How to bring out the best in every team across the organisation

Retention is increasingly becoming tied to the strength of an organisation’s teams, which in turn have the ability to power business success.
By: | August 1, 2019

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 Number One”, 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 organisations 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.

“Teams still matter, we’ve just lost sight of them”

Marcus Buckingham, consultant and author

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 organisation’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 US, 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 centres 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 centre,” 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 prioritised 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 organisation.”

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 organisational 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 behaviours.”

Effective teams also have team leaders who not only understand and appreciate the need for collaboration and cognitive diversity, 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.”

This story was originally published on HRExecutive.comHRM Magazine Asia’s sister publication in the US. The second part – with  strategies for supporting teams and a look at the role that technology can play – will be published on August 9, 2019.