Many years ago my creative team was at a crossroads. Our organization’s growth led to staff growth, which in turn led to a large workload increase. Our department manager had recently moved on, and our team was reorged – merged with another team under new leadership. I shifted into day to day management of the team. High expectations were ever present, but the team was confused and swimming in a plethora of requests under the mentality that we didn’t have the power to say no. There was also discord among the team where egos got in the way.
Sometimes you have to step back first to move forward. We made the tough decision to let the contractor go, and another staff member resigned. Client relationships were damaged. Trust was at an all-time low. Our in-house clients preferred to outsource, rather than work directly with us. From a team standpoint, it was rock bottom. What good is an internal team with no clients?
There are no quick or easy fixes. It won’t be a painless journey. There isn’t a straightforward one-size-fits-all blueprint for teams. But it is not insurmountable. It’ll take hard work, perseverance, and a whole lot of grit, but I’ve done it, so I know you can too. Here are some things that helped me navigate these challenges and transform our team culture.
- Lead Yourself Well.
It starts with you. Whether you lead the team or not, you can’t lead in any direction and have a positive impact on team culture if you’re not leading yourself well. Before you can give your team direction and purpose, you need some of that yourself, or you run the risk of leading the team in the wrong direction.
I have a friend who often says, “The heart work is the hard work.” I agree! You have to do the hard work of starting your own heart and self-awareness. What vision expectations do you hold yourself to? What are your goals? What are your strengths and weaknesses? Are you managing your physical, mental, and emotional health? What boundaries have you put in place to protect yourself?
- Develop Intentional Guide Rails
It’s important to know what you’re aiming for. If you don’t have vision for the team, and specific, measurable goals, your team will flounder like a fish out of water. They’ll prioritize the wrong things, and it’ll be your fault.
What is the vision for the team? What are the clearly defined goals? How will each member of the team help you achieve those goals? While this sounds quite simple, it was as I stepped into a messy situation that I realized our team had nothing to aim for. Simply completing work requests on time isn’t enough. There are so many other factors to consider. It’s not just about what you do, but how you do it, why you do it, and who you do it with. We had nothing to guide our interactions with our clients, or the services we provided. Everything was haphazard with no intentionality or strategy.
To counteract this, we took a day off-site to spend time dreaming about who we actually wanted to be as a team, and what we wanted to be known for throughout the organization. Everyone had input and brought ideas to the table. We talked vision and goals. We course corrected so our vision and values aligned with the organization’s mission and goals. The organization didn’t have staff values, so we developed 5 core values or guiding principles that we wanted to define everything we did: Fun, Teamwork, Integrity, Creativity, and Killer Customer Service. We like to say it’ what makes us Fn’ TICK. Those team values became the guide rails that drove how we operated, how we managed projects, and how we interacted with each other and our client teams. I shifted the structure of our standups, weekly meetings, post-mortems, and quarterly reviews around our values. We even created a deck of value cards that become an organization hit.
And please don’t skip the step of inviting the whole team into the process. Everyone must buy-in for their to be accountability across the team. The more each person feels responsible for the direction, the more likely they’ll be to help lead others into your vision.
- People Before Talent
We also made a key decision during that off-site. We would soon be adding two people to the team. We knew that we could teach anyone to do what we do, so we decided to prioritize team fit over talent and skills. It’d be ideal to find both, but if we couldn’t we wanted to prioritize the right people. Would it take more time and energy with someone not as skilled? Of Course. But at the end of the day, we found through our experience the previous year that it was far more important to have the right people who were a great team fit, rather than a super talented creative that didn’t quite mesh with who the team wanted to become.
This change in our mentality actually shifted the atmosphere of our team. It became less about egos and individual pats on the back, and more about celebrating each other and team wins. For the first time ever, the members of our team were fully for each other. As we hired over the following years, we were able to add people who were a great combination of team fit and talent, and engrain these core values in them from the get-go. Prioritizing people over talent might have been the most important step we took to rebuilding a strong team culture.
It wasn’t enough for us to just slap together some core values on the wall. We needed to be held accountable to them. Because the whole team participated in creating this direction, we all felt ownership and everyone wanted it to work. Each week we’d take time to celebrate wins through the lens of our core values. We call them Spotlights. We take turns spotlighting our core values, and how we saw those things played out over the last week through our team. We’re also not afraid to call each other out if we see a deficiency in one of our values. We place high value on radical candor.
We also took some time to meet with each of the in-house teams we serve. We knew we needed to rebuild trust, so we started in an obvious place: having fun together. We took one team to lunch at Dave and Busters, another team to an escape room, and third (full of coffee snobs) to a pretentious new coffeehouse. We were direct about wanting to rebuild the relationships. We asked for a fresh start. We talked each of our clients through our new values and asked them to hold us accountable.
That summer we hosted a weekly lunch where we invited the entire staff to come and ask us anything about our process, our work, or our lives. It became a fun routine that we often started with a goofy icebreaker. It took months, but as we worked through each team we served and slowly we began to rebuild the trust and relational capital we once enjoyed.
- Trust your team.
While trust we were rebuilding throughout the organization was key, the trust on the team was critical. How many times have you thought to yourself, “That’s not how I would do it.” If you’re anything like me, the answer is a lot. But let’s be honest, we’re not always going to be right. Trust the experts on your team. I stole this mantra from David Lesue, the Creative Director of Workfront Inc: “It’s not your job to saturate the world in your version of good.” I really like that. Just because it’s not the way I would do it, doesn’t make it wrong. I realized I had been stifling the creativity of the team rather than inspiring and igniting it.
You don’t need to be the expert in each area of your team. If you are, you’ve probably hired wrong. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you in areas of your deficiency, and your team will raise its level of excellence. Don’t be threatened by the people on your team. Involve the team in your work. Get hands-on in their work so they understand your process, but give them the freedom to make decisions. Delegate well, and give them opportunities to step up. And you just might be surprised by how good they end up making you look.
- Collaborate – Radical Inclusion
Beyond the accountability, I wanted to show the rest of our staff how serious we were about serving them well, by inviting them into our process. We started by strategically inviting key clients and partners into creative sessions. It was common to find someone from Operations or Finance in our brainstorms. Our goal was to harness the creative energy of the entire organization and pull the curtain back on how we do what we do. We also hoped by inviting them into our process that they’d return the favor, and allow us to get in on what they were doing before they realized they even needed us to create for them.. Very slowly, we regained our relational capital and this worked. This idea of radical inclusion has spread, and collaboration is thriving. We’re working on shared goals and running at the same pace.
We dug into our core value of Killer Customer Service. Having a strong culture of customer service doesn’t mean the client is always right. It’s not your way, right away. It means we want to put the client’s needs first. We revamped our creative brief and project intake process. We want to listen to understand. We want to be generous with our time, attention, and resources. We want them to know we care about their work, that we are for them, and that has made all the difference in the world.
If you are a leader in a place of needing to shift culture, know that with intentionality and a lot of hard work, it can be done. It’s consistent work that ebbs and flows, has ups and downs, and is sometimes three steps forward and two steps back. Keep your feet moving in the right direction by leading yourself well, being intentional with vision, goals, and relationships.