Chief Executive Officer
Recently, I was asked to speak with one of our highest-performing companies on the behaviors of high-performing teams. (Isn’t it interesting how successful teams are always seeking out ways to become better?) Because I believe all companies strive to perform at the highest level possible, I’ve recapped the presentation here.
Just as all humans are fallible, most companies are mildly dysfunctional. So the central question becomes: What is your team doing to improve?
The best teams continuously strive to become more efficient, making a concerted effort to row together in the same direction. They typically have zero tolerance for negativity in the office, and will root it out quickly when detected. They collectively want a work-life balance that sees people enjoying work but also taking time outside the office to work toward personal goals.
Ask yourself: Do you and your team members get the work done and enjoy coming to the office every day? On the whole, is everyone giving their best effort? Patrick Lencioni is an expert on (dys)functional workplaces, and the creator of the excellent graphic below, which shows the key themes from his work. (If you have not read any of his books, make sure to pick one up—you’ll find it well worth the read.)
Lencioni makes the case that trust is the bedrock of all high-functioning teams. Ask yourself and others in your organization: Do you trust your colleagues and supervisors? Do you think they put your and the company’s best interests first, or do you think they are pursuing their self-interests first? If the latter, your work environment is off, and you have your work cut out to build up the esprit de corps. If you are unsure whether people trust you and one another, ask them! At CI, we do this by conducting an annual work-life survey where we ask people directly whether they trust the people they work with and for, among other things. (Email me and I will share the survey with you—it’s a useful tool.)
To build trust, Lencioni prescribes showing vulnerability yourself. Be frank about your own shortcomings. For example, you might say to a colleague, “I am not a confident public speaker, and I noticed you are. Can you help me?” Or, “I screwed up and overreacted yesterday. I am sorry about that.” These are a couple of personal examples from just last week, and I could go on. The important takeaway is that you have to show vulnerability, trust that other people are looking out for your and the company’s best interests, and model that behavior yourself. Stop putting yourself first, and stop using sentences starting with “I” and talking about “me.” You’ll bore your team and hurt your cause.
Abraham Lincoln personifies the kind of trust required to lead, as described in Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Lincoln surrounded himself with three strong-willed cabinet members—William Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edward Bates—who ran against him for the Republican nomination. They all believed they were more qualified than he to run the country. By placing his trust in them, however, he broke down walls, and asked them to trust and work alongside him (unfortunately, not everyone had a strong-enough ego to go along for the ride; Chase struggled with his insatiable desire for the highest office and eventually his resignation was accepted). Seward, however, eulogized Lincoln as the best and wisest man he had ever known. To reach this point in their relationship, Lincoln had to suppress his ego, keep his team focused on shared goals and purpose, and welcome constructive debate. He also had to take ownership of problems, refrain from blaming others, and make changes when necessary, as when he said, “If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army, I’d like to borrow it for a time.” Lincoln placed his trust in others, believed fervently in his mission and pushed himself and others to ensure the Union’s success.
I love the picture of a young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak below. Jobs is famous for, among many other things, his drive, his creative ability and his vision. He also was notorious for stirring conflict and debate in the workplace. While not necessarily a paragon of inclusiveness, he did see conflict as an essential path to finding the truth, and as the means to achieving the best possible outcome. Jobs was not an easygoing leader, but in Woz’s own words, “Steve Jobs always dealt very nicely and respectfully with me—we were friends to the end. He got along with people he respected highly. While Jobs’ style of delivering feedback was not always nice, at least he told people what he thought. I am guessing he rarely left a meeting where people didn’t know where they stood. Even engineers who stood up to him, if they had a basis for standing up, Steve showed them respect.” How many times have you begun a business discussion convinced you knew the right path forward, but then allowed yourself to change your mind based on a thoughtful and constructive set of opposing arguments? It happens to me often, and while I find it uncomfortable and often more than a little bruising to my ego, I am always grateful at the end of the discussion. It means that someone cared enough to advance their arguments without regard to whether I might be upset. Those willing to wade into the debate are often the ones who care the most. Keep them close.
I use the picture below of Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates because I think it is funny, but also because it captures a couple of points. First, while Gates and Ballmer worked incredibly hard, they also understood it was important to have fun. Second, engineering and sales/marketing don’t always have a healthy respect for each other. I believe Gates handing over the CEO position to Ballmer was the ultimate show of respect for sales/marketing. Gates understood that brilliant engineering without equally strong sales and marketing is doomed. They were an incredible pair, and provide a useful reminder that everyone in the company needs to hold one another accountable. Everyone has a role to play to create a winning team.
To wrap up, here are a few bullets that capture the kind of team I want to be part of (and the kind of team I think we have at CI). Great teams are:
- Loaded with talent
- Filled with passionate, dedicated people
- Driven by the mission; everyone believes that what they do matters
- Committed to working toward a common goal
- Excellent communicators
- Willing to share constructive feedback (think ice cream sandwich: start and end with a positive thought so people are open to what may be perceived as criticism)
What traits do you most value in your team? Please share your feedback—I would love to hear it.