Whether you are in the business of making money, running governments, or organizing communities – teamwork is essential. It is the basis of engagement, innovation, and success.
Laurie Benson, CEO of Wisconsin-based Inacom Information Systems and 2009 “SBA National Women in Business” Champion, put it very nicely: “Very few people are ever successful or a failure by themselves, and probably, one of the most powerful elements in creating success – is a powerful team.”
In business, powerful teams not only drive results, but they also empower, challenge, and motivate employees to learn, grow, and participate in the collective success of the business itself.
On the flip side, a culture or workplace that does not build teams or foster teamwork can result in negativity, unchecked egos, and under-valued employees.
And this can have a knock-on effect on your bottom line.
But team building isn’t easy; it means changing your habits as a business owner — everything from how you hire and incentivize employees, to how you give up some of the day-to-day business decision-making that you currently control.
And while there are numerous books and courses that you can take to learn effective team building techniques, some of the best advice can come from those who are in your shoes: other small business owners.
Team-Building Tips from the Real World of Small Business
In December 2009, the Small Business Administration (SBA) and Dell partnered to produce a series of online videos: Strategies for Growth: Advice for Expanding Your Business. One of the strategies addressed in the videos is team-building. In three brief videos, award-winning small businesses talk about the strategies and tactics that they have adopted to build their successful business teams.
Here is what they recommend.
- Tip #1: Empower your employees by giving them guidelines for making decisions.
Empowering your workers doesn’t mean relinquishing control of your business — far from it! Empowering those who are closest to the action to make decisions can lead to the right result.
Here’s one example of how this can be achieved.
Laurie Benson, CEO of Inacom Information Systems, implemented what she calls an “empowerment triangle” whereby each employee is allowed to make any decision, as long as they consider the impact of their decision on three things — the customer, the employee, and profitability (hence the “triangle”). As Benson explains in the video, “We believe that the person closest to the action is probably the best one to make the decision – so if you’re close to the customer, do the right thing. But don’t do it without thinking about the implication on profit and the employees.”
- Tip #2: Acknowledging employees for what they bring to the table will help integrate individualists into the team.
A team is only as good as the sum of its parts, but sometimes egos get in the way and disrupt the delicate balance of the team. But by recognizing and acknowledging the intrinsic value of individual contributions, trust can follow and egos can be checked.
As Don Matzkin, also of Inacom Information Systems, explains, employees start to realize that “the expression of the ego in this process only helps the mix. The mix is sustained by the insertion of multiple egos.”
- Tip #3: When hiring for growth, look for motivated people. They can be trained and will grow into new positions.
Finding the perfect candidate based on a skills-match, might not be good for the team. As Anthony Bracali of Friday Architects/Planners, Inc., an SBA e200 Participating Company, explains, “for a lot of people trying to grow their business, finding someone who is energetic and enthusiastic, …who wants to grow personally, is almost more valuable than having the highest skill level, because that person could improve…with training.”
- Tip #4: Offer cash incentives to your team members who bring in qualified prospects.
This is quite a common practice during competitive hiring seasons, but for many small businesses it can have a sustained and long-lasting impact. Jeanna Sellmeyer, CEO, ASSET Group, and SBA National Small Business Person of the Year 2009, has implemented what she calls “bounties” or employee referral bonuses at her company that only get paid out after the hew hire has been employed for a year. Why? As Sellmeyer explains, “it makes the employee invested in helping the new employees stay.”
- Tip #5: Mentor and tutor employees who have the potential to grow with the company.
Hiring the right employees can be a challenge, but setting the bar high can pay off in the end: “Try to hire someone who’s smarter than you. Don’t be threatened by them. You can only build from that. Hire the guy who can take your position. Because you can’t move up until they move up,” explains Jeanna Sellmayer. The path to promotion starts with you, “anyone who wants to better themselves, I am right there side-by-side with them.”
- Tip #6: Challenge your employees. See how they respond.
Instead of working within the confines of their job description and daily tasks, Jennifer Fogg, COO, of ASSET Group, Inc., encourages small business owners to challenge their employees to work outside the box. “Really great leaders do more than just recognize talent, they promote talent within others…that usually comes when we task them with more than we think they might be able to handle.”
- Tip #7: Pay attention to the families of your employees. Your business depends on their support.
Building a strong team also means taking into consideration those who support the team — the families of your employees. Plan company functions and events that are oriented towards employees and their families — from picnics to movie nights; bring your kids/pets to work days — the choice is yours and needn’t break the bank.
- Tip #8: Incentives are a great way to engage and stimulate the employee support for your mission.
In addition to standard incentives, such as “employee of the month”, consider recognizing achievement by functional or project achievement. For example, ASSET Group, a full-service contractor firm, recognizes their “Superintendent of the Year” with a new work truck and hardhat. They also honor their “Safety Person of the Year” and incentivize employees for project completion.
- Tip #9: Do not expect lifetime loyalty; get the most of the relationship you have at the time. Invest in your employees.
Your employees are one of your greatest assets. An investment in them is an investment in your business. It’s a philosophy Jeanna Sellmeyer endorses, “we work hard and play hard… Because people are happy they do better work… it makes talent want to come here and it helps you retain talent…if you don’t treat your people well they are going to go somewhere else.”
- Tip #10: Make giving to the community part of your corporate culture. And support your employees in their efforts to help others.
Inacom came up with an interesting idea while brainstorming with its employees about their vacation needs and philanthropic goals — it would offer all its employees up to a week off to do social service work and pay 50% of their salary, over and above their vacation time. So “together we provide the means, the opportunities and the ideas to make a difference in the world”
To view this “Strategies for Growth: Team Building” and 27 other videos in the SBA’s Strategies for Growth series, visit the Business.gov You Tube Channel. In addition to “Team Building – Advice from an Expert” and “Team Building Short Cuts“, other topics include marketing, government contracting, exporting and more.