It is the summer season and I hope you all are taking advantage of the physical and mental recharge that comes with vacation. Lessons come from so many different directions if we are in a state of receptivity. New environments and surroundings, at least for me, tend to put me in a learning state.
The Buildings of Venice
I was up before sunrise in the unique and beautiful city of Venice and by 9 am I was on a walking tour with my compatriots led by local Venetian, Lucia. We learned many interesting facts about Venice and its history, including how the city leaders stole the remains of St. Mark because they didn’t have a powerful enough patron.
After we absorbed the reality that the streets are water and the taxis are boats, we recognized that the buildings are all tightly compacted against each other. We asked Lucia about the structures and architecture. She explained that the buildings are built on sand and so they have a tendency to move and lean as water levels and pressures change. Stacking the buildings and sometimes partial building structures like staircases against each other causes them to hold each other up and in place.
The buildings lean on each other for their mutual benefit.
A Wonderful Example of Engagement and Teamwork
Being in a strange place and a reflective state it came to my mind that this was a wonderful description of teamwork among coworkers. Have you ever tried as a leader to explain what teamwork means? In my many years of leading and being led, we tend to always drift to sports and sports analogies – and that is fine if you played basketball. Five players, any of whom can score, any of whom can defend, all with different skill sets and roles work together offensively and defensively to compete with another team.
That is a straightforward analogy when it comes to corporate teamwork. But not everyone played basketball; in fact, a basketball team is pretty small relative to the groups they represent. And some folks played individual sports like wrestling or track. Furthermore, although Title IX has had an excellent impact on competitive sports opportunities for women, throughout my life I have witnessed perhaps less of a resonance of sports analogies with women with the potential of contributing to unequal footing.
But here in the early morning of a pleasant day in Venice, Lucia gave me what I had been looking for: an explanation of the most basic level of teamwork for individuals working in organizations. As effervescent pressures buckle the walls of a building, another building shores it up. All of the buildings are engaged, but in a cooperative structure.
Teamwork, in its most basic form, is a cooperative engagement of individuals. We strive for engagement in the workplace; it is as hot as HR gets these days. We wonder how can we get more “engaged” employees? Engaged employees are truly into their work and they care about what they are doing, which inures to the good of the organization. But only seeking out and celebrating individual engagement means you haven’t had Lucia’s tour in Venice.
Our goal as leaders needs to be not just working to get our team members engaged, but to get them to cooperatively engaged with each other. It is a mistake to get them to only care more about the “company.” We should invest our management thinking time to encourage events, structures and reward systems so they are engaged in support of other engaged team members.
We need people who we can count on to bolster others and who are willing to be bolstered when needed. A group of individually “engaged” people is not a team until they are cooperatively engaged. Each person only caring about their own “building” even if they care about the city doesn’t help the city as much as “buildings” supporting each other.
I was in London years ago and reading about the retirement of the gentleman who had led the Royal Shakespeare company for so many years. He said that “successful performances were the result of a group of people working together over a long period of time who really cared for each other and knew what each other had and needed.” Sounds like some sports team dynasties to me.
The next time you find yourself wanting to explain the basics of teamwork to one of your team members, or all of them, resist the temptation to talk about the Golden State Warriors and remember the amazing beautiful city of Venice and its buildings that are in constant movement and under varying strains, just like team members in organizations.
We need to architect our structures and systems so that they encourage cooperative engagement. Our leadership, our team members, need to hold each other up and strengthen each other dynamically as the pressures and opportunities companies face ebb and flow like the waters of Venice.
Have a great summer.