HIGH PERFORMING TEAMS: How Great Leaders Build Them, Part 2May 24, 2021
INTERVIEW WITH SEJAL AMIN, CTO AT KHOROS
At Thrive with Strengths, we are passionate about helping busy leaders reduce friction in their teams while getting better results and building a healthy, positive culture.
In our series Healthy Teams, Thriving Not Striving, we talk to seasoned leaders about what it takes to build and lead healthy, high performing teams. They share their insights, best practices, and occasional missteps, so that we can all become better leader of leaders.
Recently, we sat down with Sejal Amin, CTO at Khoros. She is a creative strategic thinker with a keen eye for what makes others strong and unique. Sejal has a fantastic pulse on her team and great insights into what it takes to lead healthy teams.
TWS: Can you share with me a time when you had to recalibrate a team? Maybe you were new to the team or maybe the team members were new to one another?
SA: You know, there was a moment when the team did feel misaligned. The degree of stress was heightened by the vast amount of change that was happening in the external environment. Escalations were happening constantly and the team's ability to problem solve was diminished. As a leader, I found myself roaming into spaces which I wouldn't normally go.
"Call a timeout with the team."
What I did in that moment was to call a timeout with the team. I was direct about what I saw, what was happening, and why I thought it was happening. I asked the team their perspective on whether they observed the same. The key here was to have an effective reset. Everyone had to agree where we were and that we were in fact having a problem. We had to agree that we all saw the same challenge. Then, we needed to get back on the straight and narrow again through a process of recognition, resetting our goals, and resetting expectations on what we were going to do differently.
TWS: That takes self-awareness, I believe. Tell me how you help your people grow in self-awareness of their strengths, gaps, and weaknesses?
SA: The first and foremost is by modeling and being aware of how the emotions you have project to your people. Look, emotions are proven to be contagious, especially from leaders to their team. So only by being self-aware and socially aware can you learn to manage that. When I got the team together, I immediately recognized what I had done to contribute to the situation and the moment I did that, people opened about how they were feeling in that situation and recognized their own contributions to the environment.
Beyond just practicing that self-awareness, actively listening is another important practice. You can't really be attuned to the emotions of others if you're just waiting for your turn to speak. I think active listening conveys respect to the person that you're listening to. An emotionally aware and intelligent leader is humble and confident enough to listen even if they don't like what they are hearing. You must listen and figure out what part of that criticism you're going to take and improve.
"I immediately recognized what I had done to contribute to the situation and the moment I did that, people opened about how they were feeling..."
The last thing to point out is helping people shine. Powerful contentment can be found from giving credit to others when they've been successful, even if you've been heavily involved in it. It is rarely a feather in your hat to say, “Look what I did!” vs., “Hey, look what they did!” So giving credit to people and taking responsibility for your team's failures is a great quality of how you manage and lead a team.
TWS: Helping people shine! I love that phrase. What has helped you shine the light on your team members, helped you praise and recognize them in a way that is meaningful to them?
SA: I’m going to give a long-winded answer to this.
I want to start by making the point that for a team to really be a team, they must be aware of each other's wants, needs, and motivations. I’ve heard a saying recently that I’m going to repeat here, “Connection eats control for breakfast.” What does that really mean? It may feel odd to bring up relationships in the context of work and high performing teams, but work is a fundamentally social human activity. It is relational.
“Connection eats control for breakfast.”
The stuff of spreadsheets and figures is a healthy symptom of a really great team. So, what leads to that? It's facilitating psychological safety and it's something that I’m a big advocate of. I think it's the most important thing a leader can do at every level in the organization. Teams look to find that safe place and the true job of the leader is not to command and control but more about climate control. That climate is established from understanding your own core values, living those values, exemplifying them, and everything you do every day.
"Teams look to find that safe place and the true job of the leader is not to command and control but more about climate control."
You’ve seen Google’s research on teams. There's no magic mix there - skill types, hierarchy, demographics etc. There's no one size fits all to make a team work. I think teams get to incredible outputs through working together and by encouraging each other. It comes through trust and respect. So, when it comes to valuing people, it's important to understand their unique attributes, their unique abilities, and leverage those capabilities on a team.
The best advice I have for building teams is to be aware of the individuals on your team and adding individuals to your team of different backgrounds and experience to round the team out. As you're getting to know individuals, you also get to understand what kind of recognition drives them and in what form it's best received. Recognition must be given to individuals and teams in the ways that they best receive it.
Joanna, you were coaching our team and if you remember, one of the things that they called out was that we didn't spend enough time celebrating our team's successes. That was one of the takeaways or the homework that you had given us. So, we started a newsletter that celebrated good news. Team leaders had to provide input into the newsletter. It wasn't the leaders passing the input down, rather it was coming from the ground up. By the third iteration, the teams were so excited to see their names in writing that the letter got longer and longer. After six months, it was so successful in my space that it was picked up and it's being applied across the engineering organization.
TWS: That's fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing that practical example on how to celebrate team's wins. Now, I would love to hear your best practices in fostering healthy communication within a team.
SA: When building a team and elevating it to high performance, it's important to invest in shared goals, common understanding, and established ways of working. If your team doesn't have a mission, I think they're not a team, they are individuals that are just working side by side. If individuals have conflicting goals, they end up working against each other. And if they're working against each other or even think they are, you can't expect them to trust each other, right? So, trust goes out the window.
The idea of common understanding, which you've helped us with this year, is how well does your team really know each other and how well do they understand each other's strengths and weaknesses? Even if people have worked together for years, you'd likely be surprised with the answer. In the context that you were operating with us, there were some people around the table who did know each other for years and still learned new things about each other. There were also several new people that didn't know anything about each other, and I think the newer people around the table assumed that the people that had the longer standing relationships knew everything about each other. The reality was they didn’t.
"...how well does your team really know each other and how well do they understand each other's strengths and weaknesses? Even if people have worked together for years, you'd likely be surprised with the answer."
I think it's important to understand each other's background, areas of expertise, interest, any personal development goals they might be working on. It helps them get connected. All these attributes make you more approachable, human, and easier to connect with. All these things establish trust and respect. those two things are incredibly important.
Now, let's talk about ways of working, these are established norms and behaviors that the team's going to follow to get things done. How and when do we share and communicate about our work? How do decisions get made? What behaviors are encouraged? How are we going to deal with conflict? I think differing work and communication styles can show up in different ways and can either help or hinder progress, so it's important to understand those dynamics because that then establishes some of the communication practices.
I like frequent communication with my team. We may have a standing meeting that's once a week. but I also like the frequent touch points throughout the week to communicate relevant information. Even more importantly, frequent touch points for feedback. I think real time feedback is such a powerful tool that builds trust. As a leader, when I see something and I have the five minutes, I’ll take the time to make that phone call and give the feedback in real time.
TWS: Do you have a certain cadence to one-on-one meetings with your team members?
SA: I like to do quick meetings with my direct team leaders. Quick means 30 minutes every week. Sometimes we end up canceling if we've had other touch points during the week. Also, flexibility is key in this context.
TWS: When it comes to high performing teams, how does charging a team with a challenge foster collaboration?
SA: Teams that are high performing will absolutely work through it. When you've given them a challenge, teams get scrappy, they get creative, and they figure out how to get to the outcome. I think the important recipe is that you tell them what you want the outcome to be and let them chart their way to it, rather than a prescribed approach. A team that is connected will chart a path to the outcome.
TWS: Sejal, you know that anytime we get two people in the same room there's a good chance for conflict. How do you help your people work through conflict in a way that's healthy and productive?
SA: Protocol number one is to never step in. Nine times out of ten, it solves itself if you've created an environment where that kind of conflict is self-managed.
TWS: Let me ask you one more question, Sejal. What is one tip that you could offer to a leader who's just stepping into leading people?
SA: Listening! I think, listening is the most important thing. As a new leader, you can't know what's going on with people if you're not listening and just waiting for your turn to speak. It's incredibly hard in this new mode that we're operating in because we're not talking in person with each other. It's your job as a leader to find different cues that are not just listening. I think it conveys respect to the person that you're with.
"As a new leader, you can't know what's going on with people if you're not listening and just waiting for your turn to speak."
As a leader, if you're picking up cues based on body language, based on how teams are behaving, based on how you see people communicating with each other, it elevates your performance as a leader. Remember that your job as a leader is not necessarily command and control but it's climate control.
TWS: Climate control! I’m writing that phrase down, I love that. Sejal, thank you! I appreciate your insights into building and leading healthy, high-performing teams.
If you’re looking for more ideas around getting the most out of your team, download a copy of the Executive Guide to Healthy Teams.