I was just a few months into my new position as Director of eCommerce and, although the team was delivering lots of work, the work itself was underwhelming: shortcuts were being taken, errors were being made, and deadlines were being missed. And while members of the team told me they were overworked, I was pretty sure none of them was working more than a 40-hour week, and a few were working less.
My first thought was that my team was lazy, that they’d gotten away with putting in less than a full effort in the past and needed to recommit to their jobs. Wasn’t it obvious that if they put in more hours they’d get more work done? In an attempt to get more hours out of the team, I put a few carrots in place (a free meal, a small bonus) and a few sticks (unpleasant meetings, the threat of disciplinary action). Neither worked. At the end of my rope, I called a team meeting.
The meeting started with lots of venting, as you’d expect: the job was hard, there was too much work and not enough people, the team was under-appreciated. I wondered if pulling everyone together was a bad idea. And then, suddenly, one of my employees said something so simple – and so perfect – that I’ve literally thought about it every day since:
“We come to work each day to win,” he said, “but we always lose.”
The rest of the team nodded their heads in agreement, and I dug in. When I pressed them to describe what it meant to win, they said they felt like they were on a treadmill – no matter how many hours they worked, they could never keep up. And if, miraculously, they could keep up with their workload, their only reward was to do it all over again the next week. What’s more, “keeping up” wasn’t something the team could rally around. They wanted to do great work, improve the process, and add value to our company and our customers. They wanted to be proud of not just the quantity of their work, but the quality as well.
The team wasn’t working longer hours because couldn’t see the point – no matter how many hours they worked, they couldn’t win.
Remember the movie “Groundhog Day”? In it, Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day over and over again until he gets it right. The movie works because every time Murray’s character wakes up in the morning we see small improvements in his behavior – we can see that he’s learning – so we know he’ll eventually be waking up next to Andie MacDowell. For too many of our teams, there’s no difference between one day and the next. They can’t see forward progress, and a happy ending seems like an impossibility. They want their chance to wake up next to Andie MacDowell, but their experience tells them they never will.
As I mentioned, the eCommerce team above defined winning as doing high quality work, improving the process, and adding value to our company and our customers. But leadership at the company we worked for defined winning for the team as simply keeping up with their aggressive workload. Who was right? The team was, of course.
When a company sets a low bar for its employees and teams, the best employees – the kind you want to keep – have just two choices: set the bar higher or move on. Too often a company takes the view that repetitive, operational roles are best staffed by people who just want to put in their time. Even these roles need a version of winning.
Winning means different things to different teams, but in my experience working with lots of them, forward progress is a must. If a team isn’t moving forward, it can’t possibly be winning.
Before you can set your team up to win, you need to know what winning means to them. If you don’t know, ask them.
The definition of insanity
For teams that feel like they’re living “Groundhog Day,” you need to find a way to show forward progress. That way, even if your team continues to experience the operational pain of a never-ending task, they can start to get a sense that tomorrow’s problems will be different from today’s. You know that line about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? That’s what we’re trying to avoid.
For the team above, that meant doing a deep dive into their process and tools, holding weekly meetings to discuss progress, creating a shared vision of success, and resetting expectations across the organization.
Work hard and show progress
The risk of gathering information and committing to helping your team win is that they’ll hold you accountable for making it happen. But you don’t really have a choice, do you? It’s your job. One of your most critical responsibilities is to make sure your employees can do their best work every day.
This is really hard to do! Articulating what it means to win is one thing, but setting your team up to win is something else. Often, the things that get in the way are expensive, enormous, complicated, and largely out of your control. Fortunately, your team doesn’t expect you to be a superhero. Your job isn’t to fix everything immediately, it’s to work hard and show progress.
No more clockwatching
At the start of this post, I mentioned that my team wasn’t putting in more hours even though they were falling behind in their work. This makes complete sense. Until a team buys into their goals and approach – until they think they can win – they’re unlikely to invest more than the absolute minimum amount of energy and time required.
Once your team believes there’s a connection between their effort and their success, their work will be better, they’ll be happier, and they’ll see the benefits of working harder. They’ll stop worrying about how many hours they’re putting in, and you will too.
A new hope
The conversation described above was more than five years and several jobs ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. The employee who made the comment about winning is still one of the most valuable employees I’ve ever had – he’s been on every one of my teams since.
I continued to work with that eCommerce team for another year or so, and although we never replaced their software or hired as many people as they wanted, we made a lot of progress. Within a few months, I’d replaced their manager, introduced new KPIs and reporting, gained organizational alignment, and scheduled regular meetings to help the team understand the context of their work and think more strategically. I didn’t fix everything, but I was able to show progress. The team started making fewer errors, taking pride in their work, and even working longer hours.
Finally, the team had hope. Winning wasn’t going to be easy, but maybe, if we all worked hard enough, it was possible.