Team Building 101

As you probably know if you follow this blog, I’m a big fan of the Harvard Business Review. When I started as a senior manager two years ago, I landed in charge of a team of 30 people. I had never had a direct report in my career and to say I was nervous would have been a severe understatement. My boss agreed to pay for a subscription to Harvard Business Review (HBR) and I have become an ardent follower of them since then. I even have 3 of their podcasts on my phone. I mean, you have to listen to something on the bus commute, right?

When I started trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my career post-fellowship, I was told by a few people that I should consider getting an MBA. After so many years of graduate school, the thought of more school was physically repugnant. I have a terminal degree, why in the world would I go and get another one? Not to mention that I had just finished paying off my student loans and there was no way I was going to acquire more. Now that I’m deep into senior management, I do have much more appreciation for the value of getting a MBA. Since I’m still not in a position to go back to school, and I’m still not convinced I need to, I’ve been piecing together my own MBA of sorts. So far, this has involved the subscription to HBR, an executive mentoring group, some online courses, learning from others and most recently an executive coach. I think it will all add up to me becoming a better manager, hopefully.

One of the areas that I’m actively working as a manager is leading change. The team I manage has been through a lot of change in the past two years, including me coming on board. I could spend a lot of space here detailing the extent and scope of that change but instead I’ll summarize and say that moving from a organization that supports research to one that supports product development and research is a massive paradigm shift. This might seem like a fine distinction but there are broad implications to this change that stretch from redefining best practices and processes to rethinking the team’s identity.

This is where my ad-hoc MBA training has helped me. It did seem daunting to manage not only the change the team had already been through but all the change yet to come. The article that really clicked for me was from HBR and it talked about team motivation. You can read the entire article here: The point of the article is that people are much more committed to an outcome (by a factor of 5:1) when they get to choose. How I translated this into my team was that they would be much more motivated to change if they could choose what that change looked like. Operationally, I decided on a team retreat to accomplish this.

We held our second annual team retreat a few weeks ago. We’re not exactly pros at this yet but I think just holding the retreats is a victory in and of itself. I say that because it is during these retreats that the whole team has an opportunity to weigh in on all the changes happening in the group, and help to shape the direction of the team and decide what is important for us all to focus on. We started the day deciding on the mission and vision of our team. While my organization has a mission and a vision, I thought it was important for the team to have one as well, especially a vision, that way everyone can be on board with where the team is striving to go.

Next we moved on to team goals and defined our top 6 strategic goals for the year and their priority. In my opinion, that last bit is the key. If you don’t prioritize your goals then everyone on the team doesn’t know how to prioritize their work. I’m all about ruthless prioritization to ensure that everyone, including myself, are putting energy mostly into the tasks that are aligned to the strategy of the team or organization. Prioritization can be a difficult exercise when there is a lot to do or a big change to undertake but it is possible and it is very valuable and worth the effort.

The rest of the retreat involved outlining the tasks involved to complete each goal and then deciding on the first next step in each task. We finished the day spending time with the team we rely on the most, the lab programming team. Cross-functional interactions can be challenging for a number of reasons and having dedicated face-to-face time together to discuss challenges and successes makes a difference. (See here for another HBR article about team retreats: My hope is that involving the whole team and our cross-functional partners in the process of shaping the change will result in increased commitment to that change. Only time will tell.

I know that none of this sounds like rocket science, vaccine development science, drug development science or otherwise but it does work and the research has borne that out. This journey is one where I am learning every day and increasing in my confidence as a manager every day. I do feel like I have a good set of tools at my disposal to aid in my success. More importantly, I have an talented and engaged team that has set a vision and is committed to reaching that vision. So maybe I don’t need a MBA after all.

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