By: Joe Frontiera and Daniel Leidl, co-authors of Team Turnarounds (Jossey-Bass, 2012)
You’ve seen it before in sport, whether at the professional or collegiate level, or even in high school or the pee-wee leagues. We’ve all seen it somewhere.
The team that was once the laughingstock, the doormat for the rest of its league, suddenly has a new swagger. No one saw it coming, but they’re unexpectedly winning on a regular basis. In fact, they’re really, really good.
While sport provides a unique view into these transformations, they also happen regularly in business. Our research in how to lead a team has demonstrated that “turnaround teams” are not simply a flip of a switch.
To the contrary, leaders play a huge role in team management, as they usher their teams through a long, sometimes painstaking, transformative process.
Here are four lessons in team management from leaders who successfully learned how to lead a team to success.
Tell the Truth
If your team is underperforming, it does no good if you keep it to yourself. In fact, that little secret will propel you and your team off a cliff. Instead, the best leaders found creative ways to inform their teams that their results were sub-par.
David Helfer, a VP at Juniper Networks, learned that many members of his team were working hard, but focusing on elements of the business that simply weren’t important.
By asking team members what their roles were and carefully listening to their responses, he was able to clear up discrepancies between their perceived and actual roles, and re-direct them down a more productive path.
The Takeaway: Before any team can change, it needs to know that change is necessary.
Never Serve Cold Toast
Within underperforming teams, many members have to replace bad habits with new behaviors. But behavior change is a tricky thing.
Marilyn Masaitis, the owner of Marilyn’s Diner in New Jersey, noticed that a couple of her regulars had suddenly stopped coming. After doing some legwork, she tracked these folks down and learned that they had been served cold toast.
She immediately went to the waitress’s house that had served them. Surprisingly, she didn’t fire her. Instead, she explained what she had learned, and informed the waitress that the customer’s absence was $10 out of her pocket every weekend - representing $40 per month.
Marilyn’s waitress learned a valuable lesson. She stopped serving cold toast, and the customers returned.
Marilyn hit on one of the keys of successful behavior in the workplace: Employees need the proper motivation and to understand the consequences of their poor behaviors and the impact on the larger team.
The Takeaway: Take action to make behavioral change more manageable.
Define a Bright Future
Not only is it important to tell the team the truth about their performance and begin to change the small behaviors, it is critical to define the future.
For the Indianapolis Colts, the future was an ideal, a place where the organization needed to be.
When Bill Polian was hired to be the General Manager for the Colts back in 1997, the team was awful; they had been awful for a long, long time. Instead of accepting status quo, however, Polian had a different idea. He began to talk about Super Bowls.
Initially, members of the Colts organization, from the front office to the players, were skeptical. But over time, and after Polian repeatedly spoke about how the Colts were going to the Super Bowl, the entire organization began to shift its perception.
They slowly began to believe in Polian’s message. The on-field success followed, and the Colts were one of the top NFL franchises of the 2000’s. They also won their Super Bowl in 2006.
The Takeaway: Create a vision and back it up with a plan.
As your team begins to replace old behaviors with new behaviors that are more conducive to success, the definition of success needs to change.
After all, if success is to become habit with your team, leaders will need to reframe what success means.
For email marketing firm iContact, success was initially defined as being a profitable startup. But once they achieved that milestone and continued to grow, CEO Ryan Allis began to ponder what success meant on a personal level.
Rather than fall back on his old definition, Ryan came to the conclusion that for him to lead a truly successful organization, it had to have a positive impact on both the environment and his local community.
Allis began to focus on both goals, building them into company presentations and dialogue. He also found ways to measure iContact’s progress on both fronts.
Soon, others adopted his mindset, and now corporate social responsibility is an important and established part of iContact.
The Takeaway: Drive change by reframing success.
To be clear, leading a turnaround is not easy. It’s a profound test of team leadership capabilities. But leaders of businesses both large and small can learn how to lead a team to success from those who have done it before.
Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl are coauthors of Team Turnarounds (Jossey-Bass, 2012). Managing partners of Meno Consulting, a firm that specializes in team and leadership development, Frontiera and Leidl are columnists for WashingtonPost.com and blog at My Generation Leader. They each have PhDs in sport psychology from West Virginia University.