Expert: Team-building practices must reflect company’s real-time work

Many company employees have been in a leadership exercise where one of the group faces forward, then falls backward, trusting the rest of the group to catch them.

While those kinds of trust-building exercises have their place, Patrick Lencioni doesn’t think they’re the right way to go about team-building in a successful business.

Lencioni, the founder and president of The Table Group, which provides organizations with ideas, products and services that improve teamwork, clarity and employee engagement, says if a company wants to build a successful team, the practices it uses must reflect what the firm actually does.

Using “experiential” practices to craft your team is one of the biggest mistakes companies make, he said.

“First of all, doing team-building separate from the business … stuff that’s not related to the work being done is not something I recommend,” said Lencioni, once called “one of the top 10 gurus you should know” by Forbes magazine. “You need to build the team in the context of the real work. We need to be doing team-building and business planning and problem solving concurrently. It needs to be relevant.”

Lencioni should know. Before founding The Table Group, the San Francisco-based Lencioni was an executive for Sybase, Oracle and Bain & Company. He’s written 11 bestselling business books — which have sold more than 5 million copies — and now spends a great deal of time speaking on team-building strategies.

Strategy needs to work
Of course, once you’ve got the team built, it needs to work to make the company successful.

Among the most successful companies, obviously, are those who keep morale and productivity high and turnover low among its most productive workers. While some companies may try throwing money or perks at their employees, Lencioni said the key to maintaining a high-morale, high-productivity workforce is much more basic, more fundamental than that.

What employees really want, Lencioni said, is to know why their job matters.

“You’re not going to get it with compensation and perks and creative office furniture,” he said. “What people really want in order to stay at a company and feel good about it is to be known by their management. They want people to know what’s going on in their lives, they want to know why their job matters.

“How does my job impact someone’s life in some way? They need to be able to know if they’re doing it well. They need some sort of evidence of their success.”

Lencioni said employees who are made to feel relevant, and are given a way to measure their success, aren’t going anywhere. Not all companies, he points out, do that.

“So many companies were getting it wrong,” he said. “They were throwing money at people, and doing all these things, but they weren’t addressing the core issues these people have.

Patrick Lencioni is a nationally recognized expert who travels the country talking team-building with a variety of companies.

Empower the people
In a recent interview with Corp! Digital Editor Karen Dybis, business owner Denise Navarro says that while she hasn’t read any of Lencioni’s books, her philosophy mirrors his to a great degree. Part of the reason Navarro wanted to start her own business was to create a workforce where people felt empowered, valued and part of a larger team, where their individual success mattered as much as that of the overall company.

With Logical Innovations Inc., Navarro feels she has succeeded in giving her staff the skills they need to get the job done, but also the incentives, support and leadership to be leaders themselves.

Part of that comes from mentorship.

“Our true asset and value that we bring to our customers comes directly from our employees,” Navarro said. “They are, in essence, my customers, too. They’re that important and one of the key reasons I wanted to go into business for myself.”

The Houston-based company specializes in a wide variety of business support services, including project management, IT support, training design and delivery, performance improvement, customer service and administrative services.

Creating commitment
Mentors can be key to a company’s or an individual’s success. One study found when more than 5,000 newly hired sales representatives were surveyed, those who indicated they were part of a mentoring relationship reported significantly higher organizational commitment and lower intentions to leave their organization than did non-mentored respondents.

Everyone should get a chance to shine, Navarro said. For more experienced workers to mentor younger workers, Navarro encourages teams to get together on a regular basis, like in a lunch-and-learn session, to get to know the senior or more long-term employees. This allows everyone to share their experiences and ask questions about problem solving or coming up with good processes.

“I wanted to make sure the people on the ground day-to-day are growing with the company and being taken care of,” Navarro added. “I listen. I gather feedback. I take my lessons seriously and I’m always looking for ways to improve.”

Beth Barnes, vice president, chief human resources and administrative officer at Walsh College in Troy, Mich., attended one of Lencioni’s presentations based on his bestselling book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” The book, she said, in a complimentary way, reads like a corporate soap opera. She came away intrigued by Lencioni’s corporate definition of “trust,” which is different from the dictionary definition.

Lencioni’s book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” was published in 2002 and has sold over 2 million copies. Outlining the root causes of politics and dysfunction on teams and the keys to overcoming them, Lencioni believes that the causes of dysfunction are both identifiable and curable.

Vulnerability an asset
“His definition of trust relates to a team member’s willingness to be vulnerable with other team members,” Barnes said. “Leaders often believe they must always show confidence and competency at all times to be respected. Lencioni believes that if team members can share their own weaknesses with each other, the team will perform at a higher level.”

Barnes said another Lencioni book, “The Advantage,” weaves together organizational values, strategic planning and talent management.

“I’ve used (Lencioni’s) team assessment tool in training sessions and his core values in hiring questions,” Barnes said.

While Lencioni has spoken to and advised thousands of corporate leaders, Barnes hit on what Lencioni said is the “one key piece” of advice he thinks companies should follow.

While humans are generally taught not to be vulnerable — “Don’t admit when you’re wrong, don’t let them see you sweat” — Lencioni said just the opposite needs to happen to achieve corporate success.

Being vulnerable, he said, is the best way to learn to build trust.

“There’s something so very attractive and disarming about that, that it changes everything,” Lencioni said. “Trust comes about when people are vulnerable. It’s attractive and it changes everything, whether you’re leading a team, whether you’re trying to convince a client or trying to sway a colleague.

“That’s why it’s so powerful,” he added, “because it’s rare.”

Blueprint to success
Elizabeth Williams, corporate human resources manager for Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Stiles Machinery, said she has also used “The Advantage,” as the framework with her executive team — at a previous employer — as the team worked toward annual goals.

“It was a blueprint to refer to as we first created, then evaluated and course-corrected our action items, in order to best achieve our business goals,” Williams said. “It’s imperative to be keyed into the goals of the business. When I understand the bigger picture of a company’s goals, I can provide my HR counsel and strategy to help round out those goals and build the structure needed to support them.

“(Lencioni’s) book helped my executive team walk through this process, create sound goals and structure and, ultimately, strengthen the team’s synergies.”

To provide that kind of counsel, though, Williams said HR professionals must first be given a “seat at the table with the big boys,” something she said doesn’t always happen, particularly for female HR professionals.

“I’ve been the only female or one of two on all of the executive teams I have been part of,” Williams said. “The (corporate world) is still male-dominated. I’ve pushed, I’ve pulled, I’ve all but given up and accepted it.”

Lencioni said he’s been hearing versions of this argument for 30 years and believes there’s only one way to get that seat at the table: bring something valuable to the discussion.

“The truth of the matter is adding value is the only way to get a deserved seat at the table,” he said. “It can be hard, and there are certain people who don’t reward it, but most people who give that value earn a seat.”

Check your ego at the door
He continued: “The best way is to not have any ego about it … If people think it’s an ego thing, they’re not going to let you in. If you’re willing to help the team and not worry about it, that’s going to accelerate that process. Don’t be just an HR person; be a business-minded person who can weigh in across the board.”

While Lencioni largely focuses on the things he thinks work best, he also thinks there’s one mistake companies make when trying to build a successful company: trying to be the smartest one in the room.

Lencioni said many companies focus on being smart, rather than “building a healthy company and nature.” The problem, he said, is that just being smart isn’t enough to give companies a competitive advantage.

“Every company I work with is smart,” he said. “The real differentiator is, more than ever, how you can build a functional culture of teamwork, clarity and engagement.

“Still to this day, most leaders are fascinated by or focused on becoming smarter rather than healthier,” he added, “even though that’s not where the biggest opportunity for transformation is.”

Lencioni’s leadership models have attracted a diverse base of speaking and consulting clients, including a mix of Fortune 500 companies, professional sports organizations, the military, nonprofits, schools and churches.

Providence and accident
He said his transformation into a team-building expert was “through providence” and “by accident.” After securing a job at “a very prestigious” management consulting firm out of college, Lencioni found himself “dumbfounded” by the fact clients were basically ignoring them.

“So much of the intelligence we were communicating to them wasn’t being used because the clients were so dysfunctional,” Lencioni recalled. “I was just really perplexed by that.”

He said he “just started pursuing that in my career,” thinking more about it and learning more about it. One day, he said, he “came up with a theory on leadership,” and a client convinced him to write a book.

“I wrote a fiction book about my methodology,” Lencioni said. “My publisher said you should write another book. It was accidental and gradual.”

Another key to a successful workplace is having people in place who love what they’re doing. Lencioni recalls his childhood, when his father didn’t like the job he had. That memory stayed with him as he moved into the workforce and it occurred to him people staying in jobs they hate didn’t make sense.

“I was fascinated (by my father) and, when I got older, I decided it was crazy, because we spend so much time at work. I don’t care if you have the sexiest, most high-paying job in the world. If you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re going to be miserable.”

Not much technology
While Walsh College’s Barnes and Stiles Machinery’s Williams have both used Lencioni’s books as a sort of blueprint and followed his advice, Lencioni knows not all of his advice has always been good. But, he said, that doesn’t stop him from giving it.

“I’m sure I have (given bad advice); I’ve done it a lot,” he said with a laugh. “When I do it, I try to admit it right away. What I usually do — we have a saying in our practice — if you’re not willing to make suggestions, even if they’re dumb, you’re never going to make a great one.

“When you’re brainstorming with a client, if you’re not willing to put out an idea that’s ridiculous, you’re never going to put out a great one.”

Lencioni is definite about one thing: none of the advice he doles out is going to have much to do with technology. Despite its increasing dominance of most of the world, the team-building guru doesn’t believe it has much of a place in his realm.

Technology, he said, is a tool that “doesn’t support the dynamics” of team-building. In fact, he said, in some ways it has a negative impact. Technology allows companies to let workers job-share or work remotely, which keeps people out of the building far more frequently.

“(Technology) never makes up for the fact that people who sit in a room together outperform all other people who don’t,” Lencioni said. “We are convinced that the table is the best technology in the world. There is no technology that allows for people working together. It doesn’t change what’s required to build human dynamics.”

Lencioni, who lives in San Francisco with his wife and four sons, is working on his latest book, “The Motive,” which questions why so many leaders “abdicate their most critical responsibilities,” and delves into the “underlying reasons why people become leaders …. It’s kind of a prequel to everything else I’ve written.”

In the meantime, he continues to speak, including being invited back as a speaker at the Global Leadership Summit this past August, where he said leaders need the right motivation to lead (i.e., serving others). And he still offers advice, which he continues to be surprised people follow.

“I don’t hear about how (companies) are using it until months later,” he said. “It makes you realize you better do a really good job at what you do. It makes me thankful I get to do what I do. It really is humbling and kind of overwhelming.”