In a hip, Melbourne hotel cafe, I am sitting in a dimly lit booth opposite Damian, CEO of a midsize company. Upbeat dance music is blaring and it is hard to hear the softly spoken man who has made a career of turning around poor performing companies into star performers.
We are at the end of my interview about high performance teams and our coffees are all consumed. Taking a deep breath to collect his thoughts, his voice gets stronger, as he reminisces, ‘When I think of a high performance team, I think back to the most successful team I ever led. We grew the organisation from $110 million to $280 million, in just under three years. It was a really tough competitive environment and we didn’t think we could do it. We would get together and brainstorm new strategies and then get to work executing them. I didn’t lose one key person throughout those intense years. We had camaraderie where we all trusted one another to do the right thing. Everyone knew what everyone was doing and there was mutual respect and care for one another. We’d work long hours during the week and then we would even catch up socially on weekends. One of the managers died last week. The whole team was at the funeral, many of us flying in from all over the country. It has been years since we have worked together. Seeing everyone again, it was almost like, we hadn’t been apart. I miss being in that team and I want that in my current team. You can’t beat it.’
Damian isn’t the only leader to passionately tell me their experience of being on a team that kicked goals, despite the odds. Over the years, speaking on stage about high achievement teams, I often get pulled aside by leaders who want to tell me their experience. Their eyes are lit up, electric. Their luminance only fading when they quietly despair that they haven’t been able to recreate that experience.
As humans, we want to be with other humans and be part of something bigger and better than we can create on our own.
We love being part of an energetic team that has plenty of solutions, excited discussions and productive activity.
But the world has changed. The pandemic has separated teams, as it has separated friends and families. We no longer have the luxury of impromptu water cooler conversations, celebratory dinners or face-to-face brainstorming sessions.
Many people are in survival mode. Ground down by the relentless uncertainty, adherence to lockdown rules and the inability to be around people.
Leading a team effectively has been turned on its head. And it’s unlikely that we will go back to how things used to be. Now, leaders need to know how to engage teams that are a mix of both remote and office-based employees.
This requires a shift in leadership style. One that fosters connection, when team members are disconnected by location.
And the question is, how do we create an organisation that enables employees to feel inspired, energised and innovative, when they are not connected face-to-face?
It is a question I asked myself back in 2004, a couple of months before I had my first child. Back then, I worked in a video production company that I co-founded with my husband. We had staff in regional Victoria who helped us film and broadcast live greyhound racing. I knew that once our baby was born I was unlikely to regularly travel a six-hour return journey to catch up with them.
I had to work hard at building connection with my young employees, many of whom were from disadvantaged families. Back then, that meant monthly phone calls to check that they were alright – not just with the work, but in their personal life – and sending them inspirational books or food when things got tough in their world.
And what I learnt was that it doesn’t matter where you or your team work. What matters most is the energy and focus you put into creating your team culture. And the most successful team leaders work on building a foundation of trust. You build connection through building trust. Trust is the beating heart of your team.
When you build trust as the team environment, you can put your team anywhere and under any conditions and they will thrive.
A team that trusts one another, and their leader, creates magical team coherence. That wonderful space where you are all in flow, moving as one, reading each other’s intent and body language. Like a group of professional dancers effortlessly moving in harmony, in tune to the rhythm of a song.
It creates a positive buzz, a hum, an energy that we crave. And it’s a place where we thrive as human beings, where we feel energised and empowered, connected and aligned through shared identity and purpose. We feel valued, creative and safe to share our opinion. It’s a place where we feel that all is possible, that we’re in this together and that the hard work is worth it.
Despite the trials and tribulations, it’s an unforgettable experience that we hold deep in our hearts for the rest of our life. Feeling trusted makes us proud of our achievements and motivates us to keep going when things get tough.
In her book, Powerful, Patty McCord credits Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix as saying, 'What people most want from work: to be able to come in and work with the right team of people – colleagues they trust and admire – and to focus like crazy on doing a great job together.’
The good news is that even when teams are dispersed, you can still create thriving teams were people feel at ease, and as a result are happier and more productive overall.
And that’s what this book is about. How to create that wonderful, supportive environment where we feel trusted, and equally importantly, where our direct reports feel trusted.
As a team leader, you have the power to lead others into that beautiful place where we become better human beings.
In this place we care and support one another, leaving our personal insecurities aside, in service of making the world a better place.
Over the last eight years, I have undertaken research inside companies and interviewed hundreds of CEOs and executives about how they build connection and trust with their employees. I’ve also interviewed hundreds of team leaders and employees about how they need leadership to build trust with them. I’ve read countless research papers and books on the topic. And I have coached leaders and facilitated training inside organisations, testing my theories and models to find out what works in today’s workplaces.
What I have found is that building trust is all about a leader who has consistently practised the right combination of skills that fosters a thriving workplace environment. It’s about a leader who has taken the time to understand and observe the human condition – what drives people to be their best and what shuts people down – and who compassionately responds to each individual in a manner that suits them best.
This is what this book will help you achieve: a deeper understanding of the human condition and what you can do to create an environment from which motivated people can flourish.
How to Use this Book
The backbone of this book is my Integrated Trust Building System, which I have developed and refined over the past eight years working with clients. You may be familiar with a similar model first proposed by Christine Comaford in her book, Smart Tribes, and more recently popularised by Daniel Coyle in The Culture Code.
While their models have done an excellent job of explaining the factors our brains require to feel safe at work (safety, connection, future), my research within companies found that employees need specific interactions to build trust in dispersed workforces.
There is no right way to build trust, but this book describes the best way I know how. It draws on neuroscience, biology, psychology and sociology research.
My contribution is a synthesis of the best ideas clever leaders have uncovered, as well as what I have found works well in my leadership training and coaching practice. The strategies I cover will be relevant to anyone looking to create high performance with dispersed teams during change and uncertainty.
The book is broken down into four sections. The first section, The Basics, provides the context that you need to understand before we go deep into the Integrated Trust Building System. The remaining three sections all relate to the main components of the model. At the end of each section, there are activities and case studies to help embed the learning. You will find self-reflection questions, implementation ideas or a summary. You also have access to extra resources at the end of the book, which you can apply.
Thank you for picking up this book and being willing to take this journey. I look forward to being your guide.
Are you ready?