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The Secret of Teams
WHAT GREAT TEAMS KNOW AND DO
By Mark Miller
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2011 Mark Miller
All right reserved.
Chapter One Study the Best
Debbie was discouraged. Her new team was proving to be more of a challenge than she had bargained for. Up to this point in her career, she had enjoyed success after success. Most noteworthy, she had led her previous dysfunctional team "from worst to first." This feat had not gone unnoticed by management. In fact, Jeff, the CEO, had given Debbie her recent promotion in part due to her success and in part because he saw tremendous potential in her.
However, in her new role, nothing seemed to be going her way. With her former team, she had looked forward to every new day, but now she went to work only to be confronted by a team with real issues. Not only that, Debbie was feeling the stress and strain of trying to do more and more, often with less resources. Beyond her team issues, she was faced with a growing mountain of e-mail; there seemed to be more meetings than ever; and if there was any time left, she still had customers to serve. She was tired. The pace of her life was out of control, and she wasn't sure what to do about it.
Besides her immediate issues, she had heard rumors that scores of other leaders and their teams across the company were also struggling. Evidence of this could be seen as the customer base was eroding and the stock price was sliding.
Debbie knew that in her role, she was supposed to help the organization resolve these issues; but in her heart she knew that before she could help others, she would need to start with her leadership, her team, and her own life.
She decided to take the matter up with Jeff. Not only had he served as her mentor several years before, but he had continued to provide valuable counsel over the years. Thankfully, he always seemed to have the time—or make the time—to see her when it really mattered.
"I just don't know what to do," she admitted to him candidly.
"I understand, Debbie. You want things to work. You want your team to excel. That's one of the traits we value about you."
She beamed, despite the circumstances that had brought her to Jeff's office.
"So how can I help?" Jeff asked.
"Well, you could tell me what you've done to create such an effective team. How do you achieve such alignment and outstanding performance from your executive team?"
Jeff thought carefully before responding. "I wish I had a magic formula to give you, but I don't." He paused. "Remember years ago when you asked me about the secret of great leaders?"
"I do. As it turned out, it was the best question I think I've ever asked." Debbie was almost overwhelmed as she thought about how that single question, and Jeff's response, changed her life and her leadership style forever.
"Today, I'm turning the tables," Jeff said. "I need you to find the secret of great teams."
"Where should I start?" Debbie asked.
"Study the best."
"What do you mean by that?" she asked.
"Find teams that are doing it right. They don't have to be teams in our company. You can go outside. Look anywhere you want. The truth is, we need answers."
There was a tone in Jeff's voice that Debbie had never heard before. She decided to probe a little further.
"Thanks for the advice, Jeff. Based on what you're saying, combined with the rumors I've heard, it sounds like this assignment is much bigger than the issues I'm dealing with when it comes to my team." There was clearly a question in her tone.
Jeff hesitated for just a second before he responded. "I thought you'd probably heard the buzz. Our company is in trouble. Thanks to increased competition, increased costs, and some other issues we're trying to uncover, we're struggling. We're even worried about a hostile takeover bid. The answers that you discover in your quest to help your team excel may help other teams within our organization. Are you willing to take on that challenge?"
"I am!" Debbie replied confidently. "And I promise I won't let you down!"
* * *
Debbie took Jeff's challenge back to her office and began to prepare for her team meeting. This sounded like the most important thing she had worked on during her career. In many ways, it was similar to the challenges that she had faced as a young leader, but this time they were multiplied a thousandfold. She now realized that it wasn't just her team struggling; it was the entire organization.
She understood the assignment, but she wanted to get a better grasp of the underlying problem before she launched her work.
How did we get in this situation? she wondered.
To find the answer, she began to make a list. Unfortunately, the ideas flowed all too easily. She wrote the following:
How did we get in the state of affairs we're in today?
More competition than ever.
Increasing complexity in the business—it's just harder than it used to be.
More demanding customers—they have higher expectations than ever!
Our leaders are struggling to get it all done—they have reached their capacity.
Debbie decided quickly that her next step would be to involve her team in helping her "study the best." She knew that would not be easy. Since she had left the Operations Group and become the head of Leadership Development, she had to work with what remained of a team that had never been very effective. Their next meeting was in two days, and Jeff's new assignment would be the focus of the meeting.
* * *
By 9:00, everyone had arrived for their weekly meeting, and Debbie said, "Good morning!" in her usual warm and personable style. "It's really good to see all of you again. Let's take a few minutes to reconnect. What's going on in your life?"
One by one, members of the team shared an update. There seemed to be some reluctance at first, but as people began to open up a little, it was quickly apparent that what they wanted to talk about were things outside of work.
Tom bragged about his new grandbaby, with pictures, of course. Javier said that his mother was coming from his home country to visit—she'd be with him for a month. He told the team that he hadn't seen her in two years.
Jo shared an update on her mom. The previous weekend, the family had placed her in hospice care—her illness was too severe for additional treatment. The group saw the sadness in Jo's eyes. Although none of them had personally experienced what she was going through, they were trying to understand her pain.
After Jo finished, the team was quiet. Debbie was sensitive to the moment. "We all have a lot to be thankful for, and we all have a lot we need help with. I'm glad we have one another for the journey."
There was a long silence. Everyone now had shared an update except Steve. Debbie looked at him to see if he wanted to say anything; he didn't. Debbie decided to move the meeting forward. "I know you received the agenda for today's meeting, but I'm going to make a change. As you're all aware, the business has really been struggling. I met with Jeff on Friday, and he's given us an assignment. He's asked us to help take our teams across the organization to the next level."
"What exactly does that mean?" asked Javier, in a respectful tone.
"Well," Debbie said, "what do you guys think?"
"Okay, wait a minute," Jo jumped into the conversation. "You met with Jeff? The fact that you're asking for our input means he didn't tell you, right?"
"Well, he told me part of the answer...."
Steve interrupted her in a tone that reflected his impatience with the conversation. "What exactly is the problem we're actually trying to solve?"
Debbie ignored Steve's sarcastic tone and thanked him for his question. Based on his question, she decided to take an opportunity to tell the team about some of the issues facing the business. She spoke briefly about complexity, competition, growing customer expectations, and leadership capacity constraints. Then she said, "So, Jeff believes that our teams are the best way for us to turn around our performance. Here's something to think about: where do you think our teams are on a scale of 1 to 10?"
Bob joined the conversation. "That's not a fair question."
"Why not?" Debbie pushed for a response.
"We have hundreds of teams around the world. They are all over the board. Some are a 10 and others are a 1," Bob said.
Javier said, "Some aren't even a 1 yet." They had talked about the state of teams before. It was widely known that although every business unit said they were organized in a team structure, in truth, many were not teams at all.
"Okay, exactly what is the assignment?" Then Jo attempted to answer her own question. "Are we supposed to help each team in the organization go to the next level—whatever that may be for them?"
"Yes, that's part of it," Debbie responded.
"There's more?" Bob asked.
"Yes. Jeff challenged us to 'study the best.'"
"And...." Jo paused.
Debbie finished her sentence: "We get to figure that out. We get to decide who we'll learn from on this topic."
"Don't we already know the answer?" Javier said.
"Yeah," Bob joined in. "Debbie, you're a rock star around here. When you were in Operations, you took your team from worst to first. You had an amazing team back then."
"And what are we, chopped liver?" Sally smiled.
"Chop, chop," Steve muttered under his breath. Everyone ignored him.
"Jeff believes we're the right team to take on this task, even though I told him that we've got a lot of room for improvement ourselves," Debbie said. "He still insists that we can help the entire organization take our teams to the next level. And who knows? Maybe we'll grow in the process."
"So why can't we just tell Jeff and the rest of the organization what you did in Operations?" Javier rephrased his question.
"Prophets are not accepted in their own land," Sally said.
"Is that in the Bible?" Jo whispered to Tom.
"I don't know, but if it's not, it should be." Tom grinned.
"You know what I mean," Debbie continued. "We want to enhance the credibility of our message by validating it in other situations—inside our company and in other organizations."
"So in summary...." Jo was always good at helping the group with closure. She went to the flip chart and wrote:
Our business challenges Complexity, competition, customer expectations, and leadership capacity
Our assignment Help our leaders take their teams to the next level
Our first step Study the best
"Great summary," Debbie said.
"So who do we study?" Tom was curious.
"Let's talk about that." Debbie wanted the team's input on this decision. She asked the group, "where do we see examples of Great Teams?"
This started a rather awkward brainstorming session and discussion. There were plenty of ideas. However, Debbie had to constantly challenge the group to suspend judgment. After a lengthy session, the team created a list of more than forty different organizations or groups in which the presence of a strong team was obvious. After an hour of debate, the group had shortened their list to ten options. They knew that was still too many, but it represented progress. Here's what they had so far:
Where do we see examples of great teams?
Emergency Room Staff Football Team Firefighters Special Forces in the Military Orchestra Auto Racing Team Cycling Team A Local Restaurant Company A Large Church Broadway Play Company
With that list made, the team had a brief discussion about the pros and cons of each of the options.
In the end, they decided to eliminate the football and cycling teams. Although they agreed they could certainly learn from both of these, they felt that traditional team sports as the predominant illustration for teamwork had been overused. They would look for their best practices in other fields.
"Let's do this as a next step," Debbie suggested. "What if we each do a little research on our own? Let's think about who we may know who could help us. We'll bring our findings to our next meeting. Then we can chase the hot leads."
The team was still skeptical about Jeff's assignment. However, Debbie could sense the seed of excitement in their conversation. This project was going to help the company and their leaders; it would expand their own world as they looked outside their company for best practices; she was hopeful that it would help her team go to the next level; and it would probably be fun, too!
Truth Is Truth
As the team left the room, Debbie had already decided she wanted to get a meeting on Jeff's calendar to get input on their list. He was really well connected, and she was confident he could make some introductions. To make their time more productive, she decided to send him an e-mail in advance.
Our team met today. We did some brainstorming, re: your encouragement to study the best. We've not yet finalized our choices. We're looking for input and connections. I'm going to get a short meeting on the calendar for us to talk about our next steps. To make that time more productive, here's what we're considering:
Emergency Room Staff
Auto Racing Team
A Local Restaurant Company
Special Forces in the Military
A Large Church
Broadway Play Company
I look forward to your input. We'll talk soon!
As she hit the Send key, she couldn't help but think about the options. She felt her team could learn a lot from all of these organizations. Any of them could help their teams move to the next level. She had so many questions. What would they learn? Would they hear the same things from each of these very different teams? How would the lessons learned match her experience? She sensed it was going to be an amazing journey.
Debbie was excited to find that Jeff was available for a meeting in just a few days. On the day of the meeting she went to his office, which had been her practice now for many years. There was something encouraging about the space. The unassuming décor and his welcoming spirit made it very inviting, the kind of place where collaboration and innovation were common occurrences.
"Good to see you again." Jeff greeted Debbie at the door with a warm smile and a firm handshake.
"Yes, it's good to see you again, too." Debbie smiled. "I know we just met last week, but I wanted to spend a few minutes to see what you think about the direction we're taking on this project."
"Thanks for checking in. I think you're on the right track. Anything else?"
Debbie knew this was Jeff's attempt at humor. She decided to play along.
"No, that's all. Thanks." She got up to leave.
"Wait," Jeff said.
"There's more?" Debbie exclaimed in an exaggerated tone—but with a smile.
"Yes. Don't forget your experience with this topic."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I still stand by the idea of 'study the best.' However, don't think about that exclusively as an 'outside-the-organization' idea. We need to study our best, as well. We can't do that without learning from your success with your team in Operations. You brought a team from worst to first, and contrary to what you currently believe, you appear to be making great strides with your current team. I think you know a lot about building outstanding teams."
Excerpted from The Secret of Teams by Mark Miller Copyright © 2011 by Mark Miller. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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