On caring, co-elevation and connectedness: How to build a great team

Dr. Henryk Krajewski | 7 January 2021

No one wants to be led by someone who pretends to never have a bad day and trades only in corporate platitudes and optimism.

Originally featured in Forbes.

I recently co-facilitated a workshop with executive team gamechanger and New York Times bestselling author Keith Ferrazzi on practices that make executive teams great. In a discussion with other CEO coaches and facilitators during that afternoon, we all shared a great deal about elevating teams — especially during this revolutionary time. Below, I share with you some lessons we took from each other — lessons that all senior leaders can benefit from.

Lesson 1: 'Great' Teams Are Not For Everyone

Great executive teams are those that have fun, make a meaningful impact and get great results. In today’s new virtual reality — one that will persist in many forms long after vaccines take hold — great executive teams must undertake what Ferrazzi has called a great “re-contracting.” This re-contracting involves a lot more than the adage that team members must simply respect each other. In fact, they need to deeply care about one another. They must care about each other’s outcomes. They must care to give difficult feedback. They must care as much about how their teammates show up as they do themselves.

What does this type of caring look like? Take CEO Jeff C., who pilots a global leader in the employee engagement and recognition space. Jeff’s team cares enough to regularly and frequently do "fast feedback" and skip-level feedback, which gives them a consistent flow of information on how they are performing as teammates and leaders. This feedback is often tough, but it keeps them sharp and evolving. And better yet, they learn how to give and take feedback while maintaining a culture of safety and high achievement — a balance that is hard to get right. As Google’s famous Project Aristotle showed, great teams are not built from the smartest people, or even the most diverse, though those things help. Instead, Google found that great results come when teams feel psychologically safe to say things that are most critical to the business and each other. Too often, we see teams that bump along with "good enough" and are too heavily invested in protecting themselves and never really committing to something different. Great teams must care enough to re-contract, truly care and show it!

Lesson 2: Kill Report-Outs, And Co-Elevate Instead

If there is one practice that must be eliminated from corporate reality, it is the ubiquitous Monday morning meeting. You know, the one where teams go around the table and report out on what’s happening in their areas. The one where there is talking, but little discussion. The one that further siloes versus de-siloes the organization.

Rather than simply reporting, teams must consider new ways to engage with, learn from and contribute to one another. In what Ferrazzi calls “co-elevation,” teams don’t have one-way conversations; rather they bring their biggest challenges to the table and let others share their experience. Here, they commit, radically, to one another’s success. This requires two things: first, the safety and trust to bring such challenges forward without judgment (see lesson one, above). Second, the checking of ego and the willingness to be vulnerable. The executive team should be regarded as a network of support wherein the biggest challenges never have to be met alone.

There is no special structure that must be used. But while the CEO is a member of the team, too, they do have the responsibility of creating the conditions for safety. How to make vulnerability a standard operating procedure? Go first. Phil S. — CEO of a top human resources software-as-a-service company — made it a priority during the pandemic's darkest days to share his own wins and, more importantly, his struggles. No one wants to be led by someone who pretends to never have a bad day and trades only in corporate platitudes and optimism. People desire authenticity and realism — someone to relate to and connect to. Phil shared with all employees his ups and downs, family and personal struggles — things his employees are also going through. In so doing, he created a community of support — and of safety — where imperfection is not glorified but supported and addressed through sharing and community.

Lesson 3: Interconnectedness Is Key

In a landmark piece of research by MIT’s Sandy Pentland et al. (HBR, April 2012), effective team outcomes were, primarily, a product of their degree of interconnectedness. This included watercooler time, leaning on each others’ doors, social time, in fact... any time. As a group, we talked a lot — as Ferrazzi does in his writing — about generosity and intimacy. Without interconnectedness, a team cannot care, cannot co-elevate, cannot be generous, nor can they develop the intimacy to be safe. Thus, being interconnected — in the right ways — is a gateway to great teams.

What are paths to interconnectedness, particularly during this remote-work reality? Consider the case of Dennis L., CEO at a major global real estate development firm. He and his team created a thriving worldwide virtual community for employees — one that sees two-thirds of them log on weekly to connect with each other. Some of the content they curate includes employee-driven “House Views” wherein employees from five or six global locations will co-host thoughtful discussions on a point of interest to the company. These discussions connect faces and teams, build strategic competence in what the company is doing and why and give employees — not management — time to design and shine. With an engaged audience, this virtual, global community has formed a sort of reliance on one another, a reliance that builds engagement — and knowledge — even in a remote world.

Despite the challenges before us, there are opportunities — opportunities that can change, for the better, how we perform. They are opportunities that leading research by Google and MIT show are a product of psychological safety and connectedness. Opportunities that many forward-thinking CEOs are putting into practice. Perhaps it's time for us all to take our team practices to the next level, too.


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