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Author Adrian Gostick on Building Great Teams: 5 Practices Middle Market Leaders Can Use to Bring Out the Best in Their Teams

By Chuck Leddy

Author Adrian Gostick is co-founder of The Cultural Works, a company that helps organizations improve teamwork, employee engagement, and culture. In his just-published book, “The Best Team Wins: The New Science of High Performance.” Gostick (along with co-author Chester Elton) explains why work teams are underperforming and how to get them working better. The NCMM recently caught up with Gostick to talk about how middle market companies and leaders can improve the productivity and engagement of their teams.

How are businesses doing when it comes to driving effective team performance?

Gostick: Every single middle market company believes in teamwork and yet it seems to be an elusive concept for all companies. We still promote people individually. We still reward people based on their individual performance. A recent Facebook study found that only 14% of business leaders are satisfied with their organization’s ability to collaborate and make decisions as a team. That’s bad.

What are some of the costs when we look at underperforming teams inside middle market companies?

Gostick: The first cost is lack of employee engagement, meaning low commitment to the organization. We have a lot of data showing that when people are not collaborating effectively, they’re much less innovative. There’s also a loss of customer focus. When a customer calls into the organization, saying they have a problem, often the response is, “Yeah, it’s not my problem” and buck-passing happens. There’s lots of costs to organizations when people don’t perform collaboratively.

During the research for the book, we ran into some dysfunctional work environments where the workers started blaming each other, but after a while, they started blaming the manager for allowing this to go on. It just gets more dysfunctional from there.

You talk in the book about the five practices of great team leaders. What are those?

Gostick: We wanted to identify what great team leaders are doing today to build really innovative, productive teams. First, we found that effective leaders are very aware of generational differences in our workforce. The millennials now make up half our workforce and they want to be managed differently.

Second, we found that great managers also manage to the one, meaning they get to know their people, but also focus on career development for those they lead. The third discipline is accelerating the productivity of people -- great leaders have ways of getting people on their teams up to speed faster. The fourth is getting their teams to openly debate and challenge everything. Today’s best teams will argue things out, they’re not overly concerned with “team harmony.” The last is that great teams and leaders never forget who keeps them in business: they focus like lasers on the customer and they break down organizational silos to work cross-functionally for customers.

How are millennial team members different, and what challenges does that present for middle market managers?

Gostick: Millennials grew up believing teams actually accomplish more than individuals, whereas my generation, Gen X, grew up believing that we have to look out for ourselves first. Millennials want to be managed differently. Autonomy has long been proclaimed as one of the most important drivers of human behavior, but millennials rank autonomy 22nd out of 23 work motivators.

They want to work as a team, but that means leaders must give them more coaching and feedback than we’ve been used to. That’s a challenge for ineffective managers, who say, “Look, I don’t have time to do this hand-holding with my millennials.” We’re talking about helping shape their growth, their learning. Millennials also have a much stronger need for recognition. Three times more important than it is for Boomers. They really want to be appreciated for their great work or they’ll leave you.

What is managing to the one and why is it so important for teams and middle market managers?

Gostick: When it comes to managing to the one, it’s understanding each individual’s drivers and motivators, and using that to focus on their career development. Leaders and organizations must spend time developing careers, doing something we call job sculpting where they’re sitting down with each of their employees and saying, “are you getting the training you need to get where you want to go? Are you getting the opportunity to work with other teams? Are you feeling like you’re getting the challenges you need?” If we just worry a bit more about their careers, people start caring a lot more about what we want them to care about.

How can middle market managers create a team climate of open debate?

Gostick: The great leaders we spoke with oftentimes established ground rules for debate. For example, we were in Bell Helicopter and the CEO there, Mitch Snyder, created a great innovation team, but he realized they weren’t debating very well. So he created these rules, like challenge the position not the person. Other rules included: we debate facts and data, not opinions or positions. Another rule was we’re not in the debate to win. We’re here to come up with the best idea.

The last one is really important: no matter what we decide, even if it wasn’t your idea, even if you still have reservations, when you walk out of the room, we’ve got to be united at the end. It’s really about creating a team where we’ve had our debate, everybody’s been listened to and at the end the leader has to say, “We could go either way, but I feel like this is the way. Thank you for that robust debate. Now let’s all be united.”

How can middle market managers help put customers at the center of what teams do?

Gostick: It starts with understanding exactly what our customers need from us. It takes changing mindsets within the organization. I’ll go into these executive team meetings and they’ll talk about the workflow throughout their factory, or this new product they’re launching or how sales are down somewhere. They’ll talk about the processes, but rarely do they talk about “why would our customers like this new product?” You get so wrapped up in the how and the what that nobody’s considering the why.

The first step is really defining for your employees exactly who your customer is. Really help them understand the psychology of your customer; but then break down the silos, so that everyone is helping that customer feel like we’re one integrated team, because that’s exactly how customers see you. When customers call, they’re just expecting to see one team working together to solve their concerns, and that rarely happens.

What final thoughts can you offer middle market company leaders about building effective teams?

Gostick: The best leaders really do have the strongest soft skills. They’re not just soft skills as in you’re empathetic and you’re caring. What we’re finding with the best managers today, they’re using their soft skills to really worry about what their employees are worried about. Like for example, career development. They’re worried about their people developing and growing. The best leaders still recognize great work. They’re still empathetic and caring, but they’re bringing an edge that’s really meaningful with these new ideas.