The beginning of a newly formed team represents such a big opportunity. New teams could include situations like:
- New leader to an established team.
- An existing team is asked to take on more responsibility.
- Leader wants to redirect an existing team.
- New team and leader for enterprise process or other change.
- Department team assembled to address engagement survey feedback, or other similar administrative process.
Sure, you need to impart a meeting structure, introduce team members and assign responsibilities. But the potential success of a new team is not unlike first impressions: those first experiences are very important and can set the tone for all future interactions. You have the capability to quickly create lasting alignment, commitment and enthusiasm. In all my years of consulting organizations as a communications and HR leader, those that were successful with their new teams had a few things in common.
Start with a bonding experience:
This is more than a fun team-building exercise to help people work better together. This is about creating the positive, “first impression” to quickly build trust so you can get things done.
First, the activity or series of activities has to be a fit for the particular team. For example, one group may already lack trust, is more serious and never does this type of thing. Conversely, another team may be brand new, everyone is high energy and ready for a big offsite. In the former, a more practical approach is called for, even utilizing existing forums like a development planning session to diffuse tension and get people to talk honestly. It can even be a problem-solving session regarding accountability breakdowns in the group where individuals discuss their own experiences. Talking about oneself to one’s peers is almost always cringe-worthy at first mention, but with good facilitation, I’ve been pleasantly surprised how much even the most standoffish folks will happily share personality profile results (MBTI, DiSC, StrengthsFinder and the like). You definitely want to avoid extreme activities that may make people uncomfortable. Ropes courses and trust falls resulted in me putting our employment attorney on speed dial and created a lasting series of concerns, thoroughly distracting from the original intent.
Second, getting out of the office environment lends itself better to the openness needed for a kick off. It is also easier to minimize office interruptions and distractions.
Finally, capitalize on the trust-building activity by combining it with some actual work or problem solving. For example:
- A night at a cooking school where the leaders served a group of global team members that had never met preceded a day of brainstorming our collective plans for the year.
- A session where we debriefed individual team member’s leadership styles and the group’s leadership style preceded a daylong discussion about our priorities and how we could apply those strengths and deal with our gaps.
- After an acquisition announcement, one function brought its leadership teams from each company together with a high-energy speaker that led combined teams at tables through problem-solving exercises. This resembled the reality they’d face in the coming months and laid the groundwork for desired behaviors.
All these examples had two things in common: They created shared, fun, positive memories for the team (a.k.a. great first impressions) that people reminisced about months, even years later. They also created a spark, something that endured through the future hard work.
Create a vision and live it:
Practically speaking, your vision can be either formal or informal, depending on the circumstances of your team. For example, one new leader was overt about his vision regarding safety, because safety was a serious issue—literally the potential for limb loss or death. It was a comprehensive program, including goals, policies, training and a dashboard. But the leader reinforced these tactics through regularly repeating the safety values himself, and asking people at the beginning of every meeting how they’d lived our safety values that day. I’ve done a formal vision on a smaller scale myself, and the nonverbals from the team made it evident they were skeptical, what with all of the tangible issues we had to address. Over time, however, it worked to align, inspire and motivate action toward our shared goals.
Another leader clearly held transparent communication as his vision, but solely by his actions. In nearly every interaction with his managers, he’d ask what they were communicating to their employees regarding the acquisition activities and what the feedback was. No surprise then, his managers were constantly communicating and getting feedback about how things were going. He’d even talk openly about his own issues and concerns at town halls which included all employees. So, without necessarily announcing a specific vision, he created a culture of open communication in his organization, something that was sorely lacking elsewhere. It would have been futile to create a formal vision and program during the early stages of an acquisition that was void of a go-forward plan, but it was possible to do something meaningful nonetheless.
Whatever your vision – declared or subtler – make sure you’re living that vision in all your interactions, like these leaders did.
It goes without saying that you’re probably creating the more common “new team” activities, such as goals, timelines and expectations. With those clearly defined, very early and visibly, you must exhibit courage to your team by working to remove the inevitable barriers they will face as they march out into the organization with the new way of doing things.
More often than not, these barriers won’t be evident in the planning stages and will manifest as predominantly people issues. Even systems or process barriers are ultimately owned by people, people who will think they’ve done very well before you came along to improve things, thank you very much.
Because you’ve generated trust and a common bond through a kick off and have further aligned the team through a vision, your team should be openly communicating about anything and everything people are experiencing. Your first job is to be a coach to the team members, helping them solve their own problems and reassuring them you’ll have their backs. However, if that is not politically expedient, then you need to positively approach said barrier and seek to understand the breakdown and discuss a solution. Or, very commonly, shortly after a team is formed it’s clear the team is under-resourced and after exhausting all other alternatives, a leader needs to ask for additional staffing.
Removing barriers requires courage, but it’s a very effective and visible action toward championing your team and its vision.
Coming in as a new leader to a team, redirecting an established, complacent team or starting an entirely new team represents a time of great possibilities and potential progress for all involved. If you find yourself in such a situation, including a trust-building kick off, creating a vision and living it and actively removing barriers will fuel the positive energy that comes with starting something new and create lasting alignment and momentum.
“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
– Henry Ford