeking to build great teams, it starts with great team leaders,” he says. “It’s not an add-on job, it is the thing. I think companies have gotten very careless of the fact that leading a team is a job and, arguably, the most important job in any organization.”

The best teams are often led by so-called “connector managers,” says Sari Wilde, managing vice president of Gartner’s HR practice.

Wilde, who’s conducted extensive research on leadership and is co-author of the upcoming book The Connector Manager: Why Some Leaders Build Exceptional Talent—And Others Don’t, says such leaders possess five core leadership qualities. Three of them are curiosity about people and ideas, an openness to learning from different perspectives and demonstrating courage in challenging situations.

“These are leaders who are confident in their decisions and are not going to shy away from making difficult choices,” she says.

The fourth area involves transparency and self-awareness. “It’s the willingness to show vulnerability, that you’re aware of your own strengths and weaknesses,” says Wilde. “So many managers want to be seen as the best at everything, but connectors are OK admitting they don’t know something and encourage others to be transparent as well.”

The fifth quality is judicious generosity. “They aren’t just generous with the time they spend coaching others, but with sharing credit for results and allocating power across the team,” she says.

Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie-Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, has studied what makes teams successful.

Great teams have cognitive diversity and collaborative ability, she says. They also tend to have more women.

“Social perceptiveness is the ability to pick up on the subtle cues with the people one is interacting with, and women tend to score higher on that than men,” says Woolley. “So, having more women tends to raise teams’ ability on that, and that fosters greater collaborative behaviors.”

Effective teams also have team leaders who not only understand and appreciate the need for collaboration and cognitive diversity, she says, but ensure their team has clear goals and the time and resources to be productive.

“Teams often get assembled with people who are already serving on other teams and who end up getting pulled in too many different directions,” says Woolley. “Setting a team up for success includes providing them clarity on what they’re supposed to accomplish and giving them the time to do it.”

Supporting Team Leaders

At Cisco, which has nearly 75,000 employees spread around the world, the company has devoted extensive time and resources to ensuring its teams are well led and have what they need, says Goodall.

The most important criterion for a team leader at Cisco is “appetite,” he says. “We try to find people who are fascinated by the endless challenges of leading a team and are energized to learn how to do it.”

One way the company does that is by offering learning programs targeted at aspiring leaders so they can learn about the role of team leader and decide if it’s for them. For existing team leaders who’re hoping to move up in the organization, Cisco looks hard at whether they’re meeting its minimum expectations of team leadership—by, for example, giving frequent strengths-based attention to team members and engaging the entire team in discussions about how they can be more like the company’s best teams.

In 2016, the company selected a sample of 97 of its best teams by asking leaders across the organization to nominate the teams “they’d like to clone,” says Goodall. It also selected a comparison group of several thousand team members. Each group then answered a dozen questions about their team experience, drawn from prior research on team excellence.

“We discovered that members of our best teams were disproportionately more likely to report they were using their strengths every day, were supported by their teammates and felt that they shared a common understanding of excellence with the people on their team,” he says.

These and other findings were incorporated into a survey tool available to any team leader at Cisco. They can use the tool to benchmark their own team against the best teams and use it to facilitate a discussion within the team on what’s working and what they’d like to build on, says Goodall.

Cisco doesn’t send its team leaders off-site for training. Instead, company-trained facilitators work with teams on-site in order to ensure their workflow isn’t interrupted, says Goodall.

“The norm for any sort of training for teamwork is that you send someone off-site for training and hope whatever they learn somehow translates back to the real-world messiness of the daily work,” he says. Given the sheer number of teams and team leaders at Cisco, this would be burdensomely expensive and impractical, he adds. By working with teams and their leaders directly, facilitators ensure the training can be applied immediately to their day-to-day work.

At Combined Insurance, the company’s lean operating model has led Lundberg to rely mostly on internal resources to train teams and their leaders. She herself will oversee a course on project leadership later this year. She also taps leaders within the company who’ve been certified by the Project Management Institute to assist with training.

“One of the best ways HR can develop other leaders is by using the leaders you have to lead in-house development programs,” she says. “They know the business and the people, and it gets you away from having to use the big, expensive consultancies.”

At SCA, team leaders receive coaching in in three fundamentals: hiring, onboarding and feedback.

“If you hire people effectively, you’ll end up with great people,” says Cinnick. “If you onboard them effectively, that’s another part of having a great team. And then if you give them feedback that’s kind, caring and upbeat, that is essential.”

All CEOs complete the company’s CEO Development Program to learn those fundamentals.

“Our strategy is to help them be awesome, to lead and engage these teams,” says Cinnick.

The CEOs are evaluated on the fundamentals by metrics such as first-year turnover for new hires, how fast new hires achieve productivity compared with SCA’s other centers and whether a center’s employees are receiving regular feedback that helps them achieve their goals, says Cinnick.

With centers spread across 34 states, monitoring and sustaining team engagement levels isn’t easy for SCA, Cinnick admits. CEOs are expected to help maintain engagement by keeping their teams focused on SCA’s six values: clinical quality, integrity, service excellence, teamwork, accountability and continuous improvement.

“Our leaders are trained to have regular reviews of those values during morning meetings,” he says. A CEO will typically ask a team member to speak about one of the values—what it means to them, how it applies to the center’s patients and physician-partners. “There’s a thoughtful, intentional attempt across all sites to do that.”

SCA’s employee-engagement surveys, which are administered by Aon, have risen steadily over the years and currently show an engagement score of 78, says Cinnick. “When we get to 80, that’s considered best-in-class, and we hope to reach that this year.”

The Role of Tech

When it comes to helping HR identify and support workplace teams, the tech sector has been lacking, says Buckingham.

“Most of our HR systems are extensions of ERP systems,” he says. “We think of people as extensions of our budgetary processes—how much they cost, and so on—and that’s where we get our HCM systems.”

The enterprise tools widely used today don’t show teams, says Buckingham. Teams tend not to be reflected in organizational charts, even though the majority of work today is accomplished via teams.

However, newer tools, such as Slack and Webex Teams, are making it easier for managers to assemble and lead teams, he says.

“These are collaboration tools and, when they’re designed well, they hit team leaders in stride,” says Buckingham. “You start putting tools like them in managers’ hands and teams start emerging.”

Vendors such as SAP SuccessFactors and Infor have also introduced new tools designed to help team leaders. Cultivate, an app that’s available on SAP.iO, provides team leaders with data on who they talk to the most and how much feedback they give.

“[Cultivate] can lead managers to have very different conversations with their teams, get coaching in the moment so they can rectify things or have more upfront conversations that help build relationships and trust,” says Brigette McInnis-Day, chief operating officer at SAP SuccessFactors.

Infor’s Team Dynamics tool is designed to “look at the degree of behavioral alignment on a team,” says Jill Strange, the company’s vice president of talent applications. “We use our Talent Science Assessment to look at how aligned or diverse a team is and suggest configurations for a team based on the goal.”

Meanwhile, Infor’s Team Insights tool is designed to help team leaders determine where their team is most behaviorally aligned, whether it needs greater diversity and what impact moving certain employees in and out of a team might have, she says.

Looking ahead, a focus of HR tech will be on helping organizations create, train and manage effective teams, says Buckingham.

“Moving forward, the challenge in learning is how do you take real-time data about a team, the skills and strengths of the people within it—and whether engagement is up or down—and use that to trigger the delivery of relevant presentations to the team?” he says.

For example, when a new person joins a team, the system would be triggered to give that employee data on other members of the team. If a team leader sees engagement scores dip, the system would be able to deliver suggestions on what he or she could do to re-energize the team. It could also deliver coaching that’s customized to who the person is as a team leader, says Buckingham.

“Over time, learning will become real-world, individualized coaching delivered through tech, in real time,” he says. “That’s the future.”

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