Gary Bond is one of AIIR’s executive coaches, and he works with leaders and teams to develop excellence. He has worked with teams in more than 30 countries and founded his own training and consulting firm called Versicon Consulting. This interview about his work with team effectiveness was conducted and condensed by Alex Schanne.
Alex Schanne: I was hoping that you could start by giving me a bit of background about your experience as a coach and your particular interest in team coaching.
Gary Bond: I’ve always had an interest in people. I trained as an econometrician. So when you talk about people who are not very people oriented, econometricians tend to fall into that category, analytical, looking at numbers all day long. When I got assigned to a project often what I found out was that the technical problems were not the main issue. It was almost always people challenges.
Then back in the 1980’s I owned an IT training and consulting company, and over 12 years, we trained, believe it or not, a quarter of a million people. We would constantly have about nine major projects running, and when you have nine major projects running you’d better be a good project manager. I trained the project managers who worked for me. Then I sold that business in ’97 and continued a consulting business for a couple years.
Then I went to work on Wall Street and ended up doing just one large-scale project after another for about seven or eight years. I must have had about 60 different teams that I worked with during that period and I got to really enjoy it. I don’t like project management as much anymore because it’s so problem-driven, but I really like working with the teams. So that motivated me to focus on this area and do more of my work in coaching and team effectiveness rather than doing actual project management.
GB: The first thing about project managers is that they have to be people-oriented, and often people use the trite phrase “people person.” But they need to be people who have good communication skills, who can empathize with others and who are natural born leaders. If they’re task keepers or taskmasters, they don’t get very good results from people. They can’t motivate them. When we go in and talk to project managers to find out how they’re doing, we ask them three questions:
- What are your three or four biggest challenges on this project?
- What are your upcoming four milestones?
- And what are your three biggest risks on this project and how are you mitigating them?
We don’t say anything and we listen to the person. And about 80% of all the project managers cannot successfully answer those three questions. So the world of project management has a very unfortunate track record globally and in the US. About 50% of all projects finish with project results severely challenged and 25% of all projects fail outright or are abandoned within 18 months. So you have a success rate of 25%. When I look at project managers, that’s my lens, and I’ve had pretty good luck in improving the skills of project managers and improving project results.
AS: And what are those biggest mistakes that lead to those failures?
GB: I have a simple model I use, and I’ll relate some of this to the team effectiveness model. There are four quadrants:
First, there’s the foundation for what we’re doing. In the project management world, we would call that the project charter. If you do not have a clear vision of the problem that is realistic and really means something to the organization, you’re just going to have massive problems. You need really clear requirements of what you’re going to do.
The second is teamwork. When I go and talk to companies about project management I say to them, “The reason that 75% of all projects fail or are seriously challenged is that none of them teach teamwork.”
They’re just not concerned. They say, “Well, these people are paid to do this.” And while they are paid to do that, they don’t do it very well. When I ask project people what percentage of a budget on a large corporate project is spent on training, the answer is that there is no line item for it, and it normally constitutes less than one-tenth of one percent. It’s just mind-boggling. You’re going to bring these people together, and what you basically have are a bunch of independent contractors who have never worked together before, who have zero trust in one another because it’s never been earned, who often have competing interests and function independently and you call them a team.
The third is the execution. If you’re a well-functioning team your execution goes a hundred times better. You have those relationships. You can work together when differences and problems come up you can rise to the occasion and solve them.
The fourth is implementation. A lot of projects fail in the implementation stage by not anticipating the degree of change coming out of it. I spend time on team effectiveness trying to get people to understand how they may need to manage stakeholders. Nobody works in isolation. You have to think about how things are going to be perceived.
So, that’s a simple model: foundation, teamwork, execution, and implementation.
GB: I get them to talk about it and envision a team. I try to provide absolute clarity around the goals. I make sure they have the resources they need to get the work done. Then I have an obligation to make the team accountable and provide feedback and monitoring so we can get the work done. And what I expect from them is an honest day’s work. I’m going to give them 110% of my effort, and I need candid feedback and communication to work together.
I get the team to do a short exercise with me on how a team of 5-year-old soccer players becomes a team. We then move into getting them to define what they believe teamwork is, what the manager does, what the coach does. The exercise is energizing and opens up a productive discussion with remarkable consistency. The team is then asked how this will apply to their team. And that’s the starting point.
AS: And how do you communicate with these teams? What does a typical team engagement look like with you?
GB: I’ll talk about three different things:
- I’ll talk about a project manager role.
- Then I’ll talk about sort of a project coaching role, which I do fairly often for companies.
- And then I’ll talk a little bit just about a team effectiveness engagement.
So, on project teams, the world of project management has changed a lot and the work with teams has changed. Teams used to meet once a week. Now the Agile methodology is pretty prevalent. And with Agile methodology, there’s a daily meeting, called a daily stand-up or scrum meeting. In that meeting, people are reporting on what they did yesterday, what they’re going to do today, what their blockers are. A really good Scrum Master draws out issues, rewards people, recognizes them and creates that dynamic with the team. So on an Agile project, I’m intimately involved with the team on a daily basis. And with most teams, it takes me that one hour a day for a couple of months to get people to get really candid and forthright. The time varies a lot depending on the team and company culture.
Another one of the techniques I bring up during team effectiveness training is having people closely-coupled to get to know one another. Closely-coupled people are people that they get direct inputs from, team members they a directly dependent on, and people they hand things off to.
At the very beginning of the project with the team, I’ll have closely coupled people go to lunch and tell each other about their work and challenges. Then repeat that lunch about another week later and reverse the roles. And that’s one of the most immediate things I do before there’s a problem before there’s an issue: understand those people, find out what their challenges are in their work, and start to form that basis of a relationship. Without that relationship, I don’t think you can have a team. I work really hard to create that dynamic and opportunity. By constantly challenging and encouraging people, I can increase the level of active engagement.
AS: Sometimes when people have different ways of thinking, right-brain versus left-brain or different personality types, it can create issues in establishing a shared standard of communication. Are there any exercises you do to establish that common expectation for communicating?
GB: I have a whole section on communication and culture. People from different cultures confront things differently. And the way in which we run meetings and solicit opinions from people is fundamentally counterproductive. When we say is, “Does anybody have a question?” it really translates to, “Who’s the dummy in the room?” And so they don’t raise their hand. You need to put the onus back on the project manager, the team leader. So I encourage this concept of playback.
The team leader repeats their understanding, and then there are areas that you need clarification or additional information. So they ask the group about things they understood, didn’t understand, and items in particular that need explanation or clarification. You want to move the dialog from ‘telling’ and ‘acquiescing’ to interactive discussions, hearing competing ideas, and getting meaningful agreement or alignment.
AS: With such honest communication on a team, how do you manage people reacting poorly to feedback or having that negative experience with such honesty in a team environment?
GB: We build something I call the principles of the alliance or the Team Operating Principles. And one of the general cardinal rules that we have is you can challenge ideas, not people. And we talk about creating a respectful dialogue. I use Lencioni’s model where he talks about the five dysfunctions of a team as my core philosophy. I start at the bottom of the pyramid because he doesn’t start with distrust. He starts with an ‘absence of trust,’ which means that we come into the room in a neutral position, not trusting people. So trust is earned and built, and it’s done gradually by demonstrating positive action. Everybody in the room needs to be building that trust so we create that comfort level.
If we don’t have meaningful dialogue, we have often acquiescence or submit, and we may have false consensus over things, we’re actually not going to get to the “meat of the issue.” So when you’re done with a solid dialog with the team, it’s very easy to say to the team, “How do we want to conduct ourselves as a team, and how important is it to have competing ideas and opinions?”
So as part of the training, when people are having heated but respectful discussions, I will briefly interject in the conversation to commend them. One of the best ways you can get people to behave well is to reward them for positive behavior and encourage this sort of openness which is not insulting but accepted as a part of the process.
GB: Both. When I do the training, I actually teach them. And if I’m working as a coach, I might ask permission. In most of my coaching model for teams, what I do is I coach the team lead and somewhat the team.
I create a scorecard for the team lead to evaluate themselves. And then after the meeting, instead of saying, “Alex, here’s your report card,” I say, “Alex, take a look at the scorecard. Tell me, how did you do? But before you look at the scorecard, just your gut feeling, how did you do today? What makes you say that?”
I shy away from, “What did you do wrong? What could you have improved on?” When I work with the team coaching model instead of asking the team leader, I ask the team, “We have our terms of engagement or our alliance. There were six things that are on it. Let’s talk about it. How are we doing? How do we feel as a group?” It just depends on what the engagement is.
AS: And how much would you say is team culture and team effectiveness dictated by the effectiveness of their leader?
GB: The training that we did was really focused on the team and did not focus on the team leader. I would say that on average, based on empirical research that I see, that team leads have a lot to do with how effective the team is. In a perfect world, what I like is really dynamic teams with a lot of powerful people on them so there’s much less of a need for a strong team lead because the group tends to make decisions. The lead is more of a facilitator and their role is not nearly as strong.
That doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s wonderful. If I can get that to happen in 20-25 percent of cases, I consider myself almost a hero. What I shoot for is a good active team with solid contributions with not one person dominating.
And then I get some teams that basically are executing more of what the team lead has to say. They’re either not the right people or they’re just more junior level and they actually need some somebody to run a strong top-down meeting. I’m not a big believer in top-down meetings but in some cases, it’s just necessary.
AS: In the case where you need a strong effective team leader, what does that look like? What advice would you give to a team leader who wants to become more effective?
GB: When I do the training, I always talk about the concept of a servant leader. That we don’t really work in that old hierarchical world where the boss is the boss and everybody else has a secondary position. The team leader is a facilitator who is a good moderator, is getting ideas, who’s creating direction with a lot of input from people.
If you want to work in today’s world, you should be much more collaborative and you should be a really good moderator and facilitator who’s fair, who’s drawing out the most in people, and that your role should be limited in that capacity. But the job of the team lead is to help team effectiveness and get to become a high-performing team. That’s what team effectiveness is all about.