Five Good Ideas for building strong teams
Individuals may generate ideas but teams bring them to life. In some cases we are working with teams of people who report to us in a workplace setting, in other instances our teams may be composed of volunteers. We may have a team of 2 people or a team of 200. But in all cases, the strongest teams are made up of people who believe that their efforts will have positive impact and also (less widely discussed) offer them personal benefit. In this Five Good Ideas session, Naki Osutei talks about her ideas for building teams that deliver projects and uplift people.
Five Good Ideas
- Make your team’s existence mission-worthy
- Choose knowledge over likeability
- Create a psychologically safe environment – every day
- Set the bar very high
- Build your team’s origin story AND your future success story
- The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle
- Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman
- We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Podcast: Work Life with Adam Grant
- TED Talks: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain: and Color Blind or Color Brave by Mellody Hobson
Full session transcript
[Osutei]: I’m here to talk about building strong teams, and just as a way of level setting, when I describe strong teams, I’m talking about a team that’s really capable and equipped to deliver on a particular task, but also capable of fighting through the things that may come in their path, and remaining resilient in spite of the challenges. They’re equipped to do the task, but they’re also resilient in the face of challenges.
There’s so many things we could talk about, I don’t think there’s one formula for building a strong team, and certainly based on my experiences, there are so many things that I tried to put into this five good ideas. We won’t be able to cover them all, but what I thought I would do was really distill the talk to things that I thought would apply irrespective of the kind of team you’re leading, as Elizabeth said, whether that team is a team of two, whether it’s a team of volunteers, whether it’s a team of people that don’t report to you but maybe you collect them throughout the organization. I wanted to give you things that could be applicable in every one of those instances.
It’s been said that everything we needed to know about building teams or about teamwork, we learned in kindergarten. Anyone agree with that? I want you to think about your earliest memory of being on a team. It might’ve been junior high, you’re maybe on a sports team or you had a group project, or maybe it was playing games at a summer camp or in a local park, or maybe it was playing hopscotch in front of your apartment building.
One of my earliest memories is not quite kindergarten, but it’s grade four, and I’m going to warn you, this story contains a confession. It’s something that I’ve never shared in public, but because I know this is a safe and warm audience, I’m going to share it with you. And I see some familiar faces, those who know me know that I’m not a bad person, but this story does contain a confession.
Picture it, it’s 1986, it’s lunch hour, it’s time for our weekly intramural beach ball volleyball game. We’re not on the beach, we’re in a gymnasium at a public school in North York. It’s a bunch of nine-year-olds playing volleyball with a beach ball.
I had spent a lot of time watching volleyball in the Olympics, and at that time I believed that I was going to have at least one career as an Olympic volleyball player. This game that we’re playing at lunch hour was my training ground. But not everyone on the team felt that way. In particular, there was a team member named Samantha, who I watched, just sort of watched the ball go by. She might walk towards the ball, she might extend a hand as though she was going to hit the ball, but she didn’t really play.
The score was 10 to 14 for the other team. It was game point, so if the other team got this point, they won the whole thing. Jennifer, on the other side, was leaning into target the ball to Samantha, and me having seen Samantha’s past performance, I knew that she wasn’t going to get the ball. My own coordination wasn’t that great as much as I thought I was an Olympian, I struggled to run and try to dive and get the ball before Samantha, but Samantha moved out of the way to let the ball drop in front of her.
Once it dropped, she picked it up, carried it over to the referee, and the referee crowned the other team the victors. I was fuming. Have you ever seen a little kid who’s really upset and you go to them and you say, “How was your day?” and you’re like, “I’m stressed!” That was the nine-year-old Naki. The thing that was the antidote to de-stress was me going to the library, and sitting on the rocking chair.
But when I got to the rocking chair in the library, who was sitting there? Samantha. I was not impressed, said, “Samantha, can you get up?” She said, “No.” I said, “Samantha, get up, you didn’t do anything for this game, get up.” She refused. I shook the chair to try to urge her out, and she fell backwards, and she left the library in pain. That’s the confession.
I’m going to come back to that story in a little bit. But now I’m going to ask you to fast forward from 1986 to 2006. I joined the two-person team at an organization called the Toronto City Summit Alliance, which you now know as CivicAction. The founding chair of the organization was a man named David Pecaut, and David was not just the volunteer chair of the organization, he was also founding partner of the Toronto office of the Boston Consulting Group. And we had our offices for the Toronto City Summit Alliance inside of the Boston Consulting Group’s offices.
For several years I worked with David and the ED at the time, Julia Deans, to build this organization. And for the three years that I got to work with David before he passed away, I learned from him in literally every interaction. He had a way of bringing people together to work on projects that seemed impossible. They might be people from different political parties, competitor institutions, various walks of life. In my observations, he had two requisites that he would try to address when bringing these people together. I would later call these step one and step two of the David Pecaut Problem Solving Tool Kit that I kept above my desk in the years after he passed away.
Step one was to ensure that we were all agreed on the problem we’re trying to solve, or the opportunity we were trying to seize, and that we were using a common fact base to understand that problem. Step two was to create enlightened self interest. David’s hypothesis was that people would be more likely to invest in addressing a problem if they saw benefit for themselves personally in the solving of that problem.
Those two elements together, the common problem and the enlightened self interest, provide the ingredients for my first idea, which is make your team’s existence mission worthy. I find this approach about mission worthy teams quite useful for all kinds of teams, but in particular with volunteer teams. Volunteers are teams that I’ve worked a lot with, as part of a team where I was leading one.
Today, I volunteer on the team that does the curation and coaching for TEDxToronto. As part of that team, I know that it’s critical to the success of our group’s work, both to create a great experience for us speakers as well as for our delegates. For those of us who are building that experience to be on the same page as far as the experience we’re trying to create.
When we come together as a team, the first thing we do before we talk about the theme for this year’s TEDx conference, we first start with asking everybody around the table, “What professional goals do you want to achieve through this experience?” We actually share them with each other around the table. In the sharing, we actually benefit from hearing, what is it that you want to get out of this? Yes of course, we all want to execute a great event, but what are you going to get out of this? What is that enlightened self-interest?
We leave that first meeting, agreed on the experience that we want to achieve, about what we want to create for our delegates, but also on the things that each one of us around the table wants to get out of the experience. In the past, I would’ve thought that might be a bit selfish, but in fact, what it does, is it A, helps one another, helps each other better understand what we’re trying to achieve so we can support each other in our goals. It actually makes the experience much more enriching.
Idea number one: make your team’s existence mission-worthy.
Idea number two. Choose knowledge over likeability. In her book, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie essentially writes a letter to her friend with suggestions on how to raise a feminist daughter.
I think that some of the lessons in this book are really applicable to building strong teams. In the book, Chimamanda writes: “Her job is not to make herself likeable. Her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people.”
I would argue in the same vein that let’s not choose who we want to be on our teams, on the basis of how much we like them. After working in the not for profit, broader public and private sectors, my observation is that to choose knowledge over likeability is a good one. Likeability, especially in the beginning of a relationship is usually drawn on common interests, background, common background or common experiences. When we choose teams based on those factors, the result is that we will get teams that very much resemble one another. The people on the team very much resemble one another.
I suggest seeking knowledge, and by knowledge, I’m not talking about the knowledge that each person brings, so I’m not saying look for the smartest person. But what I’m saying is, seek out to understand who you’re working with. Seek the knowledge of the individuals on your team, and I do this by asking questions.
In the teams that I’ve worked with, the common, some of the best feedback I’ve ever received is that I’ve always asked my team members to share with me a skill that they have, and are not using in this job, but should be using. So a skill they have, that they’re not currently using in this job, but they should be using. That’s what I mean by seeking that knowledge. Seek to understand the motivations, the genius, the skills, the tools that each member of your team brings to the table.
A related tactic to this that I’ve used especially with teams that I’ve inherited, so if I go into a new organization, I don’t know members of the team that well. I sit down and asked them about their dreams. I ask them, “Tell me a bit about what dreams you have in relation to this mission that we haven’t been able to achieve yet.” Typically, they’ll say things like, I have one person on my team today who is our corporate archivist. One of her dreams is to expand the archivist role to the US.
Another team member has an aspiration to really build an employee engagement program at TD that begins with a champion in every business lineup across the bank. Once we’ve understood what those dreams are, I then say, “Okay, what’s in your sphere of control?” “What is it that you can control?” Then we talk about what’s in your sphere of influence. Once we’ve determined what comes into both of those spheres, I then ask them, “What skill or experience or development do you need to be able to achieve that goal or that dream?” Then together, we work on achieving the development goal that will then lead to the achievement of the dream. Seeking that knowledge.
Idea number three, before I get into it, I want to ask, have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t feel safe with someone? You were in a conversation, you didn’t feel that they had your best interest in mind? Show of hands? Looks like every single one of us has at some point. In the book The Culture Code, the author Daniel Coyle described something he calls psychological safety. My idea number three is create a psychologically safe environment everyday.
He talks about psychological safety as a result of cues that human beings have been using for thousands of years, cues that signal belonging. These cues are defined in three categories. One, energy, there’s an energy exchange, there’s an investment in the exchange between the two people. The second is individualization. In that exchange, you feel that the person you’re speaking to, treats you as an individual, and that treats you as unique and valued. The third is future orientation, in the exchange, there are signals that this relationship is going to continue beyond the moment that you’re in. Those three cues signal in totality, a sense of belonging.
When I was working for Toronto 2015, the Pan and Parapan Am Games, I had many roles. I was initially hired to lead the diversity inclusion and accessibility strategies, but within five months, I was also asked to take on the role of HR director. I was responsible as well for hiring half the organization, and performing a series of HR generalist functions. I spent a lot of my time working with teams, teams that were struggling, teams that were in crisis, managers who were struggling with people on their teams, and in one particular instance, I came across a team where in succession, more than five people had left the organization.
They had left this team to go and work on other games, Rio Games, Asian Games in Azerbaijan. As I looked deeper into the situation, these people weren’t leaving to go to games that had higher salaries, they weren’t leaving for more senior roles. I sought to really understand, what was at play here? In conversing with members of the team, one person said to me, the team leader had not spoken more than 10 words to him in 10 months.
There wasn’t a sense of belonging amongst the team members, and it came down to as simple as conversation. The members of the team felt that the team leader was not investing in them, and so when new opportunities presented themselves, they took them. I sat down with this team leader, and you have to imagine this is someone who is top of their game, they’re expert in their field, every time they walk into a room, people basically bow down. But this type of individual had never had to actually work with team members, who would actually challenge that individual to give them space to lead.
The team members that he had worked with in the past had essentially been extensions of himself. His job was to get stuff done through these individuals, as opposed to getting things done with these individuals. As a result, the team members didn’t feel like they belonged to anything, they didn’t feel like they had a future, and they began leaving one after the next.
The one great thing about this team leader was that he had one of the most important qualities I think any leader needs to have. He had humility. When I raised this with him, he was stunned. He said, “They want me to say hi?” “What’s the big deal?” “We’re here to work.” I said, “Yes, they want to feel acknowledged, they want to feel like they’re unique and valued and that they belonged to something bigger than just this spreadsheet that you have in front of them.”
He took it upon himself, and I would say he was an introvert leaning individual, a little bit like I am, so it wasn’t easy for him. He started with saying hello, and eventually evolved to having conversations with his team members about their own development, what goals they had for the next games that they would be working on. Several months later, I checked in with the team, and not only had they started going out together as a team, they were having little drinks nights, the team leader actually invited people over to his house, this was huge, but the greatest evidence of the progress was that team members in discussions felt safe enough to disagree with the leader. I think that’s one of the greatest signs of a psychologically safe environment, where your team feels like they can disagree with you and you can have that kind of debate. Idea number three: create a psychologically safe environment every day.
Idea number four: set the bar very high. I watch a lot of TedTalks. I came across one from the United Arab Emirates by a man named Vishen Lakhiani. Vishen built a company called Mindvalley, and Mindvalley is a major publishing firm that uses software, mixed media, video, mobile apps, etc., to put authors in the hands of the internet generation by bypassing printed books. The kicker was, his company was based in Malaysia. If you’re familiar with the labour market in Malaysia, you’ll know that they’re experiencing major brain drain.
For example, in 2009, more than 300,000 people left Malaysia, seeking opportunities elsewhere. This was a problem for somebody who’s trying to start a company. But what Vishen did that was very interesting was that he took a different approach. He decided that he wasn’t going to try to address the brain drain issue. He was going to try and create a whole new model that would render the brain drain challenge obsolete, really. His aspiration was to create the world’s greatest workplace.
You can imagine, what kinds of things conjure up for you when you think about the world’s greatest workplace? Yes, Google, foosball, keep going. Parties, lots of socializing, yes. All of those things were things that he included in his workplace, but most important for him was to create a workplace that gave his employees space to be intrepreneurs in their environment. He really created a space where people could build on their own ideas.
Now, I’m not saying that’s what all of us need to do, but what I think the important thing in his example was that he created an audacious goal, and people around him bought into it. I have my own experience with audacious goals, and I’m going to take you back to my time at the Toronto 2015 Games.
When I was hired into the first role, to lead the diversity and inclusion strategies, somewhat unsurprisingly, I didn’t have a budget, and I did not have a team. My first thing was to set out to get to know members of other teams around the organization, and seek out where I can find that enlightened self-interest. I had conversations with people, some folks were on board, they thought, “This is exactly what the organization needed,” other folks said, “This is a sports organization, don’t bring all this political stuff to me.” I took all that in and continued to seek out what problem could we all agree that we had, whether you were on the side of supporting the initiative, the diversity inclusion initiatives, or if you weren’t. What problem could we agree that we had?
The problem that, irrespective of who I spoke to, the problem that people agreed on was the fact that we did not have enough staff to execute the games. The provincial government was not going to give us anymore money or people. Okay, great. Clear problem, we all agree on it. I put forward what I would have considered at the time a high-bar idea. I said, “We’re trying to execute these games, we do not have enough staff, we also know that there are unemployed young people across the city who are facing multiple barriers to employment.” “Is there something here?” “Can we establish a goal that we’re going to hire a hundred young people into jobs at the games and create for them a pathway to careers, whether they be games or elsewhere?”
I tested this idea out with a number of people, remember I don’t have a team, I’m sort of trying to create this multi crew of a team across the organization, and slowly but surely, people started to glob onto this idea. They thought, “Yeah, if we can make this happen, this could be pretty good.” I started to collect allies in the organization, then I went out to our sponsors, and I said to the folks at Coca Cola, to the folks at Loblaw, “If we created a program where we hired a hundred young people, could we get some of your employees to be mentors?” “Because we know that one of the challenges is not having industry networks.”
The folks at the sponsor organizations said, “Yeah, you know what? We could probably find a hundred employees to be mentors.” Now equipped with allies inside the organization, allies outside of the organization, I then went to my boss and said, “I need a team.” His response was the same, “There’s no budget.” I said, “Okay, what about a secondment?” “Could we talk to the provincial government about lending us a person, to help us achieve this audacious goal that we have, that then also achieves goals that the province has, achieves goals that we have internally as an organization?” Fortunately, the province agreed. I got one person. Her name was Jackie.
What I loved about Jackie is that when I shared with her this goal, that we want to hire a hundred young people into jobs, match them with mentors, in six months, we have no money, we’re not getting anymore money, are you in? She said yes. We embarked on this experience of trying to get the budget and really building the team of people who would become what we call the SEEDS initiative.
I won’t go into all the details of how we got the money, but let me just tell you that we worked with 60 employment agencies across the province, to find various sources of funding to hire these young people, and one of the greatest legacies of the games for me is in the experiences that these young people had. Some of them have gone on to work on other games, we’ve got one member on the program who’s gone on to work with a major sports franchise in Florida, it’s absolutely incredible, but it all started with that big audacious goal. When you set the bar high, you give people something to get excited about, a vision to buy into, and a mission to join. That is my fourth idea.
For my last idea, I’m going to take you to my Ghanaian roots. Growing up in a Ghanaian household, stories were a really important part of our socialization. People would come over to visit and as soon as they sat down, they’d be given a glass of water because traditionally you get a glass of water. Speaking of, do that. You get a glass of water to refresh you from your long journey, and that long journey might be a 50 kilometre drive, or it might just be taking the elevator from floor seven to floor eight. Irrespective of the journey length, you’d be given a glass of water, and then the stories would begin.
For example, one uncle would say, “Naki you know your father and I, we went to school together. When it came time to travel, your daddy, he went to Canada, me, I went to Australia. But we wrote to each other all this time, we’ve been writing to each other, so I know all about your volleyball adventures.” These stories became connected to the individual telling them, and as the author Annette Simmons says, “These stories became a mental imprint.”
Stories can mold the perceptions and touch the unconscious mind. As we think about building teams, consider how important stories are. My fifth and final idea is: build your team’s origin story, but also build the future success story. Can you think of a story that you heard when you were much younger, story that you still hold onto? Maybe it contains a lesson or a funny joke that has an imprint on your mind? Can anyone think of one? We all have them.
When I talk about building teams and using stories, I think about my own experiences. Elizabeth talked a little bit about some of the work I’ve done in the city, whether it be co-founding the diversity fellows program, which is all about building a more inclusive leadership. I mentioned the SEEDS initiative at the Toronto 2015 PanAm Games, in my role at TD today, I’m working to re-imagine the way that employees feel about coming to work.
But in each one of those instances, I would always create a story of how the team came together, and it would be our origin story. It would be the story that we would tell when we would come to meetings, it would be the story that they would then begin telling each other, it would be the story that they would share when they were introducing a member of the team to someone else at a networking event like this one. The origin story is critical.
But equally critical is the future success story, this is a story of success that you haven’t had yet. I’m going to go back to my experience with CivicAction and two leadership programs that I was involved in, the Emerging Leaders Network and the Diversity Fellows Program.
We were in the midst of creating something very special in response to the need for more diversity in leadership. We were about to launch the Diversity Fellows Program, and I had been sifting through a newspaper and saw the board appointments. You see these board appointments, they say who’s joining the recent board, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if that’s part of our Diversity Fellows Program, that each year, we would have in the newspaper, those who had been appointed to the Diversity Fellows Program for a given year?”
We kept that board appointments page on the wall, and we used it as a North Star. When we launched our first cohort, we were able to get all of our fellows in the appointment sec, presented as a series of appointments, and that’s been a tradition that we continued every year.
Couple years later, as I was rifling through papers again, and saw that the Chartered Professional Accountants had put out a one page ad of all accountants across the province. It was probably a list of four or five hundred people. I saw that list, and I thought, “I want for us to have one day, so many leaders that have gone through our program that we could take out a page ad like this.” I took that page and put that on the board, and everyday that people came into the office, they saw that, it became a reminder of our mission. It became a part of our future success story. After 10 years of delivering these programs, the CivicAction has far surpassed the goal that we established by putting that paper on the wall.
Similarly with my team at TD, I’ve created another vision for them, which is we’re going to create this incredible employee engagement program that there’s going to be a magazine article that comes out, that we’re in, that talks about all of the best practices that we put forward through our strategy. Now, when they’re conversing, they actually talk about things that are going to go in the articles. We’ll be meeting and talking about a program that we’re launching and someone will say, “Oh yeah, that’s going to be in the article.” Again, we’re just creating this vision of future success that people can really be guided by.
Now you’ve heard my five ideas. I’m going to take you back to grade four for a second, do you remember? My nemesis? What was her name?
– [Audience] Samantha.
– Oh, you guys are good. I graduated from that school and my family moved across town to another school where I did junior high. Within a few weeks of being at this new school, guess who I ran into?
– [Audience] Samantha.
– Yeah. She and I found ourselves sitting next to each other on the bleachers, and I worked up the courage, because I knew I owed her an apology, I shook her off that rocking chair. I went to her and I said, “Samantha you know, I want to apologize for shaking you off the rocking chair when we were nine.” She shrugged, she said, “I just never knew why you wanted to win so badly. I mean, I was playing because I didn’t want to go outside, it was cold.” Back to idea one; we had very different ideas of the mission that we were on. I guess we answered the question that I asked at the beginning. We didn’t, in fact, learn everything we needed to learn in kindergarten.
Thank you so much everyone.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.