50 Years in the Trenches: Five Lessons on Teamwork

50 Years in the Trenches: Five Lessons on Teamwork

The author shares the views of CEOs and other experts on building teamwork and his own formula for success with teams.

Business executives and managers today receive more unsolicited advice on teamwork from newspaper columns, magazine articles, blogs, academic journals and professional meetings than they have the time to read or pay attention to. Many of the articles are of the self-help variety but often have just one point of view.

Having worked in four industries—agriculture, health care, the military and higher education—and having served on multiple boards of directors and trustees, I, too, have my own ideas about how to develop and sustain teamwork in multiple work settings (I’ll get to that soon).

I decided to ask several highly successful and experienced business leaders I know and respect greatly to share their views on the subject, as well as include comments from them published previously. Here is what they said:

Dave Brandon, chairman of the board, Domino’s Pizza, Inc., and chairman & CEO, Toys “R” Us: I have tools that I bring with me to measure the culture and find out exactly how the culture thinks about teamwork and about collaboration and about customer focus and about reacting to change. Once I know that, I know how I need to change the culture to get it to be exactly where I want it to be because I want nimble, I want team orientation, I want customer focus. And that’s what I’ve done in virtually every one of my jobs. I feel like if I get my team right, and I create a culture that is inherent or indicative of a high performance mentality within the company, I’ve done a big part of my job. (from “Here’s How You Impress the CEO of Toys ‘R’ Us” by Susie Gharib, Fortune, July 26, 16)

Harold Edwards, president & CEO of Limoneira, an agribusiness and real estate development company: On the Limoneira team there is no one person more important than another. On our team we are only as strong as the strength of our weakest team member and as a result we concentrate on the strength of each of the individuals on our team. That assures the strength of our collective TEAM.

Jeff Folks, vice president of Merrill Lynch, the wealth management division of Bank of America: Financial service companies have realized the power of creating a holistic, continuous approach to advising clients on a range of financial matters; not only investments, but sensible financing and leveraging techniques to maximize their personal wealth and minimize their borrowing. Teams are a natural fit for this approach, as clients have the benefit of multiple contacts for their accounts for round-the-clock coverage, and an ongoing succession of team members for continuity over the years.

Prof. Elizabeth F. R. Gingerich, J.D., Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Values-Based Leadership, The Louis S. and Mary L. Morgal Chair of Christian Business Ethics, Valparaiso University: For successful collaboration, team members must have, at a minimum, two fundamental identifiers: competency and passion. A participant may have impeccable credentials but lack enthusiasm as thus, the ability to motivate others. Passion, without contextual knowledge, might be effective in leading populist movements, but fruitful outcomes will most likely be lacking. The interplay of competency and passion not only makes great leaders, but cultivates great followers as well.

Howdy S. Holmes, former standout racecar driver, Indy 500 “Rookie of the Year” and president and CEO of Chelsea Milling (“JIFFY” Mix): There must be trust among the team; trust that is created from individual relationships. This happens rarely because it is hard for people to trust others. When it does happen, you will find that each member or most members of that team have a passion for results that is shared. When forming teams, the best chance for sustained performance is in the selection process of the actual members of the team. This requires a complete understanding of the personalities being considered. Extensive personality testing and character analysis from behavior testing is required. The more balanced the individuals, the better they can adjust to imperfections in others.

Kevin Sharer, former chairman & CEO of Amgen, Inc. and now professor at the Harvard Business School: The cultural environment, of course, is going to define every aspect of communication… Being the CEO, however, means that you can define the culture by whom you pick for positions under you and by the standards you enforce. I’ve always tried to emphasize an environment of partnership, teamwork, trust, and respect—and anyone with a bullying tendency, we fire. Of course, it’s not perfect; we’re human beings. But we try hard to have every aspect of our culture and of the way we operate encourage the sharing of information—to listen to the facts, listen to the logic, and draw well-formed conclusions. (from “Why I’m a Listener," McKinsey Quarterly, April 2012)

The Five W's

My formula for creating and sustaining a cohesive team is relatively straightforward, forged from my decades of experience in leadership positions. It consists of what I call “The Five W’s”:

  1. Winning Mentality - Each team member has been carefully selected and is passionate about results, is highly motivated, and subordinates him/herself to “The Team.” Each strives to succeed 100% of the time and goes “beyond the pale.” Winning teams must have players who will “kick the tires and light the fires.”
  2. “Wear-Well”- A term I learned from my father that refers to one who is congenial, cooperative and shares ideas naturally. You enjoy being in their presence for the long term.
  3. Weather Resistant - Team members who aren’t easily frustrated or don’t obsess when faced with obstacles in their path. These folks persevere, are determined, have gumption and staying power.
  4. Window of Opportunity – People who are highly alert, agile and flexible in being able to quickly analyze opportunities and aren’t afraid to take calculated risks.
  5. Worthiness – People of integrity, self-control, probity and high moral principles. They watch out for their colleagues. They are wholesome and will never lie, cheat or steal to achieve individual or team goals. 

Another person who exemplifies the ideals of teamwork is the University of Michigan’s innovative head football coach, Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh recently took the Michigan football team to Rome for a team-building trip that combined new cultural, educational and athletic experiences for the players, many of whom had never been outside the United States. After the players spent quality time getting to know and playing soccer with refugees from several countries, quarterback Wilton Speight summed up his coach’s “person-over-player” approach to teamwork by saying, “He cares about us. It’s real.”

Harbaugh observed that the value of this bonding trip for his team could not be underestimated. “They’ll see things they've never seen, taste things they're never tasted and hear words they've never heard,” Harbaugh told ESPN’s Marty Smith. “Tell me that's not educational.”

Ritch K. Eich, former chief of public affairs for Blue Shield of California, is the founder of Eich Associated, a management consulting firm, and is the author of three leadership books including his most recent TRUTH, TRUST + TENACITY. He is also the former board chair of Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center, Thousand Oaks, and is a captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve (ret). U.S. Senators Dan Coats and Richard Lugar cited him for exemplary leadership in the Congressional Record.

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