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Growing Beyond the Paycheck: Creating Teamwork on the Job

Lance Armstrong is Superman. After a breathtaking seven Tour de France victories, we now know this for certain. But this extraordinary athlete doesn’t cross the finish line on his own; what gets him there is the team behind him. This includes not just the other cyclists on his team, but also the innovative bicycle engineers and clothing, shoe and helmet designers who are collectively known as “Team Armstrong.” All of their efforts are focused on one single goal: speed. The team is devoted to creating all the elements that allow this one human being to achieve a feat of unparalleled strength and endurance for seven straight years. This is devotion.

In their book Virtuoso Teams, Andy Boynton and Bill Fischer look at a wide variety of great teams—the writing team of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, the team that worked on the Manhattan Project, the people at Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park and even the team behind Miles Davis’s greatest jazz recordings. You may have noticed that conspicuously missing from this list are any stellar teams from the world of business. As one Financial Times reviewer put it, “The reason the authors do not offer equivalent virtuoso examples from the corporate world is this book’s dirty little secret: they just do not exist.”

This situation disturbs me. Why can’t leaders, besides the usual superstars like Welch, Bossidy, Gates, Kelleher, etc., build phenomenal teams who are willing to work as hard to achieve a common mission as the team behind Lance Armstrong’s seven victories? For the answer, we have to look to the leaders of our organizations, since culture is spread by example and that example almost always begins at the top.

The thing about Armstrong’s team is that they didn’t do it for money. They gave their all for the sake of accomplishing something great—something bigger than any one of them could do on his or her own. And that’s true for all of the examples in Boynton and Fischer’s book. In business, too many managers suffer from the “what’s-in-it -for-me syndrome.” They create a culture of individual takers rather than one built on a shared spirit of teamwork.

It’s the old case of the “golden parachute” and unfortunately, it shows no sign of abating. After resigning under pressure from Morgan Stanley because of poor performance, chief executive Philip Purcell walked off with $44 million and an annual pension package that guarantees him $1.2 million a year for the rest of his life. His successor, John Mack, initially said that he wanted $25 million a year in guaranteed salary to take over the job. He came up with the figure based on an average of the salaries of the CEOs at four other top investment banks. The absurdity would be laughable if it didn’t cost shareholders and employees so much value. After some pushback given the Purcell deal and additional payouts to a failing CFO and co-president, Mack came back in early July and agreed to tie his compensation to his performance—hallelujah!

How do leaders reverse the tendency of business folk to think that their work is basically a means to more money? They have to find a great unifying purpose that is not about money and will allow people to unleash their talents in a heartfelt way.

When I ran EURO RSCG Becker I tried to do this on a regular basis so that the “business goals” became more than financial benchmarks and were instead opportunities to participate on a team that wanted to do something extraordinary.

One of the groups under the charge of one of my top people, Terry Gallo, was the consumer pharmaceutical product group. They had to jump through hoops on a pitch to get an assignment, and once they got a product they worked 24/7 to make it perform beyond expectation. It was often grueling work and people burned out easily.

I offered Terry and her group a new challenge. They would not have to pitch the account–it was given to them. There would be no financial performance concerns because the work was pro bono and the outcome the client wanted wasn’t financial. Our new client was the New York City Police Department. In the 1990’s the NYPD experienced a couple of unfortunate events which brought them some terrible press coverage. The NYPD was losing the public trust and, as a result, recruitment of new officers was way down.

Because of my commitment to the NYPD and to then Commissioner Howard Safir, I wanted to help them turn the recruitment numbers around through a new integrated marketing and public relations campaign. Once my team met Safir and several representatives from the NYPD they were won over by the group’s integrity and commitment. Our group went to work on one of the most creative campaigns I ever witnessed. It was an award-winning effort that brought about an immediate 18% spike in NYPD recruitment. My team gained something as well—the experience gave them new vigor for the power of their effort and showed them the value of working for something other than a financial outcome. We were able to transfer the energy generated from this pro bono assignment right back into our commercial work.

The experience taught me a great lesson: it is essential to feed your team’s hearts as well as well as their bellies. There comes a point when people have enough “stuff “in their lives, but they can never have enough meaning. If we want “virtuoso teams” in business, then leaders have to come up with opportunities for their people to be more than cogs in the great profit-creating machine. They have to find projects worthy of the great hearts and minds they hope to hire and keep motivated on the job.