The Mechanics of Building an Outstanding New Team

The mechanics of building a new team
The mechanics of building a team/Source:Canva.com

During my relatively brief career as a people manager, I have been lucky to establish not one but two new teams from scratch. The first time, I was acting more or less intuitively, but I have to say, I am still immensely proud of the results. The team we created showed amazing performance, earned the respect of the internal clients and stakeholders quickly and was incredibly dedicated. There were, however, some significant flaws in my approach and when I set out to build my second brand new team, I decided to put some more thought and structure into the project and today, I would like to share with you some of the aspects I take into consideration during the process.

Get the Right People

Finding the right talent for your team is always hard. You need to find an individual with a suitable skill set, knowledge, attitude, values, and need to be a team fit. It is even more challenging to do this when you are launching a brand new team, as you don’t really have a team to fit them in.

And just to make it more fun, on both occasions when I was building new teams, the work they would do was not completely clear – I was establishing brand new functions that would use completely new processes and entirely new systems (the joys of HR transformation).

So I basically had to hire people to do work that at that point was mainly in my imagination and to be part of a just as imaginary team. I was aware of the general skillset that (I thought) was needed and that was pretty much all on which I could base my hiring decisions.

Or maybe not quite. As you will read further down, my firm conviction is that what holds a team together is shared values. Apart from the general skillset I was looking for, during the selection process, I tried to discover whether their work values could align with the ones I needed in the team.

I have to admit that I have made quite a few errors in judgment and have sadly had people leave the team because they just couldn’t click with the rest or did not quite align with our values. But I have also had and currently have powerful core teams, which are the backbone of every achievement and success we have had.

Build a Process and Keep Adjusting

The first time I was tasked with building a new team, I was lucky. There was already an existing group in another location that was doing similar work, so I could use their processes as a blueprint for creating ours. The second time, however, was a bit challenging. I had to set up a function that was not only new for the company but was something I had never experienced or even seen in practice.

Therefore, while good for a start, the processes I built, in the beginning, needed continuous review and adjustment once we actually started doing the work and were better aware of all its intricacies. We still do that over a year after our launch.

I try to ensure that we don’t become complacent and too comfortable with how we do things and continuously try to find improvement opportunities.

Roll-up Your Sleeves and Do

I believe it is imperative that we have in-depth operational knowledge of our team’s work, especially when we start something completely new. And there is no better way to gain that knowledge than to actually get in there and do it with them. It allows us to set adequate goals, readjust our processes and set performance targets.

But even more important than that – it lays the foundations of trust, which is fundamental for a manager-employee relationship.

I think this is just as important to do even if you are not a first-level operational supervisor. After all, we need to know how those strategic decisions we make may affect our team’s actual work process. I still jump in and provide operational support when the workload is high and my team members still ask me for advice on specific tasks even though I am a third-level manager for many of them.

Create Shared Goals

Some psychology schools state that parents’ fantasies and visions for their future unborn child can affect shaping their personality. It is the same with teams. We need to envision what we want our team to be and what we want them to achieve, even before they enter the office for the first time. Then distill this vision into goals and start talking about them from day one. Keep explaining them and referring to them until the team internalizes them and perceives them as their own.

And then keep coming back to them in those inevitable moments when our team members turn to us with a “why the heck are you asking me to do this.” My teams had two months of training, most of which they spent reading HR policies. Not the most tantalizing pastime. So when they were getting bored out of their minds, it was time to remind ourselves that our main goal was to become the company’s most knowledgeable HR team. And keep reading.

Set Performance Expectations

After we have our goals, it is time to start talking about performance. We need to establish what is good performance. We need to decide how we will assess or measure the performance and be very transparent about our expectations.

Some of my teams have hard metrics based on system data. For others, due to the nature of their work, we rely on more fluid data such as feedback from stakeholders and internal clients. Whatever the method, the essential thing about performance is to be fair, transparent and

be sure that our performance management approach helps achieve the goals we have set for ourselves.

Instill Values

There are different people in our teams, with varied skills, abilities and motivators that drive them. Our role as leaders is to unite all this diversity and steer it in the same direction. We have already set shared goals for the team, but goals can sometimes change suddenly in the hectic business environment we inhabit. We need something that will ensure that we are all aligned even during uncertain times of shifting priorities. And I have found that the team values are that glue that brings everything together.

This article offers an in-depth analysis of the importance of values and even though its focus is company values, many of the benefits it outlines such as the positive effect on engagement and retention apply to the smaller subset of team values as well.

I have imbued the same values in all my teams, be it new ones or ones that I have taken over from another leader. I have found them always relevant even though the individuals within the teams or their work varied greatly.

Honesty

Honesty is something with which I can never compromise. Being open and honest with each other is the only way to maintain trust, receive and provide support, and ensure the desired work quality.

Ownership

We mess up. That’s inevitable. But the only way to not make the same mistake again, to improve and to keep our credibility with our stakeholders, is to own up to it, say I’m sorry, fix it and move on.

Cooperation

As much as we want to think that all of us are always very rational and professional at the workplace, there are often politics, unclear roles and finger-pointing that get in the way. I continuously try to teach my teams that we should be the ones that put their egos aside and work towards collaboration, cooperation and finding a common solution.

The team’s success is my success

I can honestly say that I am not always successful in cascading this value. The corporate culture is an individualistic one. It encourages individual performance and celebrates individual success. Over the past I don’t remember how many years my teams have been consistently understaffed and overworked, and I have found that it is impossible to have real individual success in such an environment if you focus on your results only. You can only be successful if your team succeeds. So the focus is on making things better for the team, and the individual will follow.

I sometimes talk about these values and their importance and how they align with our goals. I encourage behaviors that display those values. But the thing that makes the most significant difference is the personal example. I strive to align all my actions to those values, which, over time, cascades through the whole team.

Create a Team Culture

Team culture is made up of the values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors shared by a team. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that workplace culture is directly related to performance, retention and innovation. So it is not something that we should leave to chance. 

And while the team culture often reflects the leader, I have found that it is crucial that the culture aligns with the business goals and the team’s primary purpose or function.

There are multiple aspects to creating a team culture and you can read a lot about it in Harvard Business Review’s The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, but here I would like to mention just on the focal points of my teams’ cultures.

I currently lead three different HR Shared Services subfunctions, which provide a completely different type of support to our employees. Hence the cultures within those teams are centered around distinct pillars.

My admin team’s work is very focused on compliance and creating efficiencies. Therefore the culture we are trying to build in those teams revolves around quality and process improvement.

The HR contact center I lead needs to accumulate and be able to transmit astounding amounts of new information, often in very short amounts of time as new HR campaigns or programs get implemented. Therefore all our internal processes and behaviors encourage learning and knowledge sharing.

My third team is responsible for the HR content shared with employees; therefore, in everything we do, we first ask ourselves how it will affect the employee experience.

Empower

No matter how good the processes we built are, no matter how well we think we have thought things out, we inevitably miss something. Especially if we are starting something brand new.

And there is no one in a better position to identify those gaps and suggest improvements than the people who are actually doing the work. That is why I try to provide my team as much control as possible over how they perform their daily work and their suggestions and ideas always come with priority when we are reviewing a process.

Make It Stick

My biggest mistake with the first team I built was that I made them too dependent on me. I was involved in every decision made, touched every new process and managed all stakeholder relationships. And when I left the company, the whole thing just unraveled. Now, I know that I am not all that special and no one is irreplaceable, so I spent a lot of time reflecting on where I had gone wrong. I had poured my heart and soul into that team and it was excruciating to watch from afar how things slowly fell apart. I felt that I had let all my fantastic team members down. I still do.

I knew I could not go through that again and that my new team does not deserve it, so about six months after the launch of the team, I started pulling back. By then, my role had expanded, and I was assigned a whole new function, so it was a somewhat logical transition that was easier to explain to my employees. They got a new direct manager and I stepped away, attending fewer team meetings, getting less involved in the operations and coordinating from afar. I made sure that each of them knows that I would always be there if they need support, but I stopped proactively jumping in unless there was a significant need.

I did try to make the transition smooth, yet I am sure that there was some feeling of abandonment. I could not find the right words to explain that I was stepping away for their sake. Hopefully,  the next time I am given the opportunity to build a new team,  I will be courageous enough to have this conversation openly.

And This is Just the Beginning

There are so many more things that can be said on this topic, but I had to pick just a few, otherwise, I would never be able to finish this post. And let’s not forget that after we have built our new team we need to continue nourishing and developing it. But I have to say, there is nothing more rewarding than watching the people you lead succeed, and if some of the experience shared here helps you at least a little bit in setting up your new teams for success, I would be elated.

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