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The Importance of Being Orange


Last updated 2/2/2011

What characteristics allow a team to “break through” to achieve stellar business results?  Is it a dynamic leader? The perfect business plan? Best-selling authors Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton explore the topic in their new book The Orange Revolution: How One Great Team Can Transform an Entire Organization (Free Press, 2010). The two are also coauthors of the well-known “Carrot” books.

AMA spoke to Adrian Gostick to discuss what he and Chester Elton discovered about the defining traits of superstar teams. The following is an edited version of that interview.

The Importance of Being Orange
Our previous book, The Carrot Principle taught us the role of that a manager could play in engaging employees—that a manager sets clear goals, communicates, builds trust, but accelerates all of that with recognition of the team. The point was that it’s better to lead with a carrot than it is to beat with a stick.

As we met with senior leadership teams, they would tell us, “Look, we have some real good pockets of excellence within our organization.  We have a great R&D department, a great marketing team, a great customer service support team here.  If only we could take that excellence and spread it throughout the organization. That became the charge: how do you create this engaging team, not just a manager here and there who are really good, but take those little pockets of brilliance and spread them corporate wide?

In our new book, The Orange Revolution, we used a 350,000 person research study to look at the characteristics of great teams. One of the things we found is that there was a much higher preponderance for rooting for each other—appreciation—patting each other on the back in those great teams. Those great teams didn’t only have, you know, carrots being used by managers. They were orange.

Now, what’s interesting, too, is “The Orange Revolution” has been used in the Ukraine, in The Netherlands, and in China.  Throughout history there have been orange revolutions, and it’s usually people wanting to make an uprising, wanting to change their lot in life. Well, that’s what’s happening now in business. You have these little teams, the little microcosms within an organization that are changing their lot, and they’re taking responsibility for the outcome of their little unit within a bigger organization.

What we have found is that a lot of companies have strategies. Indeed, when most customers choose between company A and company B, there’s not a lot of difference in strategy; it’s the execution that makes the difference—and execution comes through employees who are engaged. That’s what we looked at: what were those characteristics that made an engaged employee and an engaged team member? How do you create a team full of people who really care about the business? They’ll give that discretionary effort. They’ll take that strategy through to execution because they believe in the goals and visions of the organization, because they really care about owning issues and owning their role in the success of the organization.

So, how do you go about pulling together people who fit orange teams? Well, one of the big, big problems is that we have a tendency to look for competence, but as we’ve seen with athletic dream teams that go to the Olympics and fall on their faces, simply being good at what you do doesn’t drive great results. It’s also a harmony.  It’s working together; and so, the great organizations that we studied in the book also looked for things like their character, their empathy, their ability to work together. Were they able to tell stories of times where they were open about issues, where they made mistakes and were able to discuss that? Are they open and honest? Are they able to tell stories about how others on their team lifted them into the limelight, or do they just tell stories about themselves? You’re looking for those characteristics that point out this person has high integrity, high empathy, versus they just have a really great resume.

Cultivating a Common Cause
Great teams must also have a common cause. One of the great stories we tell in the book is about Medical City Dallas Hospital. They wanted to increase their patient satisfaction scores, but they realized if they went to employees with that idea, employees would go, “Yeah, yeah, that’s nice. Great, okay.”

However, what they said was, “Look, we want to create raving fans out of our patients and their families,” and that got people’s minds engaged. They came up with creative ways, down to the cafeteria renaming itself “City Gourmet” and offering steaks and gourmet chocolate thunder cake, and all these crazy things because they wanted to make raving fans out of people, so that if someone had to go to the hospital, he would choose Medical City Dallas Hospital.

Three Characteristics of Great Teams
When the following three commitments are achieved, team camaraderie and powerful results are created:

1. Great teams focus on bringing the “wow.”  In other words, they have a commitment to world class results. In every interaction with a customer or with each other they want to create really great outcomes.

2. Great teams have a commitment to no surprises. Surprises in business are never good. So, great teams have a commitment to being open and to having good debate. They aren’t necessarily always completely nice to each other. They argue things out but have a very strong commitment to being honest with each other.

3. Great teams cheer for each other. They are supportive of one another, recognize each other, have each other’s backs. 

The Role of the Leader
In the great teams that we studied we found that the leader was part of the team, and he saw himself in that way. The idea was: “I have a role on a team. It’s a really important role, but it’s a role. I am not the autocratic, dictator of this team who gives every instruction and manages everything.”

People want to be included; they don't want to be just managed. So, on these great teams, the managers played a vital role in encouraging and setting vision, bringing the right people, and removing obstacles, but what they did not do was micromanage.

In summary, I think the point is that we can all get better at this. We can all get better at working together, really providing clarity of our goals, and enhancing our communication. I think as businesspeople we can get better.

The principles outlined in The Orange Revolution are a good way to approach your personal relationships as well as your business ones. We should try to wow each other, have no surprises, and cheer for each other. These really are fundamental rules in life—not just for business.

Listen to a Webcast interview with Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton.