Gail is a fantastic business owner. She is ambitious, successful, empathetic, and her employees are so loyal they would take a bullet for her.
About 18 months ago Gail opened a branch office in another city. 8 months ago she hired Brad, a rock-star manager, to develop a new line of business at that branch office. The new line of business is a perfect “next step” to grow Gail’s enterprise and Brad is the perfect person to do the growing.
So why after 12 months were sales a fraction of what was expected and why were there growing rumblings within the branch office? Why does Gail feel like she is in that nightmare where the monster is coming to get you but you just can’t get your feet to run; your body just won’t do what your mind is screaming at it to do?
The answer is because while 90% of the situation is exactly as it should be, 10% isn’t.
Therein lies the truth of developing great teams: You have to get it ALL right. And ideally you have to get it all right at once. This idea is well understood in the world of business process (manufacturing, logistics) but not in team development.
The best watch in the world will stop working completely if so much as one single moving part is flawed or missing. It must all work, and it must all work at once.
Human teams have an extraordinary capacity to absorb and work around inefficiencies, road-blocks, and even toxic environments. They are not simple clock-works. However as managers we know each time we have to “work around” a weak link or energy drain, there is a cost to engagement, productivity, and ultimately retention and profitability.
In the case of business owner Gail, there were three problems we are now addressing, but in hind-sight should have been addressed right out of the gate.
- Distance matters. Gail should have anticipated that the role her own charisma and presence normally play would be compromised by distance and had to be compensated for.
- Cultures set fast. The branch office, its business and staff, had 10 months to develop a culture before the new manager arrived. Long enough for him to start life as an outsider. The new business line would compliment the existing one, but that didn’t matter. Relationships and culture trump mechanics.
- Absence does not make teams fonder. Gail trusted entirely in Brad’s track record and strengths (which truly are considerable). She didn’t communicate a clear message about how the new line of business would integrate with the new one, or what the reporting structure would be. The dictum of “hire the right people and then get out of their way” does not apply in change processes or in team development. These are high-touch situations.
Gail’s challenges are specific to her situation. However, there are a four universal elements every leader must have in place when expanding their business or in developing their teams. You have to have all three right for sustainable success. Three out of four isn’t close, it’s failure.
- Know thyself. All good things start from within. As the owner, your values, your vision, and your objectives must be clear to you before they will be clear to anyone else. Great leaders wear their values on their sleeves for all to see. Great teams are built on shared values and visions, and understood objectives.
- Walk the talk. Every single day and in every aspect of your business I should find evidence of your values, vision, and objectives. Who you hire, how you train, what you communicate, who you promote, who you let go, what your scheduling priorities are, what you are spending money on and not spending money on… all of it betrays what your real values are. Your team will be effective and successful in direct relationship to the quality of alignment between what you say and what you do.
- Close the loop. Communication and feedback are the nervous system of a successful team. When a team member positively contributes to the values, vision or objectives of the enterprise, that contribution should seldom go unmarked in some fashion. Feedback processes correctly administered are one of the most powerful momentum generators. Human behaviour is wired in a way that we do more of what we are recognized for, negatively or positively. When our actions are recognized for making a difference we dig deeper and do it again and do it better. You can see where that goes.
- Verify and validate. Verification is feedback based on measurable objectives. Verifiable objectives are an important part of information-rich environments. We do a better job of hitting targets when we know what the targets are. Validation is the specific task of confirming each team member’s subjective experience of the process. Validation is as critical as it is overlooked. It is critical because it when we are asked about our experience and perceptions it validates our value to the process. It is critical because it confirms (or contradicts) what leadership thinks is going on within the team. The failure to validate is one of the reasons why Management by Objectives often fails: verifiable objectives are not enough to confirm a team is successful or that it is successful for the reasons we think it is, or to sustain momentum on a team. We require validation for those values.
Gail is not out of the woods by the way. She is addressing the challenges by making the branch office her priority right now, spending a lot of time there embedding her values, clarifying roles and objectives, and validating perceptions to ensure what she thinks is happening is truly happening. Things are looking positive but there is still a lot of work to do.