Building a team that can successfully take you from where you are to where you aspire to be takes a careful combination of intentional hiring practices, a focused effort at retention and instilling shared ownership of team goals. While these skills come naturally to many, all three can be developed with time and practice.
Assuming that you’ve hired correctly, the quickest way to support retention and shared ownership efforts is through frequent, open communication. There are many conversations that take place within the work team over time. However, some are more important than others as they send clear messages about what’s important.
The following seven conversations are the key exchanges that leaders should be sharing with their team members on a routine basis:
1. This is where we are going. People feel inspired by a compelling vision. They’re drawn to the idea of being a part of something that matters. When Antoine de Saint-Exupéry offered, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea,” he was challenging us to think about the place we are headed, feel that space fully, and then tell a story that compels others to join us for the journey.
2. This is what we need from you when we get there. A significant portion of change resistance can be attributed to the individual person’s assessment that, upon arriving in the new normal, not only will they no longer be an expert but they may actually be out of their comfort zone all together. With ample notice, that same employee can be provided the opportunity to train and develop the skills that will allow her or him to continue to lead moving forward. A conversation that says, “When we implement this, you will be the face of this platform with our clients” can go a long way.
3. Why do customers or clients leave us and what can we do to fix it? Each person on the team has a unique perspective on what’s working and what’s not. In particular, those who are serving with their “boots on the ground” interfacing on the front lines are often aware of many issues that others encounter. Asking a direct and specific question like this, or “What flaw in our policies, processes, or programs do we need to address?” will yield better feedback than “How are we doing?” and is more likely to result in implementable action items that help the team better serve its mission. We frequently fail to see some of our biggest concerns because we are too close to the work we do. Asking questions that not only make it allowable to challenge the status quo, but actually encourage that very thing, go a long way in establishing a culture of continuous improvement.
4. What partnerships are we failing to pursue? Asking team members what partnership opportunities could make an impact will draw attention to some of the weaker areas of the team’s work and showcase the innovative thinking of members. Whether the proposed partners are internal or external to your organization itself, thinking about how combined efforts may better serve end users often results in a win for everyone involved.
5. What is a specific way I can lead this team better? While this conversation requires some vulnerability on the part of the leader, it also opens the door to show her or his receptiveness to feedback and willingness to change and grow in the role. The specificity of this question is very intentional and will garner better results than asking the same thing in a more generic way. Further, listening to the feedback that is offered and then making efforts to improve in that area will go a long way in securing the trust of the team.
6. Where do you want to be in five years and how can I help get you there? Sometimes, even when it is the perfect fit, it doesn’t mean it is forever. The best leaders acknowledge this, asking their team members where they want to go next and how their current work can better position them for long-term success. Investing in the professional development of your team members and supporting their aspirations for the future will help distinguish your group as extraordinary.
7. We are a better company because you are here. If warranted, this is the most meaningful conversation you can have with a contributing member of your team. Tell them they add value. Tell them you are glad they choose to serve in the way they do. Thank them and remind them their work matters.
These seven conversations help craft a team identity that is caring, inclusive, and forward-thinking. They’ll also make it a team that others want to be a part of.
Dave Urso is dean of Academic Affairs at Blue Ridge Community College and chief innovation officer at Dynamic Consulting.