Today more than ever, work is all about collaboration. But, as most executives know, managing teams is never easy.
Members may not be in synch with the team’s objectives; communication may be poor; there may be too much, or even too little, conflict; the composition of the team may be ill-suited to the task at hand; or the team may be missing people who could make a critical contribution.
For those reasons and others, teams often fail to maximize their potential. And even when a team functions well in one environment, it may flounder as circumstances change.
“The most common challenge in high-growth companies is that what works today doesn’t work tomorrow,” says Jackie Barry, COO of mobile apps technology company Scrollmotion. “Organizational structures need to change as the company grows.”
The team leader, therefore, has to think about several key elements of team performance, and address any that may be impeding performance:
• How was the team formed, and does it currently have the right people?
• What should you do about specific team members who aren’t performing?
• When it comes to the continual care and feeding of the team, are you doing all you should?
Here are six ways the CEOs and CFOs can help their teams flourish, not flounder.
Evaluate Every Legacy
Let’s start with who’s on the team, and why. Often, and particularly at fast-growing companies, teams have a legacy component that can be difficult for a new leader to handle.
Consider a mid-market company that has grown large enough to require its first CFO. An experienced finance professional is hired. She inherits a small staff of accountants, clerks, and maybe a controller, many of whom trace their tenure back to the company’s founding. The new CFO is reluctant to make immediate changes, preferring to assess who is capable of playing at a higher level. But as time goes on, she finds that the expertise and experience she brought to the job leaves her doing the lion’s share of the work, while other team members contribute less as their skills become outmoded.
Why does this happen? Because building a team takes time and patience, two qualities often in short supply at fast-growth companies. It also takes courage: courage to give employees honest feedback about where they need to improve, and courage to take action if such improvement is not forthcoming. And it takes a willingness to acknowledge that if the team is not functioning as well as it might, the problem may lie not with the skills or proclivities of the members, but with the leader’s ability to motivate and direct the team as effectively as possible.
Develop The Talent You Have
Given all this, it’s not surprising that many executives try to overlook the negatives and accentuate the positives. But this approach won’t work in the long run. Building a first-rate team is not just a pragmatic exercise that results in more work getting done; it’s also a leadership development exercise for you, the executive.
Leading a team to a higher performance level is a managerial skill that, once developed, can take you almost anywhere.
To start, experts say, forget about the Big Bang approach: You aren’t going to fire and hire your way to overnight success. Team-building is a continuous process that happens at both the macro and micro levels of the company, day in and day out.
At the macro level, the leader’s task is to create a certain culture within the team. Help specific departments like finance, IT, or HR see their unique contributions to the broader company, and set expectations about the kinds of behavior and performance that will maximize that contribution.
“Most employees want to do a good job, and they want to be part of a high-performing team because it’s a lot of fun,” says Kathy Ryan, CEO, CFO, and co-founder of accounting consulting firm RoseRyan. “One thing an executive can do to foster that desire is to create a vision for their team that helps the members align with the business.”
Show, Don’t Tell
Several years ago, RoseRyan went through the process of setting a vision and articulating the firm’s values. The result was a four-word mantra: trustworthy, advocate, excel, team. They then defined what behaviors went with those values, and what metrics they would track to see how well they were doing.
For example, to be “trustworthy,” an employee had to communicate openly and honestly, have courage to speak up in difficult situations, and be reliable in meeting deadlines and other commitments. Some of the KPIs for these behaviors included submitting timely status reports and being open to feedback.
But Ryan adds that defining these ideas wasn’t enough. To truly embed them, each firm leader was required to offer up a specific example of how an employee had embodied one of those values once a week at a regular meeting. “In the beginning, that was really hard, and it felt clunky,” says Ryan. “Now, those examples are the best part of meeting, and the exercise is a part of us.”
There are many values a firm or a team leader might prioritize at different phases in a group’s development, and multiple ways to reinforce them. The important thing is to articulate clearly defined values that provide a foundation for everything that takes place. Just imagine how much easier hiring (and, for that matter, firing) could be if you had a handful of specific qualities to use as guiding lights.
On the micro level, building a team means working with individuals to see how far they can go. To be sure, it starts with good hiring practices, but the bigger challenge is what you do with the employees you already have.
Do You Really Know Your Team Members?
Without a doubt, the toughest task is determining what to do with talented people who don’t possess the experience or specific skills the company needs as it grows. While their strengths are valuable, their knowledge gaps, mistakes, or misjudgments are costing you time, and in many cases, reputation. What can you do?
Start by delving into the team’s inner workings. Barry of Scrollmotion says she spent the first two weeks in her new position doing nothing but talking to people, and the third week “getting eyeball deep” into specific issues, like pricing, that seemed most pressing. “To them, I’m asking a lot of stupid questions, but it’s in the spirit of ‘Can you help me?,’ not ‘I’m in charge,’” she says. “Not many people will say no to that, and it’s a great way to gain followers.” It’s also an excellent way to determine your team members’ strengths and weaknesses.
Make Growth Priority Number One
Once you understand employees’ current abilities and contributions, it’s time to look to the future. “The question you then have to ask yourself is whether you feel like they have the capability to take on more, or if they’re truly tapped out,” says Brian Roberts, CFO of insulin pump maker Insulet. He encountered both situations recently, as the needs of fast-growing Insulet outpaced the skills of some early employees.
In one case, it meant terminating a longtime employee, but treating the worker as fairly as possible, with warnings and ultimately a fair exit package. In another case, it meant bringing in a seasoned IT professional to help mentor the existing IT expert, who simply lacked the bigger-company experience that Insulet found itself needing. That mentor ultimately became the IT manager, a situation the employee was very willing to accept.
Over time, both have been able to expand their roles as the company has continued to grow.
Demonstrate Your Confidence In Their Skills
For high performers, it’s finding appropriate challenges for them while still getting the necessary work done. “I’ve learned that if you ask people to stretch beyond their own expectations, 99 percent of the time they will achieve the goal, even if they don’t believe they can; and when they do, it builds a greater confidence in what they can do,” says Gary Vilchick, CFO of application security software developer Veracode.
Can you assign high performers to a cross-functional project that will expose them to other areas of the company? Can they shadow you, perhaps when you’re talking to investors, to learn a unique aspect of your role? Can you get them some board exposure to hone their presentation skills? Consider it grooming your replacement, even if you’re not planning on going anywhere quickly.
Executives often don’t appreciate the degree to which team-building is a core part of the job. In their roles as bosses they may tend to focus on each direct report on a case-by-case basis. But by pulling back and assessing how the team is performing as a single entity, and thinking hard about how they can take it to a higher level, executives will reap many rewards: improved morale, better productivity, a bigger impact on the company’s mission, less stress — and the satisfaction that comes from knowing that they are truly leading the team, not just managing it.
BUILDING THE STRATEGIC CFO
Chapters in the CFO action series presented by Build and GE Capital:
Chapter 1: Own the Big Picture
Chapter 2: Create More Time
Chapter 3: Build a Better Team
Chapter 4: The Great Communicator
Chapter 5: Big Data, Big Results
Chapter 6: Think and Act Sustainably
Chapter 7: The Leading Edge
Chapter 8: Think Global, Whether You Are or Not
Chapter 9: Building a Risk-Intelligent Culture
Chapter 10: How to Win the War for Talent
Chapter 11: Technology & You
Chapter 12: The Art of Strategic Influence
Chapter 13: Building the Customer-Centric Organization