It seems like such a no-brainer that a team should understand why it exists, its raison d’être —and most do, up to a point. In my Team Relationship Management workshop, the first group-exercise is to answer the question: “Why does your team exist?” Seems obvious, right? There are always a few eye-rolls and ‘this will be a waste of time’ expressions. But the devil is in the details. The next slide reveals the rules…Write a 2-3 sentence statement which considers the reason your team exists in terms of your:

  • Value proposition to the broader organization
  • Value proposition to customers/stakeholders
  • Value proposition to team members

As a leader, a big part of your role is to make your team attractive to high-energy, talented people.

I’ve done this with many new first-level leaders as well as seasoned VP/GM’s and Directors. Everyone quickly answers the first two questions (though the replies often sound like corporate mission statements), then virtually everyone gets stuck on the third one. The most common response is, “no one ever asked me that before.” With a little guidance, and by framing the value proposition to team members with the example of convincing a talented candidate why they should join the team, most of the leaders connect the dots – team purpose is about people. As a leader, a big part of your role is to make your team attractive to high-energy, talented people. You can only do that if you are able to describe your team in terms of its purpose as it relates to them, not just customers and the broader organization.

The Power of Purpose

In 2017, Claudine Gartenberg, Assistant Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues published the results of a large-scale study they conducted on purpose and performance. They found that:

  • An organization’s purpose is not characterized by a formal announcement, but instead by a set of collective beliefs that are held by, and guide, the actions of employees.
  • Companies with a strong purpose are characterized by employees that, in aggregate, have a strong sense of the meaningfulness and collective impact of their work.
  • Organizations that demonstrate clarity of purpose among their knowledge workers, first-level leaders, and middle managers also exhibit superior accounting and stock market performance.
Team purpose is about people… and purpose is a fundamental, and universal, human psychological need.

Purpose is powerful because it is a fundamental, and universal, human psychological need. It is essential that every team member has clarity in their role and the reason their role exists, and that they find real meaning in performing that work. As a leader, your goal is to gauge how clearly people understand the contribution their work makes to the goals of the team, the broader organization, and their own aspirations. When you do that, you connect individual purpose with the team’s purpose and help people to do their best and be their best.

But that is the why not the how.

Finding Team Purpose

Developing a clear and compelling team purpose can be done in a relatively short amount of time by working through the following steps with your team on a whiteboard:

  1. Develop a set of specific objectives and key results that align with the broader unit or organization goals.
  2. Identify the key relationships, as well as the formal and informal communications processes, necessary to accomplish the goals of the team.
  3. Describe the context in which the team will operate. For example, a global virtual, a co-located, or a permanent functional team.
  4. List the key competencies people must have to be successful in delivering the team goals.
  5. Identify any gaps/areas to strengthen.

Reflecting on the goals, relationships, context, and competencies from the first four steps, develop a two- to the three-sentence team purpose statement. Make sure it’s clear and compelling.

With a clear, compelling purpose for your team to exist from the team members perspective, each person can more easily connect the dots to where they personally find meaning and purpose as an individual. That should then become a key topic for coaching conversations with each person on your team. As Andrew Carnegie observed, “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision, the ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”

This article is based upon excerpts from my book, Team Relationship Management: The Art of Crafting Extraordinary Teams


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