“Make yourself necessary to somebody”    -Ralph Waldo Emerson

How well you relate to teamwork and the people you have to cooperate with, has a grave impact on your ability to succeed. The role of the leader is to motivate and inspire every member to achieve the intended tasks in the best possible way. This includes innovation with its many ups and downs, learning and educating, as well as pushing through difficulties in order to work towards a common goal.
So, the question is; are you a team worker?

“We all want opportunities to learn, experiment and grow in our jobs. When our bosses work with us to help us leap into new challenges, the result is a team that knows how to thrive, no matter what the future holds”.

Whitney Johnson, a well known CEO advisor and author of the book ‘Build an A team’ is recognised as one of the most influential management thinkers in the world. In her previously mentioned book, she shows us how to identify what knowledge the employees already possess, and what more they need to learn in order to succeed. She points out the importance of creating interesting jobs that has room for engagement and learning. Throughout her book, Johnson shows us how to build the ultimate team for your organization using a seven-step process that optimizes everyones ‘S curve of learning’. This curve is originally used by investment companies to predict the unpredictable. Johnson and her team has taken it a step further and used it as an indicator of growth to individuals careers within a company (or possibly outside it). It can be used to predict when to encourage persistence and when to encourage new skill-developments.

Johnson, uses a great example from the tactics of W-40, a company, or more specifically, a team that only made success on their fortieth attempt to create the ideal product. It all started with Norm Larsen, a chief chemist with a great idea. He worked in a 3-man startup in San Diego in 1953. It was in the midst of the space age where missiles and rockets that were able to go farther than ever before. Whilst this was a positive stride for the aerospace industry, it also presented a problem; missiles and rockets were made of metal, and metal rusts. Larsen and his two cofounders wanted to solve this problem. To find a formula that would stop water from adhering to the metal surfaces, and just harmlessly roll off, like the water off a duck’s back. They tried many different formulas, and only on the fortieth attempt (hence the name WD-40) did they succeed. This lead to producing the product for Convair, a division of General Dynamics and creator of NASA’s atlas missile. However, this is not the end of the story. The workers at General Dynamics found that the product was so effective that they started sneaking it home to use around their houses as an all-purpose lubricant, protectant and solvent. This gave Larsen an idea, what if they could expand their product outside the aerospace industry? This meant going back to the lab, and testing formulas so that he could put it in an aerosol can. This is how the rest of the world met WD-40. The product ended up being so successful that it had over 80% market share in the multipurpose market, and is now found in 75% of American households. To this day, no other company has been able to outsmart WD-40 and their all-purpose formula.

This fascinating story is the perfect example of a great team, who’s will and passion to succeed, lead to fantastic innovation. With more than 60 years at the top of the market, and many employees with years within the company. WD-40 has managed their employees by promoting curiosity and learning, in order to excel.

Johnson; “At WD-40, this means that employees have an identifiable career path inside the company and that managers help their employees get from point A, to points B, C, and D. WD-40 wants to keep people in house, not chained to their roles. They encourage employees to learn, leap to new roles, and learn and leap again. Because management encourages leaps to new learning curves, many people have been there for ten to twenty-five years and longer. As CEO Garry Ridge told Johnson; “I get so much joy out of seeing people who are coming through the company and stepping into new roles. They’re standing at the edge and I say Jump! Don’t worry. There’s a net….”

As Johnson point out, change is the natural way of human life, stasis is not. Proactive managers and leaders will encourage and motivate it’s people where learning is a key part of succeeding. “Change promotes growth; stasis results in decline. Whether they are the manager of a small team or the head honcho overseeing thousands of people across several business units, proactive managers get this”.

When leading a team, the way CEO’s and managers prioritize their time and presence is very important, as this article from HBR (Harvard Business Review) brilliantly points out; “Where and how CEO’s are involved determines what gets done and signals priorities for others. It also affects their legitimacy. A CEO who doesn’t spend enough time with colleagues will seem insular and out of touch, whereas one who spends too much in direct decision making will risk being seen as a micro-manager and erode employees initiatives. A CEO’s schedule (indeed, any leader’s schedule), then, is a manifestation of how the leader leads and sends powerful messages to the rest of the organization”. (How CEO’s manage time by Michael E. Porter and Nitin Nohria, HBR)

Because teamwork is a staple in any organization, CEO’s need to know which key element to implant into any teamwork. Managers at any level should be aware of the CEO’s vision for working together, and how to show the teams the most important ways to lift each other up. “Face-to-face interaction is the best way for CEO’s to exercise influence, learn what’s really going on, and delegate to move forward the multiple agendas that must be advanced. It also allows CEO’s to best support and coach the people they work closely with. How a CEO spends face-to-face time is viewed as a signal of what or who is important; people watch this more carefully than most CEO’s recognize.”

Back to Johnson, and building an A-team, she describes seven accelerants to learning and growth:
1) The right risks; Become a talent developer.
2) Distinctive strengths; Pinpoint employees talents and utilize them.
3) Embrace constraints; Use time limits to motivate and hone focus.
4) Battle against entitlement; Celebrate success, and be generous in helping employees fulfil their potential.
5) Step back to grow; Sacrifice short-term productivity to encourage curve jumping.
6) Give failure it’s due; Let employees take on uncomfortable challenges, and support them through failures.
7) Be discovery-driven; Shift players on your team as their skills and talents emerge.

1) Identifying the right risks.
Johnson describes two different forms of risk; competitive and market risk. Competitive risk involves head-to-head competition. “How successfully can you compete against ten, twenty, even fifty applicants for a single opportunity? Or against six similarly qualified peers vying for a promotion?
Market risk is all about creating new areas of competition. Looking through an organization, you might find an area lacking expertise, which you know you can fill. By presenting it in the correct way, you can possibly create a new, tailor-made position for your skillset. ‘You may be told no thanks’, But if a manager says ‘yes please’ to your idea, there is no competition for the spot. There is a risk of being outmatched”.

2) Play to individual’s distinctive strengths.
It is important to look for people’s uniqueness and strength, if you want them to perform at the highest level within a team. “Im not talking about the strengths of the team in general but of each individual’s distinctive strengths. What does each person do well that other people on the team do not, and what sorts of problems do those strengths equip them to solve? As a manager, your job is to pinpoint what people do uniquely well and pit these abilities against assignments that make their strengths relevant”.

3) Impose thoughtful constraints.
Although it tends to provoke negative responses, constraint in this context is meant as a positive thing. They can make us think more creatively or outside the box, as well as give us the necessary framework that help us excel. “Consider gravity, a constant, unseen but potent constraint. If we want to manipulate the structures of gravity, it’s a given we’ll need to innovate. We invent parachutes, hang gliders, and hot air ballons. We master aerodynamics and the chemistry of jet fuel. Experiment with rocket propulsion and more”. Johnson gives us two examples of necessary constraints; time constraint and expertise constraint.
Time constraint 
is all about being able to manage your time with a project. If we did not have a deadline or an end-point, we would not be able to function efficiently. Time constraint creates a framework that induces productivity in the workplace.
Expertise constraint; When creating a team, it is important to pick people at all areas of the S learning curve; low, middle, and high-members. This also means that at any point, a certain amount of the team will be at the lower end due to inexperience. However, what these individuals lack in experience, they make up for in willingness to learn, new ways of thinking and upping performance in order to prove themselves. “Constraints can feel adverbial, a challenger to all the good things we might accomplish. But when properly embraced, they provide structure that liberates us from chaos, reducing the waste of time and money that results when resources are too liberal. When we welcome constraint as a friend, not a foe, we keep our energy in reserve for battle against entitlement, the true enemy of growth”.

4) Fight entitlement at every turn.
Getting attached to certain talents or ways of doing things often seem like a privilege we have earned as managers, however, it tends to lead us astray. Rather than challenging ourselves and our teams to become our own best version, we get stuck in a rut, and the innovative growth stops. “It comes in many guises. Like when things aren’t fair. And at some point, they aren’t. On the merits, we deserved a promotion, a raise, or credit for our good idea, and didn’t get it. So we decide the universe is our debt. Self-absorbed, we backslide”.

Further down the page, Johnson refers to Raj Narisetti, the CEO of Gizmodo Media, who points out that the best thing we can do is to harbour talent and growth, but also let people go to do ‘bigger and better’ things when they need to. “Aspire to be the boss who sees people not only for who they are, but who they can become. Become known as a talent developer, and when that talent moves on, there will be even more great talent around the corner”.

Therefore it is important to encourage each team member without entitling them; “Focus on praising what is within a team member’s control, such as effort expended and a willingness to play nicely with others. Be stingier in extolling the attributes that are not under the individual’s control; native talents, appearance, the various manifestations of good fortune”.

5) Stepping backward’s is a way to move forward.
In any organization, it is necessary to make a short-term backwards step in order to leap far ahead in the long run. An important example of this is furthering the education of your employees; although you might be losing a talented player on the team short-term, you will be gaining their collection of knowledge later on. Or letting employees move on to new opportunities shows that you are a talent-developer and an attractive place to learn new skills. “Supporting additional education or training is one way of stepping back to grow. In onboarding a new team member or encouraging a person to jump to a new curve, we sacrifice a little near-term productivity. Listening to a curious, clear-eyed, new team member is a step back from our ego”.

6) Give failure its due.
Every person, at some point has experienced failure; failure to meet a deadline; failure to succeed in a job position; failure to meet expectations. A deciding factor when moving forward is what you take from your mistakes and how your manager encourages you to continue learning. As a manager, this means having the patience for new employees to learn, fall and later grow in their S curve. “A manager is a bit like a parent. You push your charges into uncomfortable situations and are willing to see them fail to help them grow and to initiate disruption. At the low end of the curve, this tends to be easier, especially when you hire within the organization. You expect them to flounder. But they have a history of strong performance. So, you (and your boss) can be patient. This gives them the luxury of learning, rather than trying to be loved, allowing them to quickly engage in the actual work”.

7) Encourage discovery-driven growth.
Discovery-driven growth entails discovering the true skills and assets of your team members. These can be closely related or very distant to their current job title. A marketing specialist with great interpersonal skills might be better suited for the hiring process or direct client relations, than online marketing. That is why shifting the placements of team members can lead to both discovery of new, and better skills as well as more future innovation. As a discovery-driven manager, you are continually load-balancing, optimising for the different phases with and will as the found-action. Pit people against real challenges-and innovation will follow”.

To conclude this article, I would like to emphasise the importance of learning curves, both for each individual and the team as a whole. Sometimes this means being patient, and letting your employees figure it out themselves, sometimes it means giving them extra encouragement, and sometimes it means letting go or moving them to a better suited department. Therefore, CEO’s and managers have to be aware of how to best discover everyones true assets. They have to push their employees to grow into their roles in order to reach their full potential, both as an individual, and as a team member.

Johnson; “We are driven forward by our consciousness of limited time. It is a force more potent than the need to have a job or to earn a pay check. People want to dream, and they want to realize they’re dreams by learning new things, developing new competencies, and having an opportunity to make an imprint on the world. Managers can be makers, generating opportunities for their team members to create and recreate themselves through personal disruption. What a wonderful day’s work that would be”.

“The years teach much which the day never know”        Ralph Waldo Emerson

Inger Lise E. Greger, MSc. Change Management


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