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When culture meets teams

We learned that our people wasted roughly 25 per cent of their time fighting against a culture that wasn’t supportive
Corporate culture, leadership, c-suite
Not many executives think about how they operate or hold up a mirror to themselves. Shutterstock

By Suanne Nielsen

“Stellar teams are invariably made up of quirky individuals who typically rub each other raw, but they figure out — with the spiritual help of a gifted leader — how to be their peculiar selves and how to win championships as a team… at the same time,” said American business management expert Tom Peters.

In other words, you can have an excellent group of talented people, but optimizing that talent without getting them to work together as a team will create unique business challenges. In fact, what you end up having when you have a top talent pool not working as a team is a collection of functional silos that might be moving the business forward, but you’re also missing out on other opportunities.

Organizations can have a strategy, but without a team and supportive leadership that’s aligned to implementing it, inspiring and steering the organization through it, you’ll never be successful.

To use American business consultant Jim Collins’ famous analogy, it’s about getting the right people on the bus and getting them in the right seats.  Then, the real work is getting the team to work together effectively.

We source talent through the gig economy in different forms — my post on it can be read here. When a borderless geography is added to this new work culture, the complexity of creating high-performance teams across varying dimensions increases exponentially.

Last year at Foresters Financial, we backed into team dynamics when we set out to create a company culture that would help us with our business strategy. Starting out, our executive team hadn’t consciously planned to include a discussion on our working together as a team more effectively. The focus was to create a culture that would drive the success of the strategy and align employees.

Unfortunately, not many executives think about how they operate or hold up a mirror to themselves. At Foresters, we certainly didn’t before this point. The dialogue started with employees and how to align them to our common culture.

We engaged a consultant who helped us conduct a culture survey in the organization. The survey asked respondents three guiding questions:

  • What are your values?
  • What values do you experience in the organization today?
  • What values would you experience if the organization was operating at its best?

All Foresters employees participated in this survey.

In the second phase of the culture exercise, the consultant interviewed 50 leaders across our organization to dig deeper about what they were experiencing at work that drove the values they held, and what needed to change to make the organization more successful.

Finally, the executive leadership team was taken offsite where the consultant played all our responses back to us in what was termed a “mirror session.” She took quotes from the conversations she’d had with the 50 leaders and posted them on large flipcharts around the room. The room was quiet while each of us on the executive team walked around and read what we said about each other and what the leaders said about us. There was nowhere to hide.

At that moment, the penny dropped.

All of us realized the problem was us. This was the trigger for change. What we learned from the culture survey was that our people wasted roughly 25 per cent of their time fighting against a culture that wasn’t supportive. We needed to get our act together as a team first to provide leadership to the organization.

The action we took was to step back — something that teams don’t do, which isn’t surprising because we don’t do this even in our personal lives — and design how we want to be with each other. We created an executive leadership team charter to define how we want our relationships to be with each other, beginning with what we should stop doing that was contributing to the dysfunction, and also identifying new behaviors to start practising.

The charter went a long way in sending a signal to the organization. We gathered those 50 leaders and discussed how we want to do things differently as a team, and engaged them similarly in a process with their teams. This was a significant step toward building a team culture within the organization.

Where are we now in this journey of building a high-performance executive team and culture?   

Our CEO, who was our champion of this initiative, left the organization in the summer, and a search is underway to appoint a new CEO. With a new CEO, we will need to step back and redefine what a high-performing team looks like. As new members leave and come onto the executive team, our team charter needs to be refreshed, particularly when the new team member is the CEO — the one individual who must champion culture.

I’ve learned a few lessons from this experience. First, it’s critical to design the relationships you want to foster, and the mechanisms you will use to work effectively with each other. Second, you must create safe ways for people to raise issues with each other when their colleague is offside. Our expectation is that we will create Culture Champions throughout the organization who will coach and guide people through these difficult conversations. Third, this change had to be led from the top. Without CEO support, it becomes the last priority on the agenda.

In addition, when executives are asked who’s on their team, most name the ones who are directly reporting to them and the direct report team. What I challenge people to do is to think of “Team One” as their team of peers. It’s important to be responsible to your peers first. Leaders run into challenges when they don’t manage their relationships across the organization. Taking care of Team One will make it much easier for Team Two (direct reports) to function effectively.  Managing up and managing down are what most people do. What I advise is to manage across. Its harder to do, and much more effective.

At SCNetwork’s event Learning in Thin Air: Is building a high performance team like climbing Mount Everest? 51st Canadian Everester Scott Kress will be presenting proven strategies and tools for building high-performance teams.

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Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and global chief administration officer at Foresters Financial in Toronto. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Suanne and do not necessarily reflect the official position(s) or opinion(s) of SCNetwork members or Foresters. For more information about the SCNetwork, visit
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