How To: Turn Around a Team

UPDATED: November 7, 2011
PUBLISHED: November 7, 2011

Dysfunctional relationships are one thing. But what if your entire team is dysfunctional? What does a leader do if the whole team’s failure to work together results in backbiting, low productivity, poor sales, high turnover and an atmosphere loaded with tension and resentment?

“As the leader of a department, two things are critical: expectations and trust,” says Mike Figliuolo, founder of management consultancy thoughtLEADERS and author of One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership . “You have to walk in and very clearly say, ‘I don’t care how we got here, but here are my expectations on how people are to behave and here are our performance standards.’ If people don’t know they are messing up, they are going to keep messing up, and that’s unfair.”

There is power in making it clear that no one will be fired initially. This creates a sense of security that is critical to the teamwork and trust required to turn around a poorly functioning department, says Kevin Lombardo, CEO of Denver-based management consultancy Summit Group Partners.

“It’s easy to walk into a new management position and identify a Jack or a Joe who is the bad apple, and just get rid of them,” Lombardo says. “Instead you have to step in and create the culture of the department. You need to be decisive and go in with the thought process of, ‘How can we really engage the entire department by working as a team?’ ”

First, assume the best in the team, says Brad Worthley, a Bellevue, Wash.-based professional training consultant. “In employee surveys, I find that 95 percent of people love their jobs and the companies they work for, but 85 percent hate the office drama.” The takeaway: People want to do a good job but often either don’t know how or lack a leader to free them to do their best work.

The initial action step is to create your own set of guiding principles, Figliuolo says. He advises creating a list of 10 “leadership maxims,” philosophies that guide your professional and personal life, written in everyday language. Share this list with your employees. “People will get a really good feel for who you are and what you’re about,” he says. This creates consistency. “Team members can apply the maxims to any decisions they make and use them as a way to predict your behavior. Then they begin to trust you.”

Create nonnegotiable standards to which each employee must adhere, Worthley advises. This can include everything from customer service standards to office behavior like gossiping. It should also clearly state the ramifications of failing to stick to the standards.

Train team members on effective communication. “Most people have never in their lives been taught how to communicate,” Worthley says. It might make sense to bring in an outside consultant or require team members to read a book on communication.

Speak with each individual. Find out what motivates them. What are their strengths? “This makes the team feel that someone is listening and that their opinions are important, and the manager learns about them and how they operate,” Figliuolo says. Find ways to best motivate each person, and consider reassigning employees to roles that play to their strengths.

First Person

Company: Phoenix International Raceway

Source: Scott Rovn, vice president of sales and marketing

Employees on team: 8

Problem: The corporate sales team was not aggressively pursuing new clients and sales.

NASCAR has been a really strong seller, so when I arrived in 2004, there was a culture of surviving on just answering the phone. Our goal was to shift that into a more aggressive and strategic outbound sales culture focused on creating new business.

The entire process was very positive. It was not about saying anyone did anything wrong or threats of firing people. I explained the vision for the company, where we wanted the business to go and how to get there. People working in sports have a passion for it and are motivated anyway, but they needed to be assured they would be taught how to make the necessary changes without changing who they are as people.

With the help of a consultant, we identified the personality type of each team member: controller, performer, analyst or emphasizer. This helped them understand themselves but also helped me as a manger better motivate and help support them. For example, we had one person who was very analytical and good at doing the research about the potential client but not so great at presentations or identifying prospects. Knowing that helped me guide him and help him be successful.

The biggest change we made was creating quotas—both the number of calls each salesperson has to make each day, week and month, and the amount of sales. People are now rewarded on their annual bonus—we don’t have commissions—but the biggest motivator is really about our success as a team and as a company.

We’ve had a total turnaround in culture. Not only are we growing clients and sales, but if someone isn’t making their numbers, I am more effectively able to go in and help the salesperson make the changes they need to be successful.

First Person

Company: Patagonia, based in Ventura, Calif.

Source: Doug Freeman, vice president of global supply chain and development

Employees on team: 80

Problem: A lack of communication and trust led to an ineffective factory supply chain.

When I arrived four years ago, the staff was full of really good people, but they were not doing their best work. Patagonia employees are passionate about their jobs. However, morale was low, and there was a real lack of communication and trust. The previous management had not done a good job of delegating, and as a result, there was a lack of process; the right people were not making the decisions. As a result, the factories were not assigned to the right garments, which also affected quality.
The supply chain also had lots of problems: Deliveries were chronically late, the backorder volume was too high, product margins were lower than they could be because of the ineffective supply chain and there were far too few people on staff for quality control.

When I came in, I restructured each department around product categories and found experts within the team for each category. I then went to the board and asked for funding for more quality and sourcing positions, which improved quality, deliveries and pricing. We got the entire team together and very clearly outlined what our goals were for the company and each department, the roles each person played and how we planned to reach our objectives.

In four years, we increased the number of quality control staff members from four to 12, reduced the number of factories from 108 to 45 and drastically improved margins, timely deliveries and the percentage of returns. The company’s last two years have been the best on record, and morale is way up. People do well personally when the company does well.

First Person

Company: KPA, environment and safety compliance and human resources, based in Lafayette, Colo.

Source: Bill Duclos, vice president of operations

Employees on team: 50

Problem: High turnover, low morale and margins

When I arrived in February 2007, there was a real lack of trust from the team of engineers. The lack of communication and consistency resulted in things like the bonus structure changing drastically three times in 18 months. No one knew what to expect. And there was no system in place to make sure that our engineers were sticking to a schedule to visit clients consistently, which is how we recognize revenue.

Within the first 45 days on the job, I made visits to each of our six district offices, where I got to know everyone. I made sure each person understood that I was not there to fire them, but to see how they did things and find ways to do them differently. I asked each district manager for input on how we could better deliver our services to our clients, and I made sure their input was heard. These suggestions were incorporated into our new operating procedures.

At that time, margins were not what they could have been. Managers were being told what to do without a reason why. Also, the bonus program was very subjective. I put in place a system where managers review the company financials monthly, and part of their bonuses are tied to their district’s profits, as well as to client retention. Not only do they now know their expenses, but they also see their revenue and the impact if a client visit is not made.

There was also a lack of support and feedback. To this day I meet with each district manager one-on-one every week to make sure we are on track. We implemented quarterly performance reviews for every employee. We also created a “career path” document for the division and developed a best practices model for hiring, leading to a more consistent onboard training process, which again reinforced consistency.

Within 12 months, the engineer retention rate improved from 62 percent to more than 91 percent, and gross margins improved from the low 40s to 53 percent. The percentage of engineers who are satisfied with their leader improved from the low 60s to 88 percent.

Emma Johnson is a business journalist, gender-equality activist, and founder of the world's largest community of single moms, Emma and her best-selling book, The Kickass Single Mom, and her organization, Moms for Shared Parenting, have been featured in hundreds of national and international media outlets.