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3 Steps to Building an Exceptional Team

June 17, 2016, 12:10 AM UTC
Business people meeting at whiteboard
Photograph by Hero Images — Getty Images

In a tough news week, a sweet CBS News segment has resurfaced that guarantees a big jolt of good feeling about humanity.

In the clip, photographer Richard Rinaldi is shown roaming New York, looking for people to photograph for a project called Touching Strangers. His request sounded simple: pose for a photo with a stranger but appear as though you’re a friend, a couple or a family member.

In ways both charming and practical, this is exactly what it’s like when an awkward new team comes together, complete with an anxious leader with a big job to do. And these days, teams form rapidly, are often virtual, with perfect strangers expected to perform near miracles while looking happy. “Cisco is making a big move to invest in the power of teams,” says SVP and Chief People Officer Francine Katsoudas. “All of our big breakthroughs happen in teams.” Helping them work better is a big priority.

About five months ago, Cisco completed a big internal study comparing their highest performing teams with a control group. There’s a real diversity play here, she says. “When we highlighted the teams that worked together the most efficiently, we found three key elements were in place.”

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The first, is assessment. Why, specifically, is this person there? “Everyone has unique skills that makes them valuable to the team,” she says. Understanding and articulating those strengths at the outset helps a new team look past any surface differences to focus on how to work best together.

Next she says, a leader must create an environment where teammates are expected to have each other’s backs. “That’s a critical component,” she says. And finally, how are they going to be successful? “We called this the shared values piece,” she says, “but it’s really about how the group will have a win.”

Katsoudas plans to turn the findings into trainings to help managers be better prepared to help diverse teams succeed from the start, adding to an array of tools available to the 73,040 Cisco employees. “Unconscious bias training has been incredibly useful,” she says, as are specialized trainings that employees from underrepresented groups attend with their managers. “Teams work better when people can connect with each other.”