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Teams built for success

Published on Friday, 29 Jan 2010
Illustration: Brian Wang

It is one thing to build a team and achieve some initial success, but quite another to maintain that progress while trying to hold on to individuals who have new or escalating ambitions. In today's workplace, good employees naturally expect opportunities for personal development. They want to face different challenges and are conditioned to look for ways to move on to the next stage or to a higher rung on the career ladder.

A manager must therefore expect team personnel to change periodically and should plan accordingly. The key is to create an ethos that encourages self-discovery and accepts that, broadly speaking, good teams are always in transition. In this way, there need be no bad feelings or recriminations if someone decides to leave. And new arrivals will fit in more easily, seeing they have every chance to learn and use their abilities to the full.

To keep a team moving forward, it is important to have a clear set of values and principles. In most cases, these will closely mirror the attitudes that define the company as a whole. But there is always scope for managers to find imaginative ways to motivate, engage and inspire loyalty among staff in their respective teams. In fact, this is a vital skill since effective management is all about breaking new ground and not simply assuming that standard procedures get the best out of people.

Every industry has examples of dynamic teams that allow people to perform and develop. But taking just the banking sector, where many institutions provide essentially the same services and functions, the competitive edge comes from having staff members who "live the company values". In translation, that usually means employees believe the organisation is well run, that they will receive training and support from colleagues and, that career-wise, they will do better by staying.

To create a strong team, one of the first steps is to establish shared priorities. These will guide both personal behaviour and the fundamental approach to business, providing the frame of reference for future action. Some companies, or team leaders, specify values such as integrity, client focus and sustainability. There is, of course, no need for an exhaustive list or one that is written in stone. The crucial point is that employees should be clear what these values represent in practice and know how, if necessary, to resolve any uncertainties.

Understanding not just the words but the day-to-day context makes all the difference. It is seeing how colleagues exemplify those values - and why they reach decisions or reject options - that create an appreciation of what being part of the team really means. Assuming people agree with underlying values, they will soon realise that working with that organisation or unit will provide greater job satisfaction and better long-term prospects.

Once employees fully comprehend why the company espouses these principles and what it is trying to achieve, the next step is to make sure everyone applies them conscientiously in the workplace and elsewhere. There should be no inconsistency or room for doubt. Some employers go so far as to print small cards stating their corporate values for staff to carry with them at all times. No one can argue with that, but what ultimately counts, of course, is action not words.

When a new team is taking shape, or even when new members are joining a well-oiled machine, it can be useful to organise a "values awareness" session.

The purpose is to set out expectations and deal head on with any concerns or perceived ambiguities. To emphasise the central message with some light-hearted fun, the idea of running an in-house competition, or "values championship", can be similarly beneficial. In order to strengthen teamwork, while meeting development needs, it is also necessary to consider the following:   

Individual roles within the group Personalities differ and certain traits attract us to or make us suitable for particular types of job. Some managers still seem to forget this, apparently believing that people are interchangeable and more or less infinitely adaptable. Most people may be keen to pick up new skills, but they also have definite strengths and weaknesses and, logically, prefer to play to their strengths.

Basically, a team that allows people to do more of what they are good at is destined for success. Therefore, managers should recognise personality traits and use them to advantage, rather than trying to mould the jack-of-all-trades able to do a bit of everything.

For instance, a highly sociable person should be given the chance to get out and make contacts as part of their day-to-day work. On the other hand, someone who is proficient and content in more of a back-office role should not necessarily be required to do a job rotation in, say, marketing or public relations. There is an argument for giving diverse experience and training all-rounders, but sometimes it can be taken too far. The result then is that the team does not fully benefit from the skills at its disposal and individuals start to become frustrated and more inclined to leave.

In case of doubt, companies can always line up a personality assessment and analysis. This may reveal hidden or unsuspected talents and help people find their best role in the team. 

Continuous development The majority of employees prefer to be in a job where they are continually learning and facing new challenges. Such an environment provides its measure of excitement and inspires people to want to stay. The knock-on benefits, as individuals climb the corporate ladder and improve themselves, include greater self-esteem, self-confidence and productivity.

For a team to remain successful, managers must therefore avoid the temptation to hope things can stay relatively static. Instead, they should be sketching out personal development plans for each team member that take due note of talents, ambitions and medium-term goals. Nine times out of 10, this approach will not only make people feel valued, and therefore more willing to stay, but will also make them better employees. 

Maintaining motivation It is no secret that well-motivated teams achieve more. The key lies in finding and then maintaining the level of excitement and enthusiasm that leads to consistently good results. In short, motivation is a matter of unlocking potential so that team members feel they are on a rewarding and fruitful journey that they are keen to continue. When that happens, the positive mood will rub off on others and, in due course, prove a source of wider inspiration.

A range of tools and tactics can provide motivation. What works best depends on the time, the team and the situation. In some places, it might be a question of beating last year's performance, with a financial incentive directly attached. In others, it could be having extra days off for landing three new accounts.

The team leader's job is to detect what will have the most sustained impact, collectively and individually, and to tailor things accordingly.

Apparently, this is not as easy as it may seem since some managers still appear to think that enforced togetherness on a public holiday leads to better team motivation and understanding. This is not generally the case.

Provide recognition The fact is that many people leave their jobs not for financial reasons but because of a problem with their boss or supervisor.

The root cause of the discontent often turns out to be lack of recognition for a job well done. Even in the hi-tech internet age, managers should realise that few things have as direct an impact on team and individual morale as regular notice and the occasional formal nod of recognition.

In team building, one should never underestimate the importance of taking time out to recognise progress with a few kind words.

Written by David Simpson, director of Team Building Asia

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