Very often in sports you see the interview with the quarterback who just won the Super Bowl or coach who just won the World Cup and they say, it’s all about the team. I could have never done it without this great bunch of guys…. Sports analogies are often overused in business, but if you think about it, it’s true, a championship quarterback or coach really is only as good as his team. Managers in companies need to be equally aware of this. Once you understand that you are only as good as your team, then the next step is to try to figure out what you can do to make your team a champion.
In a translation/localization company, the service that is ultimately provided to the client is heavily dependent on how well employees from different departments with different responsibilities work together. The PM is dependent on the sales person to pass on all relevant information about the project or client. DTP specialists and localization engineers need to have a complete understanding of what the clients localization plans are regarding their product line and how each project or update fits into the greater scheme of things. Everyone needs their computers to work quickly and efficiently, and without viruses, so a good IT department is essential. The company can’t run without money and thus the finance department is indispensable. The list goes on and on, but at the end of the day, what’s important to note is that all employees are dependent on each other for the success and survival of the company and, ultimately, for their jobs.
At Argos we have a mantra — that you won’t find any secretaries in our company. We make it clear that no job is more or less important than another. Everyone has an important job and everyone is a key member of the team.
So, how do you get employees to form a great team that offers the client outstanding customer service while, at the same time, manages to work together in an often highly stressful environment without biting each other’s head off?
Respect thy Neighbor
I believe that the key ingredient to ensure that your people can work well in teams is respect for one another. This might seem like obvious common sense, but as with many things that appear simple, it’s easier said than done.
From day one at Argos, you are taught that you must respect all other employees, regardless of what their job is. As I said, everyone does something important, even if their job is to take out the garbage. Of course, it’s more complex than this. We also do not tolerate office politics, people trying to get ahead at another person’s expense. Many companies try to motivate their employees by encouraging them to compete against each other. The idea behind such a strategy is that, in the end, everyone will work harder. While that might be a good strategy in some businesses, in our business it is counterproductive. We don’t motivate people by telling them to look at how well someone else is doing and then try to do better.
We are actually against such negative competiveness and we go out of our way to make sure employees know that this is something we disapprove of. In extreme cases, we have fired employees who, although productive and hard working, did not follow our policy about how they treated other people.
We take this very seriously in our company, but the end result is that employees at Argos treat each other professionally and with respect. We always tell people that you don’t have to love your co-worker or want to go out for a beer with them, but you have to respect them. We want employees to behave professionally toward each other all the time and our clients also need us to work well together as a team. Respect is the glue that makes the team stick together.
Learn to Trust
Ok, so it’s one thing to get members of your team to respect one another, but how do you make sure they do their jobs properly. For me, less is more here. Often companies come up with all sorts of performance measures in order to make sure that employees are working as hard as they should be. I have never been a big fan of this management style. If you create a system, people will naturally spend their time trying to figure out how to get around it. The main concern such “system” managers have is that employees will be lazy, that they won’t do what is needed without being controlled somehow. These managers flat out don’t trust the people who report to them. If you are such a manager, I recommend that you take a blind leap of faith and just try trusting your people. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve. Obviously you can’t just give them the keys to the castle and tell them to get on with it. So let me try to clarify what I am talking about. I think providing employees as much freedom as possible to make decisions about their job can work wonders. Involve your people in the key decisions that affect their work. The goal should be for people to come up with ideas about their work and then implement these ideas. It’s amazing what ownership of an idea or plan does for motivation. I believe that if you have good people, you just need to guide them, let them find the best way themselves. They will be far more motivated and will work much harder if they feel they have participated in a decision rather than being told what to do.
One disclaimer here is that this only works if you employ good solid employees. I am not saying it works for all people, for some, control may be necessary, but HR best practice is beyond the scope of this article.
At Argos we’ve gone the route of trusting employees and, so far, I think that it has worked out well. I believe that there is an unspoken deal at Argos. Employees are expected to work hard and get the job done, which means staying late and doing everything they need to do to make sure they get our projects back to our clients in as timely a fashion as possible and with as few errors as possible. The flip side of The Deal is that when there is less work, we understand that they may need to take care of their personal business on the internet, have a chat with a colleague or have a good game of foosball.
Now this does present some management challenges in that not all departments are created equal. There are two types of departments at Argos, proactive and reactive. In some departments, the work is proactive. This means that employees of these departments need to create their own work. The sales department is an example of such a department. There is an unlimited amount of work to do in the sales department. You can always look for a new client or make another telephone call. The second type of department is a reactive department. The PM department is a good example of a reactive department. Our clients determine how much work this department has. If there is a lot of work coming from clients, then the PM department needs to work very hard and manage all the projects and stay late if necessary. If there is less work coming in then the PMs have more free time.
As a result, we have a situation where we control more in some departments and less in others. What makes it challenging from a management point of view is that an employee from a proactive department might look at someone in a reactive department and say, why do they get such long breaks, how come every time I go to their room they are doing non-work related stuff on their computer, why do they go for long lunches, etc. Well, the answer is quite simple. These same people will have to stay on the job until it gets done; they can’t just go home and finish the job tomorrow. Still, even in these proactive departments, we do the best we can to allow as much freedom as possible for employees to create their own work. We believe this is fundamental to motivation. At the end of the day, it all comes down to trust. Take the leap of faith!
When all is said and done what we really care about at Argos is performance, regardless of whether an employee is proactive or reactive. As a result, this trust is really offered only to employees who can perform in such an environment (some people are just dying to be controlled, measured and tested). Employees we can’t trust won’t survive. Employees who take advantage of the opportunities our system offers flourish. At Argos, we call this the Unspoken Deal and, at the end of the day, I think it makes us a stronger company and a more appealing place to work.
Communication is King
I have covered respect and empowering employees by trusting them. Another key tool in empowering employees is providing them with access to as much information as possible. I have read about total participation management and am fascinated by it. In such companies, salaries and compensation packages are made public and employees work together to define goals and everyone shares in the success of the company. At Argos we haven’t gotten that far yet, but we do try to give employees as much information about what’s going on as possible. We regularly provide financial information, both revenue and profit. We give constant updates on our strategies and our success in achieving our goals. We inform people about any important changes or decisions that are being made in the company. If there are any new initiatives, we publish information about them. Information can be passed on in many different ways in organizations. Often the grapevine and other gossip channels are king. The way we look at it is that it’s best if we control the information channel rather than counting on channels that sometimes skew the message.
As a result, one of our most successful initiatives has been the introduction of a company blog. We have really developed a culture where employees in the company read news on the blog. This allows us to present information to all employees at the same time without taking up time to have huge company meetings. Some of the information that is passed on is not operation critical. Sometimes it can be minor, such as changes to the lunch ordering policy. However, we also use this tool to pass on key information. We feel that employees at Argos are really well informed about what is going on. That helps in terms of both motivation and empowerment.
Another key element of empowering employees is encouraging them to come to us with their problems, ideas and concerns. We want them to be innovative and, at the end of the day, we really want them to help us run and manage the company. In order to achieve this, we need to give them access and opportunities to talk to their managers and to me. We want to create direct channels of communication.
We have an open door policy at Argos and we have different ways of providing employees with direct communication channels. First, employees are encouraged by their managers to come to them at any time with ideas, problems — anything at all. In addition, we have a component in our appraisal system that is designed to enhance communication. After an employee is appraised by his/her manager I receive a summary of the appraisal and I have a 15-30 minute meeting with every single employee in the company. Argos is not a big company, but we do employ over 80 full time employees. I am sure some of you reading this must be thinking I am completely nuts to spend so much time annually on an additional post-appraisal meeting that doesn’t really add any value to the appraisal process.
I truly believe that these short post appraisal meetings (we call them briefs) are valuable for a number of reasons. First of all, it allows me to stay in touch with reality. I think it’s very valuable for me, as the CEO, to listen to and understand the problems and issues that employees are facing in their everyday work. It keeps me grounded. In addition, it provides employees a valuable communication channel. In those meetings, I am often pushing and pressing for ideas on how we can improve our business or I am trying to understand how the company can be run better. Often I get very valuable ideas from such meetings.
Yes, it’s true that it takes time to meet every single employee for a conversation like this once a year, but I think it’s worth it. It also takes time to write blog posts and to work on communication and developing trust and respect amongst employees. Still, I believe such efforts are worthwhile. The result is that employees feel like they can make a difference in the company and, it’s true, they can! If you achieve this then everyone benefits!
Its not easy to build a championship team. It takes time, patience and hard work, but a manager’s performance really is only as good as his/her team.