June 7, 2021
Fixing Broken Teams
I used to work for a large dotcom that wanted to increase their market share in the U.S. All of their revenues came off banner advertising on their site, 90% of which came from North America. Since the company was located in Kolkata, they had only Indian staff – I was their first foreigner to work in India full-time.
The team I was to lead had nearly 50 staff members, none of whom had any direction on what they were responsible for accomplishing. True, they were in separate teams devoted to SEO, reciprocal links, micro-sites, blogs, affiliates, etc., but beyond that, the only vague expectation was to grow traffic. They had plenty of staff to make each of these facets of internet marketing work, but the site was still declining month over month. I was going to have to fix what was broken and provide some structure to the team.
#1: Understand Your Chess Pieces
I use this rule of thumb a lot. Understanding what strengths and weaknesses each team member brings to play will help you understand what “chess pieces” are missing. The first thing I did was get copies of their personnel files and interviewed each person individually. I wanted to know what their skill sets were, what their interests were, and where they saw themselves in five years. This was important because understanding what skills were available enabled me to identify the skills that were missing from the team. Knowing what their aspirations were, provided me with an idea of how eager they would be for mentoring and training if their skills did not meet their personal goals.
#2: Understand Stakeholder Goals/Founder’s Exit Strategy
Second, I spent a lot of time with the CEO to get an idea of what his ultimate goal was and this took time to get this information from him. He was not used to being confronted by his employees and put on the spot as to what he really wanted to achieve, but it was important for me to know, in order to put plans in place to achieve that goal. One caveat: sometimes what they say they want turns out not to be what they want once achieved. Perhaps they said they wanted to be acquired by a larger firm and when the term sheets slides across the table, suddenly they realize that they like what they do and want to continue doing it. Other times, they want someone to sell part of the company to for some quick cash to buy a boat (really), and they do, then realize working with their new partners are a nightmare, so they end up selling the entire company and leave altogether.
Once you and your CEO and other stakeholders, perhaps a board of directors or investors have had these talks, it’s time to work with the stakeholders to develop a long term strategic plan that creates the road map to get there. Then the organization can put measurable goals into place for each department. In marketing, once we understood the road map, we were able to set in place a set of goals for each team and defined each one meticulously. We also developed individual and team incentives to put in place as well that were based on overall performance.
I then starting the painful process of restructuring the teams. Some people were easily identifiable as bad leaders but had brilliant skill sets, others were just completely useless, and others had tremendous abilities that by politics, gender, or simple lack of self-marketing, were completely under-utilized. It was time to let many of them find jobs that were more suitable. On the day, each person being fired was sent to HR. As soon as that started, the cell phones were buzzing all across the room and tensions were high. I brought each person who was staying into my office one by one and described what was happening and why I wanted them to stay. Some were kept in their current position, but I described why they were selected over the other individuals, focusing on their personal strengths and skills. Some people were upset to find out that their friends were leaving, but I countered this with the fact that this was a business decision. I personally liked some of the people I let go, but there was no place for them within the new team structure. Most understood. Others were promoted from the ranks to be Team Leaders, while some were demoted from Team Leader and assigned to different teams. These were the most challenging. I focused on sharing constructive criticism and helped them understand where they had failed and suggested ways for them to address their weaknesses as leaders. We were now a team of 25.
Some staff I could not let go, due to the politics of the company. These were going to have to be handled differently. One had been the head of the group before me, and his political skills were sharp. Unfortunately for him, he had stolen a lot of the team’s ideas and passed them off as his own to the CEO, which had caused a lot of the team to not like him. (I found him to be shady and unreliable as well – lots of excuses and blame placed on his team, rather than accepting his responsibility as their leader.) I did not respect him and the feelings were definitely mutual. I took away his entire team and put him in charge of public relations by himself. Now he was fully accountable for any PR work done for the company, exposing him and his lack of skills. This was enough to make him leave a couple of months later
“Be the change you want to see in this world.”Mahatma Gandhi
#3: Address Cultural Differences
I work like a boss. I expect everyone to. The way Americans work is very different from the way Asians work, but there was a new leader in town – an American one, and we were going to have to work in an American style because I had no other experience working in diverse cultures. I had to respect their work culture but slowly change it to a more professional, innovative, and proactive culture. Another thing I want to stress is that I role modeled the proper, professional behaviors I expected from my team members. I came in on time. I expected my team in on time. We had a “latecomings” jar that you paid into for being late and was used for treats for the team. This jar was also used for meetings. Anyone five minutes late had to pay and was also not allowed to attend the meeting. (The very first meeting I had was scheduled for 2:00 PM. Some people showed up at 2:45. Seriously.) I set deadlines and followed up. If I was going to miss a deadline, I informed my staff as soon as I knew and gave them time to adjust, and I expected that as well from them. They learned how to write reports and meeting minutes, and began to open up in planning meetings. I used a nerf ball to brainstorm. I threw it to someone and said, “Say the first thing that comes into your head, then throw the ball to another person”. People laughed and found it fun to put crazy comments on the white board and after a while we no longer needed the nerf ball and the ideas were becoming better and more innovative. They learned that failure was okay. That as long as you shared the failure (what didn’t work), you could teach the rest of the team what NOT to do. Others shared their methods to increase the success of other team members. This team was starting to become the rockstar team I knew they could be.
Others team members proved more difficult. I had identified one woman, who seemed to have an amazing skill set and I felt she could easily have taken over for me once I left because she had excellent strategy and project management skills. Her single, quite fatal flaw was her attitude. She was the office gossip, which could have been fine, but she manipulated people, engaged in rumors that worked directly against any team building, within our group and setting us against other groups in the company that we relied on to reach our goals. While I was not in a position to fire her, as I learned more and more about her destructive activities, I spoke to her directly about it and told her how damaging it was, but she continued. At this point, I had to become “The Boss from Hell” to finally get her to quit. It soon became clear to my team that being professional, making your goals, working as a team were going to be instrumental in our success.
#4: You Are Not the Rockstar – It’s Your Team
I consistently stressed that it was OUR success. In meetings with the CEO, I indicated to him different successes we’d achieved and mentioned the team members responsible. I publicly congratulated staff for performing well and also publicly stated in front of the team when people were underperforming. In team meetings, we’d go over the numbers, and when someone wasn’t on track, I’d ask everyone on the team to come up with ideas to help him/her. We were in it together.
The incentive plan we put in place provided both individual and team bonuses. For example, each linker had to come up with 130 high quality reciprocal links (based on very clear parameters to describe “high quality”). They were allowed to choose the section of the site to work on based on a list the Team Leader and I had agreed were the focus for that particular month. The highest performer last month got to pick first and so on. If you made your quota, you’d receive a bonus. If the entire team made their quota, they received an additional bonus. We kept a white board with the names of all linkers in their space that the Team Leader updated daily, those on track in green, those not in red. If someone was going to cause the team to miss their team bonus, peer pressure and support sprang into action to ensure they made their money.
Using a coaching or mentoring approach worked really well with the team. Within months we had achieved beyond our expectations and numbers were rising. We reached ComScore’s 8th fastest rising site in 2007, and was the 3rd fastest site in 2008.
One of the other attributes I brought to the team was fostering innovation. I was always looking for the next big idea, and my door was always open for people who wanted to discuss something they’d read about or thought of that might be interesting to test. We tested lots of things, from widgets, crowdsourcing, and APIs. Most were extremely successful, while we had a few failures. The team seemed to really value that I pushed their ideas up the chain and ensured that they continued to own their projects. It gave the individuals a real sense of pride, that they’d been able to contribute in a substantial way. While we couldn’t compensate them for this, it seemed this was enough for most to keep coming up with ideas for us to try.
I firmly believe that my management style is different than the typical Asian boss. I like getting mixed up in the nitty gritty, working with my staff, not just telling them what to do. But I am also a stern task master – I expect follow through, excellence, and groundbreaking work. There were times when I had to tell someone, “You’re an awesome designer. This isn’t your best work. I know you can do better,” or, “Is this really the best you can do?” People went back, did it again, and really surprised me.
I loved that team. We did some great work there and I’m proud of what we accomplished. One of my biggest regrets was leaving that company. I should have stayed, but visa issues were not handled correctly forcing me to take another job. I wonder sometimes, what we could have achieved if we’d stayed together for just one more year… That job was my first in India, back in 2007 and it’s been twelve years since I last met many of my team, but many have kept in touch. I miss them a lot. I’ve watched them grow and move into higher level positions, some started their own companies, and others moved to other countries. We keep in touch and get together whenever we’re in the same city. Like I always said to them, “Some day, I might be applying for a job from you,” and I meant it. 🙂