Breaking a team down in order to build it back up


About 6 months after I was promoted to Director of Marketing at FarmLogs, my team was going through some serious growing pains. We were coming off the completion of two huge marketing efforts — the launch our new website and our second annual User Conference. And, I was spending every free moment available analyzing the previous year and working with our Sales Team to create our goals 2017. Everyone was burnt out and stressed out, and on top of that, we terminated a position on my team. This was the first real personnel shake-up for Marketing and the effect was palpable, bringing team morale to an all-time low. We needed a reset, and I knew that in order to be successful we needed to be a well-oiled machine. So, I cleared our plates and re-prioritized our workload so we could focus on one thing — team-building.

Role Clarity and Expectations

My team was craving transparency and clear expectations, so I wanted to start our team-building week with an all-day role clarity and expectations meeting. We needed to address individual tasks, establish a hierarchy, and define the rules of how we work together. It honestly would have been easier for me to write job expectations, create an organization chart, and outline expectations, but I wanted their buy-in.

I wanted each person on my team to feel fully invested in the type of team we were going to be. Since I knew this wouldn’t happen if I dictated the new structure, I had to figure out a way to take them along on the journey with me.

I spent a weekend coming up with a plan that was visual, interactive, and collaborative. I bought several stacks of sticky notes and grouped every task on our team by type: strategy, production, visual, technical, training/documentation, data, written, budget. On the day of the meeting I put the sticky notes up on a whiteboard, next to a grid with each team member’s name at the top of a column. I included columns for shared tasks, tasks without owners, and tasks that I had forgotten.

I stepped back and asked my team to put the sticky notes in the column of the person who was currently responsible for the task. As they worked through it, there were conversations about who was really doing what, and I heard the phrase “Well I should be doing this, but I don’t,” several times. Once they were through, we stepped back and mulled over the mess that was our team. We ended up with overloaded columns, too many shared tasks, and no hierarchy. The overworked feeling of our team was visualized in front us, and it was clear that the types of tasks being done did not align to the role of the person doing them. Now that everyone understood the problems, we needed to re-organize our team structure.

Next, I wrote all the current positions and potential future positions on our team in a grid and had my team move the tasks under the appropriate role. Removing the person from the position helped everyone think more objectively. Without ego and entitlement, we were forced to align the task to the positions, and by the end of the exercise the whiteboard looked very different. The strategy, budget, and reporting tasks fell under the Director, and the production tasks that we had all been sharing moved to the Coordinator and Designer roles. When we stepped back, I saw the future of our marketing team — and so did everyone else.

That exercise allowed my team to organically come to the conclusions I had already made: we lacked hierarchy, there were too many cooks in the kitchen, and we needed more resources.

The hard part

Role clarity gave everybody an understanding of what their day-to-day tasks should be and created a hierarchy of decision-making. It did nothing, however, to define our team culture. I am the type of person who doesn’t mind hearing the hard truth or speaking it, and I know that to make real progress, you have to uncover the buried roots of the big issues and confront them head-on.

To build a better team, I had to break down the current one.

We needed to get all our problems out in the open, so we could have an honest and hard conversation. To facilitate this, I had my team list out what we were good at and what we needed to improve on. To avoid the common pitfall of accusations and avoidance, I turned it into a discussion of “why”. Why were we not good at meeting deadlines? Why were we struggling to stay organized? Why was there a lack of trust, transparency, and clarity? I didn’t want to simply fix the symptoms, I wanted to fix the cause of the problem. I forced us to break down every item on those lists and talk about the things that were really causing us to succeed or fail. We discussed our challenges and discovered that many of the causes stemmed from similar issues around bandwidth, prioritization, and communication. As the leader of the team, this meant I was failing.

Admitting failure

It is hard to hear that you have led someone astray — especially when you intended to do the exact opposite. I wanted to be a good leader, to protect my team, to help them succeed, and to give them the skills to grow. Despite these intentions, I was obviously doing something wrong. The only way you can fix the problem is if you know what the problem is to begin with. So I asked my team the hard question, “What am I doing wrong?” We talked openly and they told me what I needed to hear. Most of their feedback centered around two main themes: I needed to let them help me get out of the weeds and my protection, while appreciated, was doing more harm than good.

I never wanted to be the manager who passed all the work off to someone else. I wanted my team to know that I worked as hard as I expected them to work,that I would never ask them to do something that I wasn’t willing to do myself. But in doing so, I had stretched myself too thin, and I was drowning in the small tasks that I took upon myself so as not to burden the rest of my team. They needed me to see beyond the day-to-day. They needed me to lead them, to focus on the strategy, and to trust them.

I have benefited from bosses who acted as offensive linesman — who were always willing and able to clear blockers for me so I could do my job. And while my team needed me to block for them, I had taken it too far. I created a shield that resulted in sheltering and inhibiting the development of my team. I wasn’t helping them learn how to fight their own battles, or how to pick and choose what things to fight for.

I had to let go in order to help us grow as a team and to help them to grow as individuals.

Ideas need action

It is a rule on my team that you can only share an idea if you have a plan to execute on it. I am a doer at my core, and once I have an idea, am eager to act on it. We walked away from that day with ideas, but they needed turn into something actionable. I had to create clear documentation of the expectations and responsibilities for each role, prioritize continued education, and outline how we should operate and interact with each other.

The simplest solution was to create job descriptions for each role that outlined day-to-day responsibilities, educational responsibilities and team expectations.To hold us all accountable, I translated those documents into a performance review format with a scale of 1–5 and implemented quarterly.

Results speak for themselves

We’ve now gone through two rounds of quarterly reviews. It has created a place where I can have a structured performance discussion with each team member and to have regular conversations about career growth. Clear job responsibilities have allowed me to coach and mentor within a structure that is actionable and specific. There are no surprises because the expectations are clear, leaving little room for excuses for under performance.

Rebuilding our team’s roles and expectations helped us turn educational desires into a weekly expectation, prioritizing continued learning for my team and for me. The behavioral expectations have given me a way to hold my team accountable for more than just a metric. Everyone on my team knows what their individual responsibilities are, which has allowed me to step out of the day-to-day tasks I used to do because nobody else was truly responsible for them. And, because we created the team expectations together, everyone wants to live up to them.

Now, everyone on my team is better at their job because they know what their role is and how it contributes to our bigger goals. I am a better leader because I know I can trust my team. As a team, we are better at communication and collaboration, and are more aligned to our team goals.

Startups are pretty notorious for flying loose with job descriptions and roles, encouraging and applauding employees who wear multiple hats and perform multiple functions. But, as you begin to scale-up, efficiency and productivity become increasingly difficult if no one knows exactly what they should be doing, how they should behave, and who is making what decisions.

We learned this the hard way. I’ve now facilitated similar exercises for three other teams at FarmLogs, and each team has reported improved communication, efficiency, and productivity. The system is specific and personal to each team, but follows the same structure — clear expectations, well-defined responsibilities, and team expectations that are built by the team itself.

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