There has been much written about building and leading great teams and I feel some reluctance to extend that list. Though once I had the privilege to lead a team whose performance was significantly higher than any other I worked with over the past 3 decades. The reasons why are interesting and worth understanding.
Years ago, I was division president at a large technology company going through a major turnaround and growth program. Three VP’s reporting to me were responsible for three functions: Sales and Marketing, Technology, and Customer Service.
All three individuals were crucial to the success of our turnaround while they could not have had less in common. Each matched the successful stereotypical characters you find in VP roles across North America and their skills and experience were very deep in each of their own areas. They were each very good at what they did, and regardless of their personal feelings towards one another, had the utmost respect and trust in the other’s respective abilities and competence.
Unique to the situation was that they knew relatively little about what other staff groups did. They had only been working together for a few months, and yet business execution and creativity was rapid, seamless and hugely effective in growing revenue and profit. During 60-hour weeks we never stopped to think about why everything was going so well. Since though, I have spent a lot of time comparing how that team worked versus any other I have seen or led.
There were three major execution differences that I believe could only have occurred due to their mutually high level of trust and ability.
1) Simplified Metrics and Tracking
Like many businesses, we passed customer orders and projects back and forth between the three main functional departments on a steady basis. Best practice would normally include metrics and controls to track volumes, timing, quality, level of completeness etc. so that you know where to drill down when things go wrong. Managing these workflow metrics can, however, create more work and delay progress as tasks are measured. In our case, while we measured in/outputs from our division carefully, we had almost no internal need to do so, every working group acted to always complete their tasks thoroughly with follow-ups and self-correction as needed.
2) Project Teams
In our high growth environment, we were constantly innovating in all three functional areas. We had new go-to market strategies to gain customers, new technologies to offer them and always-improving customer service. Every new project was led by the department that was most directly involved but also required team members from the other two. Staff was supported by other teams (part time and full time for weeks or months) in a seamless process. Resources were offered up whenever needed, albeit with a bit of horse trading, but all parties seemed to be consistently pleased with the results.
3) Organizational Structure
Once again, best practice would say you have clearly defined roles and responsibilities for all the departments and individuals. In our case, tasks were fluid, divisions were gray and shifting and every manager reached outside their area to pitch in and help move work ahead faster. Probably worth noting that while everyone’s objectives included some individual goals, most of our bonus (and keeping our jobs) was based on our collective division success.
You hear a lot about extremely high performing sports teams who instinctively know what their peers will need and who gave their all. I think that it’s much less common to find this in a business setting where there are hundreds of team members. In my team, the best performance came when you relaxed the rules of normal business management. We quadrupled the number of customers in just over 2 years leading to a successful acquisition.
You probably won’t run into this very often in your own career, but I hope this helps you to recognize that sometimes the unconventional situations and experiments are the things that will get the most from your team.
By David Bowden
Business Growth Transformation
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