Building solid, reliable, high performing teams: A case study
In all my experience, in businesses from small, family owned to household name multinationals, across a variety of industries and across three continents, that is what stands out as the most common, most persistent and toughest problem facing all businesses.
At the root of this is the fact that all people are individuals; they’re all different and, since most businesses are environments that thrive on routine and consistency, the two factors are naturally in conflict. But if that’s the case, how is it that some successful businesses (and very large businesses at that, where the diversity of employees can be huge) are able to meld together high performing teams when most others struggle? And if we want to emulate such teams, where can we find examples to follow?
When the internal workings of businesses are generally hidden from the average onlooker this can be a challenge, yet if we broaden the pool slightly, we’ll usually find examples that are far more visible. Where might this be? Why, in the field that we most frequently associate with teams …. the sporting arena!
This is an area where teams are the norm and, when teams are followed by avid fans, their inner workings (certainly as far as matters pertaining to the players in the teams are concerned) are exposed to – and analysed by – the general public far more than is the case with business.
I have to confess that I raise this issue now prompted by the success of a team I have followed loyally for more years than I care to remember, through thick and thin (mostly thin, I’m afraid), but who are currently riding high; far higher than has been the case over the past 50 years or so, and certainly far higher than we supporters have any right to expect.
So how have they achieved this rush of success? It certainly isn’t that the club has suddenly become exorbitantly wealthy, allowing them to ‘buy’ success to a large extent as some other teams have done over recent years. But if we look into the club’s background a little this may give us some idea of what is happening there.
The Club’s History
My beloved club is Sheffield United, currently competing in the Premier League in English football (or soccer, as my adopted home of Australia insists on calling it!), generally accepted as the top tier of football in the UK, and quite possibly Europe.
The club has a long history, having been formed in 1889, but by and large any glory it has had was in its early years, and was well and truly over by the late 1920’s. Since then it has struggled to retain a presence in the top tier of English Football and fell as far as a lowly fourth tier for a season in 1981.
While things did subsequently improve, the club has bobbed up and down between the first and third levels for some years, rarely in the first for more than one or two seasons at a time, and as recently as mid-2016 back down as low as the bottom of the third.
At the end of the 2016/17 season (each season runs approximately August to May) the club won promotion to the second level, and two years later, at the end of the 2018/19 season, won promotion to the Premier League, having last departed from it some twelve years earlier.
Possibly due to this long absence, combined with its rapid rise, before a ball was kicked in the new 2019/20 season Sheffield United were every pundit’s guarantee to be relegated after only one season. But the club has confounded all expectations and is currently sitting sixth in the table (of 20 teams), having so far played 26 of the 38 games this season.
They are still by no means a wealthy club but are venturing into the market to buy more players in order to strengthen their playing squad, and have broken their modest record on transfer fees paid on more than one occasion over the past six months.
They remain, however, one of the tier’s poorer relatives. No more clearly was this illustrated than in a recent game when one of the opposing team’s players who was sitting on their reserve bench had cost them more than the whole of our first team combined. Minnows in a tier of several giants indeed!
So how have they managed, against all odds, to achieve what they have when so severely handicapped in several areas?
The Change in Fortunes – Management, Teamwork and Culture
Without doubt the club has benefitted from the recruitment of a tactically sharp manager in Chris Wilder in mid-2016, with his able assistant Alan Knill. Together they have developed a system of playing that is creating problems for teams who are well established at this level and are managed by some of the most revered football managers in Europe, who are themselves expressing admiration for how difficult beating Sheffield United is proving to be.
But this isn’t the full answer, not by any means. The bigger factor, and one that I believe is crucial to explaining the team’s success, is how the manager has been able to get the team to execute their plans and tactics consistently at a level way beyond what any student of the game would expect from the individual players at his disposal. What is it that makes the total greater than the sum of the parts in this case?
The answer to this question lies in the environment Wilder has created within the club since arriving there in mid-2016. He has created a culture where the whole club, from the front desk staff in the ticket office, through the players, up to the owners, and extended to the supporters, has been brought together with the sole focus of bringing success to the club.
The environment is one where everyone feels they have an important role to play in helping bring that longed for success to the club and are consequently motivated to ensure that happens.
As a boyhood supporter of the club, then a ballboy, then a player, and now its manager, Wilder has a deep understanding of what is at the very heart of the club and epitomises all it stands for. And he plays to these strengths to galvanise everyone involved in the pursuit of the success that has eluded them for so long.
The foundations of the club lie in its working class roots in the late 19th century when Sheffield was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, with the vast majority of folk who supported the team through the next hundred years spending most of their working week in the harsh, grimy conditions of Sheffield’s ubiquitous steel mills and ancillary businesses (including coal mines), looking forward to a much needed break at the weekend when they could watch their local football team in the open air.
The manager has taken the historical spirit of those tough, straightforward, plain talking, determined workers operating in the most challenging of conditions all those decades ago, and given it prominence within the present-day club. So successful has he been in having people buy into his crusade that whoever the press choose to interview associated with the club, regardless of what role they play or where they originate from, they speak with one voice, all well aware of their common aim/purpose and fully focused on achieving something significant, against the odds, through hard work and commitment.
Wilder has also extended this approach to his recruitment of players since assuming the manager’s role. Most of his recruits have been players who had achieved limited success at previous clubs (many having been released by their clubs) but who were assessed as having potential that needed to be coaxed out of the player. But equally importantly they were required to have the determination to prove their earlier clubs wrong in choosing to let them go; most felt they had a point to prove, consistent with the ethic of succeeding against all odds!
He has also applied across the club a refined style of man management, setting aside the common approach of ‘one size fits all, take it or leave it!’, acknowledging that everyone responds differently to praise/criticism and taking the time to identify the differing personalities under his care.
This has been demonstrated in his dealings with players when, on two recent occasions two different players were personally responsible for goals being conceded by the team. On one occasion the player (a confident young individual) was rebuked and publicly told “He has to do better and cut out these mistakes …”, while the other player (a more reserved, but determined character) was told to “keep at it and things will improve”. Importantly, the two differing approaches both resulted in no loss of motivation by the players and were followed by improved performances.
What has strengthened the culture even more is that the players who have responded to the manager’s faith in them and ‘upped their game’ in response to the new challenges thrown at them have been rewarded by being retained in the team even as they have risen to the dizzying heights of the Premier League and new, more expensive players have been brought into the club.
None of these new players are ‘big time Charlies’, they do not have the red carpet rolled out for them and they have to work hard and prove themselves before they can secure a place in the team based purely on merit and performance as opposed to reputation, regardless of how much they cost the club.
When the club experiences success Wilder takes it upon himself to negotiate with the CEO for improved financial packages for the players and staff, without them having to initiate the process. As the manager reaffirms his faith in his players his players are repaying that faith by choosing to stay with the club when other clubs are showing interest and no doubt offering more attractive financial packages to tempt them away.
Notably on the sole occasion when one of the players (who played a major role in the club securing promotion to the Premier League) felt he could insist on an improved contract, Wilder gave him short shrift; he believed the demands made by the player (or probably his agent) were too great for a club of Sheffield United’s limited means and it was apparently made very clear to the player that he was not in a position to make such demands. After some probably ‘frank’ discussions that player has since not played for the club and has spent the season out on loan to other clubs, currently playing in the Dutch leagues.
As a consequence, the player’s long-term dream of playing football in the Premier League has not materialised despite him being only a matter of weeks away from achieving it, and any notion of giving preferential treatment to anyone at the expense of others who are ‘committed to the cause’ has been dispelled before they were even considered.
In his handling of this matter Wilder has made it perfectly clear for all concerned that sustainable success for the club is the prime goal and anyone who acts in a way that jeopardises that will have no place there.
Conversely, when people do demonstrate their total commitment to the common cause Wilder is fiercely protective of them (whether players or staff) and is at pains to direct praise to where it is due, always referring to ‘we’ as opposed to ‘I’ when accolades are called for.
Finally, throughout the success of the past few years Wilder has remained authentic and sometimes frighteningly honest in his dealings. He remains eminently approachable to all and has adopted no airs and graces. He even, on occasions, still takes public transport to get to work. As a consequence he is truly seen as ‘a man of the people’, so much so that when the team play their home games the supporters sing the chant that Wilder is “one of our own”, bringing all ‘stakeholders’ (for want of a better word) of the club together.
Lessons to be Learned
So, what can we take from this story, of minnows overperforming in the company of giants, that would be useful in our own businesses? What might be some clear, concise, practical and powerful lessons to be learned?
It is evident that culture can be a powerful, positive force within any organisation; one that can play a major role in achieving success. However, in my experience it also has the capacity to be an equally destructive force if the development of the culture either is left unguided or is misguided.
So, given the two sides of that same coin, a clear framework is useful in informing how a culture should be developed in a way that produces a positive impact on the business. Let’s look at what Wilder has done, how the club has benefitted, and how this relates to business.
Wilder has: –
- Created a goal that everyone at the club (from owners to supporters) can relate to. Furthermore, he has added an emotional attachment (‘something the whole city can be proud of’, ‘in the face of adversity’ etc.) such that there is an even stronger connection and commitment to it. It tugs at the emotional heartstrings somewhat more than the “reduce costs by 10%” or similar, that many businesses adopt. Having set the goal, he has made everyone aware of their role in achieving it.
- Extolled the virtue of attitude at the club, making it the prime attribute for filling roles there. It has been made clear particularly in the recruitment of players and is reinforced by openly stating that maximum effort and commitment are prerequisites for being a part of the club. It is made equally clear that anyone who does not demonstrate the required effort and commitment has no role to play there. How many businesses carry deadwood because it’s deemed too much effort to do otherwise?
- Shown that he will, to the best of his ability, be very caring, supportive and protective of those who do commit to the club. This extends to those players who do not make the grade to be a first team regular, but who still show that commitment. Wherever credit is due it is given, and all successes are shared. The kind of loyalty and respect this engenders in the ‘team’, as a team, provides the backbone and stability that feeds success and sustainable growth in morale, matching positive results and outcomes. How many businesses are truly built and run on that kind of basis?
- Shown a rare level of man management through personally making the effort to understand the personalities of those under his care and using that to identify how best he can motivate them, thereby drawing the best performance out of them. It is this kind of individualised, personalised approach that business needs to learn from and apply. In business, it is also rarely a case of ‘one size fits all’.
- Made it perfectly clear that he manages in an impartial manner. All decisions are made against the backdrop of how they will impact securing the overall goal. This level of consistency allows everyone both to know exactly where they stand and to be able to predict how the manager will react to issues in the future. How often is the opposite the case in business where internal politics are often a significant part of decision-making?
- Been very open throughout his tenure and does not succumb to ‘spin’. He says it as it is, and his honesty is appreciated by all concerned. His word is valued, and his integrity is there for all to see, leading to an open, trusting environment.
- Retained the traits of a ‘man of the people’ who everyone can relate to, support and respect. He has done so while still being acknowledged as holding the final authority in decision-making (other than at owner level), but also openly taking responsibility for those decisions he makes when they have less successful outcomes. The resulting sense of camaraderie, loyalty and (literally) ‘team spirit’ are all too often lacking in businesses where the leader/manager is less attuned to the morale and spirit of their tribe and the organisation as a whole, and is more concerned with their own personal agenda, benefits and perhaps their own personal vision of what they may see as their rightful career trajectory.
- Ultimately, established himself as a true leader who people will willingly follow.
Leading on from this, and integrating aspects I have observed over many years, I suggest any attempt at developing a culture that plays a positive role in helping an organisation reach its goals should be built around the following key elements: –
Set a clear, aspirational goal that everyone can relate to, focus on, and rally around.
Spread the word
Make everyone aware of the goal, how it is to be achieved, and each person’s role in making it happen; emphasise the importance of everyone’s contribution if the goal is to be reached. (Employees generally want to feel they can contribute to the organisation and be valued beyond simply receiving a wage/salary).
When everyone is clear on their role give them the support they need to enable them to successfully play their part (and definitely don’t tie one hand behind their back!); heighten their sense of involvement and responsibility by actively encouraging their feedback.
Share the benefits
When goals are reached (or progress is made) everyone must benefit accordingly with credit and/or reward shared across all those who contributed throughout the operation.
Recruit with a focus on attitude and character that is consistent with the desired culture – skills can always be taught (“Hire for attitude – train for skill” Richard Branson has said, quoting Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines). Reinforcing the values (i.e. culture) of the organisation must be a key element of the induction process to ensure ongoing consistency.
Beware of tolerance
Actions that hinder the achievement of success must be addressed and rectified immediately; deliberate or persistent behaviour inconsistent with achieving the goals is not to be tolerated; clearly demonstrate what is unacceptable behaviour to avoid undermining the efforts of others.
Little is more divisive than an atmosphere of hidden agendas and secrecy. An open approach promotes trust, which is essential when asking the workforce to commit to the common good. It also goes hand in hand with the advice of W. Edwards Deming to ‘drive out fear’, which demands an environment that encourages the workforce to feel able to raise issues before they develop into major problems instead of trying to hide them.
Set the tone
Ensure that your actions, as leader, are absolutely and clearly in accordance with the goals and how they should be achieved day-in, day-out. Remember, as a leader your actions are interpreted as being what is both acceptable and desirable in the organisation, so be seen to be living by the rules you set.
However, it is important to remember that while we want the culture to become deeply embedded in the organisation to the degree that it will, in effect, be self-managing, it is the role of leadership to ensure that the culture does not lose direction while still retaining a capacity for managed change when called for, such as in adapting to a changing environment. Indeed, a willingness to be responsive to changes in environment and to constantly improve (with the workforce playing a key role here) should ideally be built into the culture as a means of achieving the established goals.
Finally (and this point is absolutely crucial), be acutely aware that simply paying lip service to this approach will have disastrous consequences … it is essential that there is total commitment by the leadership team to the cause and that this is seen to be the case through the actions of leaders. Once this ceases to be the case then credibility will be lost, the workforce will lose its trust in its leaders, and it will be perceived as just another project that was ‘flavour of the month’ for a short while, with the leaders’ lack of commitment being reciprocated by the workforce.
If you can take this framework and genuinely apply it to your organisation, you will be developing a motivated workforce committed to working together to produce the best possible outcome for everyone. In doing so you will be going a long way towards harnessing the power of a strong corporate culture that will bring you closer to realising your ambitions.
Not only that, the self-managing nature of a strong, positive culture (because everyone knows what everyone is aiming for, what they should be doing, how they should be doing it and is carrying it out) means the time often currently spent solving daily problems is now no longer needed or, at the very least, is needed to a lesser extent.
Surely these two issues alone justify making a conscious effort to ensure you nurture such a culture, don’t they?