Back in the late 1980's and early 1990's I had a rapidly growing IT and outsourcing business called LINC Computer. We were pretty much the first foreign-run IT company in Japan specifically servicing other foreign firms, and since we started business in 1987, our timing turned out to be well synched to the growth of the financial services bubble in the late 1980's.
Growth is exciting to be part of, with the phones ringing off the hook, big projects rolling in, and clients just happy that they have found someone, anyone, who could do the job. However, it's also really testing. You need to hire people quickly and get them up to speed, you need to watch the cash flow, and most importantly, you need to keep everyone pointed in the same direction, since the high level of stress can tear a previously satisfied team apart.
Once I found out that one of my software developers was a "closet HR Manager", he and I got together and started looking at the business and what the problems were. After identifying me as the first major problem, he gave me some personal sessions where I had to explore what leadership meant and how communication was so important. Not just any communication, but rather, very directed and purposeful imparting of the company's purpose, goals, and continuity.
This was hard going at first, because as the boss I hadn't realized that my actions could have such an effect. It was all too easy to blame everyone else for inadequate performance. But as they say in the teaching business, the students are only as good as the teacher. Thus, I forced myself to stop complaining in public, get rid of the negativity, and start focusing on what was good about the business and what could be even better if we put some effort into it.
After it was clear that I'd got the message, my HR guy and I started working on a plan to convert the team. First we started with an overall plan of what I wanted the team to be like. My ideal was to have each manager look after their own business as a mini-company, yet at the same time; share ideas, business leads, and resources across the other teams in the company. This meant lots of distributed, self-directed key employees. I also wanted to have those managers perpetuate my values of mutual respect for other employees, and of course to make profits.
We then looked at how to impart this training. We decided that the best way forward would be to have the managers go through the same transformation process that I did, learning what your personal goals are and how after you understand these you can turn around and motivate others - because your colleagues are no longer competitors or irritations, instead they're the means to help you achieve your goals and need to be nurtured to do so.
We did a number of off-site sessions at my apartment - all of us gathered around our HR guy like so many kids at school. At first, some of the other managers thought the training would be a waste of time, but I was so insistent that we do the program together, that they played along. Our HR guy prepared lots of self-discovery exercises and role-plays to help our team bond. It took us some weeknights, weekends, and missed work days to start to gain traction, but after a while the other team members started to open their eyes and realize that working in our company was more than just a job, it was an opportunity to transform their lives. This may all sound very evangelical, and believe me I was just as cynical before we started, but I have to say that there is something special about human bonding, and once it happens, you can move mountains.
As part of the training, we all learned that even people from the same background have different values and skills (and we had 6 managers all of different nationalities). So to improve our multicultural tolerance levels, we set a base of "acceptable behaviors" and shared values. We all agreed that we'd teasingly remind each other when we deviated from these behaviors and values, and that the peer group would help each of us lift our game.
For me the penultimate proof of the newly shared sense of values is when LINC Computer decided to move to a new and larger office.
In the old days, we would have brought in a moving company, and tried to dicker with the vendor to get costs down. Instead, one of the team members had the great idea that we should pay our own staff to do the move, and that the management team would play a core role - to demonstrate that leadership is also doing, not just talking. So not only did we all lift boxes and furniture, we even laid our own LAN cables and built our own raised floor (with timber and a very powerful circular saw). I vividly remember when we finished late one Sunday evening, virtually the entire company was there, having post-move drinks and admiring the handiwork. Different people were joshing each other Japanese style, while others were pointing out something they'd built or "designed". I let the scene sink in and thought to myself; this is what teamwork is really all about.