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The Secret of Teams

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Teams are critical to the success of every organization. Departmental, interdepartmental, cross-functional, ad hoc, task-specific—teams do everything from planning the office party to setting the annual budget to establishing performance goals.

But what separates the teams that really deliver from the ones that simply spin their wheels? What is the secret of high-performance teams?

As he did in The Secret, Mark Miller uses a compelling business fable to reveal profound yet easily grasped truths that can dramatically transform any organization. Debbie Brewster, the heroine of The Secret, has been promoted and is now struggling with taking her new team to the next level. Her old mentor, Jeff Brown, the company’s CEO, sends her out to find the secret of teams. On her journey she learns from three very different teams—the Special Forces, NASCAR, and a local restaurant.

Debbie and her team discover the three elements that all successful teams have in common. But that’s just the beginning. The devil is in the details, as the story of Debbie’s efforts to actually implement the three elements shows. You’ll learn how to change entrenched ways of thinking and acting, what you have to do to optimize each of the three elements of a successful team, how to measure your progress, and more.

Creating high-performance teams does more than just give your organization a competitive advantage. It can be a performance multiplier that significantly improves results while honoring and developing people. It may be the ultimate win-win-win that your organization is seeking.

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Study the Best


Debbie was discouraged. Her new team was proving to be more of a challenge than she had bargained for. Up to this point in her career, she had enjoyed success after success. Most noteworthy, she had led her previous dysfunctional team “from worst to first.” This feat had not gone unnoticed by management. In fact, Jeff, the CEO, had given Debbie her recent promotion in part due to her success and in part because he saw tremendous potential in her.

However, in her new role, nothing seemed to be going her way. With her former team, she had looked forward to every new day, but now she went to work only to be confronted by a team with real issues. Not only that, Debbie was feeling the stress and strain of trying to do more and more, often with less resources. Beyond her team issues, she was faced with a growing mountain of e-mail; there seemed to be more meetings than ever; and if there was any time left, she still had customers to serve. She was tired. The pace of her life was out of control, and she wasn’t sure what to do about it.


Truth Is Truth


As the team left the room, Debbie had already decided she wanted to get a meeting on Jeff’s calendar to get input on their list. He was really well connected, and she was confident he could make some introductions. To make their time more productive, she decided to send him an e-mail in advance.


Our team met today. We did some brainstorming, re: your encouragement to study the best. We’ve not yet finalized our choices. We’re looking for input and connections. I’m going to get a short meeting on the calendar for us to talk about our next steps. To make that time more productive, here’s what we’re considering:

• Emergency Room Staff

• Firefighters

• Auto Racing Team

• A Local Restaurant Company

• Special Forces in the Military

• Orchestra

• A Large Church

• Broadway Play Company

I look forward to your input. We’ll talk soon!


As she hit the Send key, she couldn’t help but think about the options. She felt her team could learn a lot from all of these organizations. Any of them could help their teams move to the next level. She had so many questions. What would they learn? Would they hear the same things from each of these very different teams? How would the lessons learned match her experience? She sensed it was going to be an amazing journey.


The Three Pillars


The team was excited about its first visit. Everyone knew the reputation of the Special Forces as an elite unit of dedicated professional service members who get results. As Debbie prepared for the visit, she couldn’t help but wonder if the general would share the same principles that she believed were essential to creating high performance in a team.

The team had decided to split the assignments, and they agreed to let Jo stay home with her mom. On this trip, Debbie would be joined by Tom and Javier.

As they approached the general’s home, Debbie wasn’t sure what to expect. However, she did have in her mind what she thought the general would look like—a classic Army general, the type you’d see in the movies. Her stereotype was about to be challenged.

When Debbie and her team arrived at the address they had been given, they were greeted by a man that she assumed was the general, but he didn’t look at all like what she had imagined. She knew he was retired, but she hadn’t expected him to be so old. He was short, too; for some reason, she had thought he would be taller.


Winning Is Hard Work


Following the successful visit with the general, Debbie was more excited than ever. The next visit would take the team to North Carolina—the epicenter for America’s largest spectator sport, NASCAR. Because they selected an “off-week” to visit the track, Debbie and her group would have access to key members of the top racing team of the last decade. The meeting was scheduled to take place early on a Tuesday morning. Bob and Sally would accompany Debbie on this visit, since it was Sally’s husband who had the connection with NASCAR.

They got to the track early. As they approached, they were overwhelmed by the mammoth size of the facility. On race day, up to 140,000 fans would descend on the property. It was truly a spectacular venue for a death-defying, highspeed, adrenaline-filled event.

They made their way through security and went into a tunnel. When they came out, they realized they had just gone under the track. They were now in the infield pit area, surrounded by tens of thousands of empty seats.


Enlightened Self-Interest


The first two visits had been remarkable. Debbie was extremely pleased and not really surprised that Sam and the general had very similar ideas about how to help teams excel.

As they prepared for their next visit, the team talked with the headquarters staff for the restaurant company and explained the objective of the meeting. It was suggested that the visit be with a local restaurant and not the headquarters. This was certainly not what Debbie had in mind. She was skeptical that her team could learn from a restaurant company to start with, and now, they would be meeting with the local staff, not the organization’s leadership. This would be very interesting.

The good news in all this was that because it was local, Jo could participate in a field visit. The team asked Bob and Steve to join Debbie and Jo.

Before the visit, Bob sensed Debbie’s reluctance and said, “Listen, this is perfect. If we’re going to help our leaders take their teams to the next level, that’s going to have to happen in hundreds of individual teams around the world. It’s not going to happen at the home office. This is a great opportunity to get some insight into how teams might work in the real world.”


The Big Idea


The team was eagerly anticipating its next meeting. Each member had ideas to share, based on his or her experiences “studying the best.” When they assembled, they started, as was their custom, with a time of connecting and catching up.

Bob decided Steve deserved to be scolded a bit. “You would have enjoyed the restaurant visit, Steve. Lots of free food. And it was really good, too.”

“Um …,” Steve began. “I overslept. When I got to the office, I saw you had already left. And I forgot where the meeting was. So I just stayed here and worked on some … um … stuff.”

Debbie thought, I really do need to talk to him about his attitude. But I don’t want to do it in front of the team. I’ve got to make that a priority after this meeting. She then quickly turned the conversation to Jo’s mom. Jo would be leaving right after the meeting to be with her.

Debbie then transitioned the discussion to their visits. “Well, our field visits have certainly been interesting. Let’s start by getting general observations from each of you.”


Course Correction


The team’s next meeting was intended to focus on how to begin introducing their findings to the entire organization. However, the meeting took a much more personal and productive turn.

Debbie opened the meeting as usual by asking everyone to give a status report regarding what was going on in their lives. They responded openly. After everyone else had spoken, the team members looked at Steve, who had always been reluctant to participate. After an awkward moment, he finally said, “All is good at my house.”

“Anything else you’d like to share?” Debbie asked.

“Nope,” Steve said.

“Okay, then, let’s pick up where we left off in our last meeting. I still feel very good about talent, skills, and community. Did any of you have additional thoughts on this?” Debbie stepped up to the flip chart as she finished her question.

Steve said, “It’s not very helpful.”

“What’s not helpful?” Debbie asked. “That definition we created,” Steve said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Which definition?” Javier pushed.

“Community,” Steve responded.


No Wasted Talents


Debbie walked into the meeting room the next day with apprehension obviously painted on her face.

“What’s wrong, Debbie?” Javier asked. “You look as though you have a million things on your mind.”

“It’s that apparent, huh?”

“I’d say so.”

“Let’s start by creating a little community,” Jo said.

“Great idea!” Debbie agreed.

Tom was the first to speak. “My new grandbaby said, ‘Da Da.’” He was giddy—this was his first grandchild. He also had new pictures to share—he passed around his phone so everyone could take a look.

Then, as a huge surprise to everyone, Steve spoke next.

“Things haven’t been good at home. This job is killing me, and I’m glad I’ve not been fired.”

The team was stunned. No one knew what to say. Debbie decided to cut short the formal sharing time and jump in to try to help Steve.

“Steve, thanks for your transparency.” Turning her comments to the team, Debbie continued. “I knew after our last meeting that in addition to a skills gap, we might also have a talent issue as well. Steve, I think we all know you are not happy in your new role. So, Steve and I had a conversation about his life, his experience, and his contribution to the team.”


The Goal: Results


“Okay, what’s next?” Jo was always interested in moving things along.

“We’ve done a great job deciphering what great teams do; now let’s figure out how we help our teams become great,” Debbie said. “Anyone have any thoughts on where we should begin?”

“Well, I guess we could share what we’ve learned with some people around the business and get their reaction,” Javier said.

“Or,” Sally added, “we could just start teaching our point of view on this … now that we’ve got one.”

“What do you think the main challenge is going to be as we move forward?” Debbie asked the group.

There was silence in the room. It was a thought-provoking question.

“It may be budget,” said Tom.

“Budget will certainly be an issue. But I’m not sure it’s going to be the biggest challenge,” Bob said.

“So, what will it be?” Debbie probed.

Bob added, “This is going to be a huge training effort.”

“It sure is,” Jo chimed in. “We have hundreds of teams around the world.”

“Yes,” Debbie said, “but we’ve done large-scale training campaigns before. I think we’re going to have an even bigger hurdle to jump.”


Launching a Movement


At the next team meeting, everyone was eager to hear about Debbie’s meeting with Jeff.

“I had the meeting with Jeff that we discussed,” Debbie began. “He was very encouraging. He likes where we netted out on the key elements. Talent + Skills + Community made a lot of sense to him. However, he challenged us to remember and to communicate: building a team is not the goal.”

Bob interrupted, “Really?”

The entire group looked confused. To Debbie, this confirmed Jeff’s concern.

“High-performance teams are not the goal,” Debbie said. “The goal is sustained performance over time. High-performance teams are a strategy to get and sustain amazing results. Results are the real goal. It’s a subtle but significant distinction. We have to ensure that the message is clear.”

Bob added, “It makes sense to me. Results are at the heart of what makes a team high performing in the first place. High-performance teams are always focused on results—if they’re not, you can be sure they’re not a high-performance team.”


Harder Than It Looks


After three days of intensive training, the attendees felt ready to tackle the world. Debbie’s team was elated. They could hardly wait for the pilot teams to report improved results.

At their next meeting, the agenda was focused on debriefing the event. However, during their opening community-building time, something amazing happened: Steve gave a report on what was happening in his life outside work.

“I told you a few meetings ago that things were not good at home,” Steve began. “Since you guys were willing to help me expand my role on the team, I guess I’ve been easier to get along with. My wife had moved out….” he stopped. The team seemed to be holding their breath wondering what he was about to say. “But, like I said, I guess I’m a little easier to get along with now, so yesterday, she moved back in. I’ve agreed to go with her to see a counselor. I just wanted to say thanks again for not firing me.” He tried to smile but couldn’t. “That would have been too much.”

Debbie and the entire team were delighted that Steve seemed to be getting back on track at home. They also believed it was a really good sign that he would trust the team enough to share this type of information. A major contributor to genuine community is knowing one another and allowing others to know you. It felt great to know that Steve was willing to take this critical step as he moved closer to joining their community.


Change Is Hard


Debbie checked in with each team member when they returned from their visits. She was glad the team had visited the field, but she was not excited about what they had found. Only one team really seemed to be on track. This was not the batting average they had hoped for.

The team was scheduled to meet on Thursday, and they would try to regroup and figure out what to do next. Much to Debbie’s surprise, Jeff had called and asked her for a meeting. She wasn’t worried, but she did wonder if Jeff had heard about the visits. Either way, she was glad to have the chance to debrief with him before the team meeting. She was sure he’d have some ideas on what to do next.

Wednesday morning at 8:00, Debbie walked into Jeff’s office carrying doughnuts.

“Good morning, Jeff!”

“You remembered that I like chocolate-frosted doughnuts. Thank you!”

“Just consider it a peace offering,” Debbie smiled.

“A peace offering? What’s that supposed to mean?” Jeff asked.

“Well, I figured you heard about our field visits.”

“Yes, I did. That’s why I asked you to stop by. I can’t wait to hear the report.”


The Real Issue


The next team meeting was scheduled for a full day. As the team arrived, Debbie could sense that the group was discouraged about what they had accomplished during the training. She tried to help them see that the pilot had given them the opportunity to learn and refine the training.

“I know you want to talk about the issues you discovered on your visits. That’s the main purpose for today’s meeting. But let’s begin by identifying some of the good outcomes we’ve already experienced.”

The group was slow to respond.

Jo said, “It appears that our message regarding the importance of talent, skills, and community got through to some of the teams we visited.”

“The leaders were very appreciative of the training,” Javier added.

“We have twenty-five teams consciously trying to get better,” Debbie added.

“Four of the five visits generated excitement about continuing the journey.” Steve was trying to find something good to say.

“Really, five of the five,” Sally said. “Even Roy, whose team was not meeting, said he wanted to learn more.”


A Second Chance


Debbie and her team knew they needed to refine the initial training they had provided for the pilot. There were some obvious things that needed to be changed, some things to be added, and even a few things that could be eliminated.

Based on what the team had found in their initial visits, they decided more visits would be helpful. Those would be conducted over the next thirty days. The team also wanted to hear from all the leaders they could not visit. They decided to send out a brief survey. Here’s what they created:

• What impact did the training session you attended last quarter have on the performance of your team?

• What tangible success have you seen as a result of the training?

• How would you improve the training?

• What questions do you have that were not addressed in the training?

• How can we help you as you work to improve your team and its performance?

Five questions—that was it. The team sent these out by e-mail. The response was encouraging and almost immediate. With all this information—the initial visits, the additional visits, and the survey results—the team was ready to plan its next steps.


The Journey Continues


The team developed two comprehensive plans: one for the pilot leaders and another for a systemwide introduction of the high-performance team concepts.

Debbie met with Jeff and reviewed the plans. He liked them both. He also decided to speak to the pilot team leaders when they returned for their second session. He wanted them to hear directly from him how important this work was to the long-term health and vitality of the organization.

He also agreed to talk to as many of the other groups as possible when the systemwide launch began. When he couldn’t be present, he volunteered members of the Executive Team to be there. He understood that ongoing leadership support would be vital.

The team reconvened the original pilot leaders and opened with a session in which the attendees were invited to share their questions and issues regarding the project.

This was followed with a session entitled “Lessons Learned from the Field,” presented by Debbie’s team. The short list of critical roles the leader must play in talent, skills, and community was extremely well received.


High-Performance Team Assessment


Rate each statement using the following scale:

5 = Completely Agree; 4 = Partially Agree; 3 = Neither Agree nor Disagree; 2 = Partially Disagree; 1 = Completely Disagree


Your Rating

Every member of the team thinks holistically about the business.


Every member of the team is a team player.


The team members represent diverse perspectives on the business.


The team members are committed to personal and professional growth.


The individual members of the team are in the right roles within the organization.


Talent Total: ___


The team has a disciplined approach to problem solving that works.


Data plays a critical role in the team’s efforts to solve problems.


The team is capable of conducting an effective meeting.


The team has demonstrated the ability to resolve conflict within the team.


Individual members of the team possess the skills needed to do their job well.


Skills Total: ___


The team members know each other’s story (personal and professional).


The team members care deeply about every other member of the team.



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