Secrets of building winning teams

By Terry Williams

It's more than Friday drinks or bush retreats ... top bosses give their answers

Successful organisms and groups in nature rely on diversity as a defence mechanism and to provide tools to deal with a wide range of situations - business is no different. Photo / Thinkstock
Successful organisms and groups in nature rely on diversity as a defence mechanism and to provide tools to deal with a wide range of situations - business is no different. Photo / Thinkstock

If the number one constraint on the growth of the economy over the next five years is a shortage of skilled labour, how can businesses position their team to get the right people and keep them?

The phrase "team-building" may conjure up images of work colleagues being forced to attend a weekend retreat and take part in competitions involving ropes, helmets and maps.

It might mean Friday night drinks or the social club mixed netball where the boss pays for the celebratory victory pizza. But fun, team-based activities outside of work hours are not really building a team.

Genuine team-building is far more important than that. Jacqui Dixon, one of the owners of artisan food importer Sabato, cites clear values as a critical foundation for driving focus and building a team.

"We've achieved growth over 20 years because we've been clear from the start that we have to employ people, especially frontline managers, who are passionate about food and quality.

"They need to become good at their jobs but passion is first. The cost of getting that wrong is too high."

Businesses will often rush to fill vacancies instead of waiting for the right person who contributes to team building. Sabato, with its clarity on observable, behaviour-based core values, now has an employment brand called "The Sabato Way", which is consistent with its retail branding and consistently attracts talented employees.

Another observable behaviour is employee engagement - people doing more than they have to because they choose to.

Fonterra is doing well for itself and stakeholders. It's always trying to boost productivity and excels at using data to achieve that. It recently completed a multiple-year research programme involving thousands of people that showed the productivity and safety benefits of employee engagement.

More specifically, it learned what drives ongoing engagement, finding that financial incentives came second to last on the list of such drivers.

Far more effective drivers were the behaviour of colleagues, continuous performance feedback conversations and the behaviour of bosses. The common thread is the behaviour and effectiveness of frontline leadership - supervisors and team leaders, not the executives nor teams as a whole. That's where Fonterra sees some bang for its team-building buck - a focus on developing frontline leaders.

The chief executive of Taupo accounting firm Strettons, Wayne Morris, believes in involving people from all levels and keeping them involved when it comes to building teams.

"Involving our team in strategic planning sessions has driven employee engagement, with frontline managers recommending and implementing ideas to achieve our directors' vision," he says.

"The team have taken ownership of the plan, which is coming alive at all levels of the company - everyone is involved, directly or indirectly. We have weekly focus group meetings so those with direct involvement are constantly on the pulse and, every 90 days, we report back to the whole team, sharing achievements and setting our next 90-day goals, resulting in huge benefits to our clients and work processes."

Some employers have an internal bias when hiring that they would be the best person for the job and end up hiring clones of themselves.

Homogeneous teams, at a superficial level, seem to function well because of such similarities but falter in the face of adversity.

Successful organisms and groups in nature rely on diversity as a defence mechanism and to provide tools to deal with a wide range of situations - business is no different.

After its recent win in the first United Nations Gender Diversity award, the BNZ recognises the value of diversity.

It made diversity a deliberate strategy and integrated it within its broader business strategies, making people accountable for it within performance measurements.

Consequently, half of the BNZ's management team are women.

"Paying attention to work/life balance, career opportunities and a focus on customers has led to a high performing culture, where people know they make a difference," says BNZ director of people and communications Annie Brown.

And because building a team and deliberately shaping its culture is important, they measure it.

The BNZ has been measuring engagement in some form since 2003 and Brown says it still has work to do.

"We're also focusing on diversity because a 'one size fits all' approach, treating everyone the same, does not encourage employee engagement, innovation or performance improvement."


Terry Williams is a speaker and trainer, and author of The Brain-Based Boss.

- NZ Herald

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