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August 22, 2019

Leading healthy teams

Jeff Lightner

I’m often asked to pinpoint elements that help make Marsh & McLennan Agency a global leader in employee benefits, insurance, and risk management services. In my response, I highlight several key assets—our people; our comprehensive, customer-focused solutions; our commitment to responsible corporate citizenship; and more. Yet time and time again, I emphasize one element in particular that’s woven into the fabric of our DNA and truly fuels our success: healthy teams.

The word “team” suggests personal unity and common purpose, but not all teams are united or work toward common ends. In fact, unhealthy teams exist in all corners of business and society. Boards, committees, business units, non-profit organizations, and institutions — even the roster of your favorite sports team — may include individuals with incompatible personalities and divergent agendas. As a result, organizational goals are either ill-defined or non-existent; time, energy and resources are spent non-productively; engagement suffers; accountability declines; and ultimately, organizational viability is jeopardized.

At Marsh & McLennan Agency, we recognize the essential role that healthy teams play in driving all facets of our business. In this regard, we’ve identified seven primary building blocks that form the foundation of healthy teams:

  1. Self-awareness and mutual appreciation. Members of healthy teams work together, so they must understand who they work alongside; what everyone’s role is on the team, including their own; why the team exists; how stated objectives are pursued; and how work gets done in a collaborative context. From this, genuine relationships can begin to develop, which leads to…

  2. Trust. As it’s often said, trust is earned, not given. It emerges from shared experiences in which individuals learn that they truly can rely on one another — and it’s strengthened in an environment that welcomes and appreciates all contributions and perspectives. Trust builds a sense of collective destiny; it boosts morale and productivity, and ultimately, it facilitates outstanding work and tangible ROI.

  3. Respect. In a truly healthy team environment, each team member respects every other member. That’s a tough challenge. Sociologists and anthropologists who study group dynamics assert that humans have evolved to categorize and rank group members based on numerous factors. This results in social hierarchies that don’t necessarily promote equal trust among all members of a given group. It’s vital that members work to recognize the unique and specialized assets of their team peers and find ways to collectively leverage those strengths. That doesn’t mean everyone has to agree on every issue. On the contrary, respectful debates disagreements can inspire creative solutions and help the team bond more deeply.

  4. Vulnerability. Men may feel that they’re expected to show unwavering strength. Women may consciously try to avoid the false stereotype that they’re more emotional. Yet, vulnerability is an exceptionally strong tool — and it’s essential for healthy teams. When you are emotionally vulnerable, it allows people to connect with you. They root for you. They want to help you. It can create powerful attachments.

    What are some appropriate and productive ways of demonstrating emotional openness and vulnerability?

    - Acknowledging contributions of others
    - Admitting to a failure or admitting you are wrong
    - Asking for advice or assistance
    - Complimenting
    - Empathizing
    - Apologizing
    - Helping someone else succeed
    - Sharing problems and challenges as appropriate
    - Talking about how you feel - not just what you think - about an important        issue

  5. Humility. At Marsh & McLennan Agency, it personifies our organizational structure and approach to service. Traditional corporate structures are like pyramids: larger numbers of lower-level staff reside at the bottom, reporting to and serving a smaller number of higher-level staff, who, in turn, report to and serve a select few senior managers and executives. Conversely, an organization based on the tenet of humility essentially flips the pyramid so that executives exist to support managers and staff on the next level, who then support those on the next level, and so on. We’re all in it together here — and that’s not just words on a piece of paper. I commit myself every day to helping our people be more successful in what they do. Whatever that takes, I’m committed to it 100 percent. It’s a philosophy that works for us — and I strongly recommend it for your organization.

  6. Processes. Healthy teams need direction, so effective processes establish methods of engagement and cooperation in team settings. Specific projects may require tailored approaches, so it’s vitally important for team members to discuss processes at the outset of any initiative. Putting clear processes in place, along with specific responsibilities for each team member, helps to reduce opportunities for error and increase the chances for success.

  7. Communication. Healthy teams build communication tools and protocols into their frameworks and encourage open and proactive communication. Recently, the Dayton, Ohio, community experienced a devastating series of tornadoes, and our offices were shut down for two days. But our team members stayed in constant contact with one another, checking on everyone’s well-being, making sure client needs were met, and just lending support during a very difficult time. The tornadoes may have wreaked havoc on our community, but they strengthened the unity and collective purpose of our team.