The saying “nobody is perfect, but a team can be,” is still my most memorable and meaningful takeaway from an executive program run at the London School of Economics that I attended in the 90s with other executives from Polygram International. My belief in this simple principle and the requisite actions necessary to make it become a reality have served me well while running companies for 30 years.
The operative word in this principle is the little word can. Simply putting a group of people together and giving them a pep talk about teamwork is unlikely to cut it.
Jan Katzenberg, co-author of the book The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization, hit the nail on the head when he explained why so many teams fail to achieve their true potential:
“Most people simply do not apply what they already know about teams in any disciplined way and thereby miss the performance potential within existing teams, much less seek out new potential team opportunities.” [emphasis my own]
Based on my own experience working with teams, there are three sequential steps I recommend focusing on first to build a motivated and productive team, be it the senior management team or smaller supporting teams:
1) Set the stage as the team leader by clarifying your expectations.
When I arrived in Brazil in 1986 to run Polygram Music, we were the fourth-ranking company by market share. It would have made little sense at this early stage to have announced that our goal was to become the #1 company in market share given our lowly ranking. Instead, I wanted to start slowly by first working on the company culture. At my first company address and welcoming party, I announced that I was committed to three key values that each supported the other. These three values were:
My introductory speech was delivered in my rather poor, newly acquired Portuguese. It must have amused some in the audience listening to this estrangeiro with his funny accent. And no doubt, at the beginning, there would have been some cynicism mixed with much skepticism.
In order to give substance to our values, we immediately started implementing our own MBO program with two days of intense training for all management, which was then cascaded uniformly down the organization. As we started to see tangible results and build credibility and confidence through our MBO program, we could now be more specific about our overarching goal, which was to become the #1 company by market share. We shared with everyone in the company that we aimed to do this by being leaders in every significant genre of music, from pop to classical, and to outperform our competition in our application of superior marketing. At the outset, we had no presence in the country music market, which was growing exponentially in Brazil, as in many other markets in the world. The successful signing of two superstar local acts in this market segment saw us become the dominant player in country music and helped significantly move us into the #1 position overall. On the marketing side, we were able to gain significant market share by being the first company to capitalize on the new CD market and then gain even more market share through the creative repackaging of our enormously strong but underexploited back catalogue. As market leaders, we were the first company in Brazil to run a weeklong trade fair for all our retailers and wholesalers. At this event, they could meet our staff as well as some of our artists, and they were able to preview and prebook orders for the all-important Christmas period, which accounted for up to 35% of our year’s sales.
2) Provide direction and improve team motivation and cohesion by developing a meaningful overarching mantra rather than a meaningless slogan.
In 1980, I was appointed Group Managing Director of three independent food companies acquired by Murray & Roberts, South Africa’s largest construction company, as a part of their market diversification strategy. My mandate was to meld these three companies into one cohesive entity and to grow them both organically and by acquisition. As part of the process to help integrate the three companies and through a lot of intercompany dialogue, we came up with this unifying mantra that improved our team identity and spirit:
“It’s the pride inside that sets us apart.”
Our slogan meant that without being boastful but with quiet pride and confidence, we would slowly seek to surpass the expectations of our customers and surprise our competitors by being as good as, or even better than, the local competing international brands. In most cases, over the next five years, we succeeded in doing both. In addition, we were recognized by the trade in an industry survey for having the two best new product launches of any company for our internally developed Slice Cream dessert and the Capri Sonne drink product we marketed under license from Germany.
3) Have fun and celebrate individual and team victories.
“All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”
To foster good team spirit, there must be regular opportunities to celebrate progress, to recognize the achievements of the team and its individual members, and to help build team cohesion. There is never a bad time to recognize good behavior. Monthly, quarterly, or biannual meetings provide excellent opportunities to review results against set goals, work in teams to develop new strategies, teach new skills, and give team or individual recognition. Above all, these types of meetings provide opportunities for having fun outside of the formal meetings—be it playing golf or simply enjoying a good meal together outside the office—while also helping the team to truly bond and commit to each other. We know from our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic how much this type of informal interaction is sorely missed at work.
The three ideas I have shared with you work synergistically to help leaders start building truly cohesive and creative teams.
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