Building a Winning Team

“Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.” – Ryunosuke Satoro

Right before I became Head Servant at the MSU Alumni Association, I had the honor of assembling a team to advance Comcast’s fortunes in New Mexico and Arizona. It’s one of many that I’ve served in over three decades of adventures in telecom and it turned out to be one of the best. By the time we concluded our work together, our operation was among the top performers in the company, number one in customer satisfaction for more than a year, delivering consistent results and creating challenged, productive and happy employees along the way.

Two years after leaving the Southwest for East Lansing, this group still has an amazing cohesiveness. So when I had the chance to pass through Albuquerque on my way to a conference it was a rare opportunity to bring the core of that team together again.

All things change and so it was at our company. There were new career directions outside of the organization for many and new challenges for those who chose to remain. As I drove into the foothills of the Sandias for our impromptu gathering, I thought about what made this team so special.

We built a culture of mutual trust and accountability. Everyone was empowered to speak their mind without fear, especially to me. We created a safe zone in my office. When they closed the door, they knew that what they would say was confidential. Candor was encouraged and I taught them early on to remove the emotion from the feedback they received. It took time, but eventually everyone understood that we all had one another’s best interests at heart. We wanted the individuals to grow and succeed, realizing that our operation would do the same.

We spent a lot of time deciding who would be on the bus. Our team was determined to be first class, so anyone who wanted on board had to prove that they shared this aspiration. More fundamentally, chemistry was what powered our juggernaut. It wasn’t just about qualifications. As we became successful, a lot of high performers wanted to join us. There had to be a fit. That meant consensus among the hiring team on every new addition. If someone voted in favor, that meant she was also making a personal commitement to the incoming team member’s success. Having skin in the game adds a higher level of shared accountability to the most important decision a team can make.

We defined success. In too many organizations, there is either no clear direction, or a mountain of data points that don’t roll up into a meaningful road-map. We started with no more than six major objectives for each year. These objectives crossed all departments and were one sentence in length so that everybody on every level could easily commit them to memory. On this firm foundation, were the programs, tools and metrics that helped everyone understand their role in the plan and told them in clear terms how effective their efforts were in moving us forward.

We invested in tools and training, making sure each team member, not only understood what they were supposed to do, but had the skill sets and self confidence to do it.

We took the long view. In many corporate cultures, so much attention is focused on hitting Wall Street’s quarterly numbers, that employees are forced to make short term decisions that unfavorably impact long term profitability. Since a major metric we studied was year over year performance, it was essential that we didn’t juice the numbers and cook the books to make an important quarter look better than it really was. Thankfully, our senior leadership subscribed to this approach. It helped all of us look at our progress through an undistorted lens.

We were honest in our interactions with both the team and the big guys. In our bi-weekly teleconferences with the Division, we made sure we were well prepared to discuss the factors that contributed to our results. Accuracy of forecasting was more important than hitting a budget goal. There was just as much feedback when we overshot as when we undershot. So we always told the truth, even if it hurt. Our operation earned a reputation for credibility that bought us additional resources when we needed them and breathing room to achieve when the time frame turned out to be unrealistic. This lead to an agility that allowed us to take advantage of unexpected opportunities and quickly turn the ship when we where headed for the rocks.

We encouraged risk taking. In most organizations, fear of failure is the biggest deterrent to innovation. We rarely disciplined a team member for moving beyond the edge of the process envelope to serve a customer (unless they compromised safety). After-action conversations were never about blame. We tried to learn from each experience and adjusted our conventional wisdom to learn from root causes.

We celebrated the individual and paid attention to those closest to the customer. After we defined our major goals, the budget process began at the front line. We shared the intricacies of how the business worked with everyone on the team, teaching many how to read a profit and loss statement. Monthly all-staff meetings included detailed conversations about the things that were contributing to our current situation. On top of that, we tried to solicit ideas from those who knew our customers best. A service zone concept that radically improved our customer responsiveness came from a front line supervisor. And our service representatives had a wide leeway to accommodate customers. We trusted them because they understood how the financials worked. And they almost always made better decisions than we could have, decisions that fostered long term, profitable relationships and encouraged unprofitable customers to patronize our competitors.

We were laser beam focused on follow-through and follow-up. If you said you were going to do something, we built mechanisms to help make sure you did it. For most team members, this wasn’t seen as big brother looking over our shoulders. This was a team of accountability buddies who helped you keep your promises. The end result was fewer repeat visits and ultimately, faster resolutions.

We made our most important goal one of helping everyone on the team achieve their dreams. This sounds a little hokey but it was one of the key secrets of our success. Over time, our 600-plus team members came to believe that we truly wanted them to seek happiness, find their passion and get paid for doing it. We celebrated those who promoted up and out of our organization, realizing that a team that grew great performers would attract more of them. As our graduates moved into the upper echelons of the company, they never forgot us and we reeived special treatment as a result. In some cases, we encouraged people to chase another opportunity outside of Comcast. More the once, I received emails thanking us for helping an individual develop the courage to understand that their future lay elsewhere. It’s all too easy to stay in an uncomfortable current reality rather than it is to take a shot at the unknown. And the most important benefit for us was this: People who believe that you have their best interests at heart, will keep your best interests at heart.

We kept things in perspective. “Family First” wasn’t a platitude in the Southwest. From the top down, we tried to teach everyone that a career, even if it’s one we love, is insignificant without good health and loving relationships. While working on our team could be one of the most intense and rewarding experiences one could have, we provided a support system in times of personal trial and celebrated the individual milestones that would matter long after we cashed our final paychecks.

All of these dimensions were in play when we gathered to celebrate our time together in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains. Although some of us had not seen one another in more than two years, we picked up right where we left off. The majority of the conversation centered on growing families and the inevitable ups and downs that are part and parcel of living. As I looked around the room, I was proud to see extraordinary souls who had  become better people as a result of our combined experience.

After a time, we scattered, returning to our daily lives. I pointed the rental car west toward the mesa, pondering that amazing New Mexico sunset that Colleen and I always loved. It cast a red / orange glow across the xeriscape, transforming the panorama into a  majestic tableau worthy of Fredric Remington.

I felt an immense gratitude for the time we had spent together. Ours was a small group of passionate dreamers who shared a common objective, generating uncommon results that people still talk about. In the end, it wasn’t what we achieved that made the memories, it was how we did it… together.