Even Though The Corporate Culture Sucks, Make Your Project Team Culture Awesome

I wrote 10 blog posts called “Culture of Success.”  Even though there were a fair amount of people who read those, someone sat down, read them all in one sitting, and emailed me.  The subject line was “Need Help: Bad Corporate Culture Equals Bad Team Culture.”

In it he expressed the corporate culture was cut throat and mean.  Most people were out for themselves and you spent as much time doing CYA work as actual work.  Now the company is starting a large project and he was brought in on a contract basis to help lead it.  His team is “dedicated,” in that they’re on the project 100% of the time, until their functional manager says they’re needed to fight an operational fire.

I can appreciate his nervousness.  I’ve been at companies where “duck and cover” is the norm and you’re scared of termination.  There’s finger pointing & blaming at all levels.  Someone has a “Dead Pool” list to see who’s going to get fired next.  Employees don’t trust one another.  It’s a place you dread.  At the same time, I learned a lot from these places.

After a couple email exchanges we called each other.  I told him though he had to be aware of the corporate culture, make your team culture awesome.  It won’t be easy, but it’s possible.  Here are the tips I gave:

  • A “Come to Jesus” with the sponsor: since this team is dedicated, they should be dedicated and not pulled off the project daily to deal with other issues.  If it becomes common practice, ask for the sponsor’s help in stopping it.  Yes, I know you’re a contractor, but you’re also accountable for delivery and the sponsor needs to be accountable too.
  • Build trust WITH the team: meet with each team member individually, talk about non-work stuff first and build a rapport.  Ask what makes them nervous about being on the team and look for common themes.  This is the most important thing  you will do right away…and it NEVER stops.
  • Build trust AMONGST Team Members: this is tougher than building trust 1:1 and takes time.  It starts with the kick-off and clearly defining each member’s role and reinforcing that along the way.  Have daily stand-ups that foster communication (this wasn’t a Scrum project but good practice anyway).  Request co-location.  Negotiate for team lunches or happy hours.  Bring in treats when a milestone is hit and make sure everyone is there.  Find ways to celebrate as a team.
  • Create a safe environment: again, takes time.  Let the team know you’re there for them and you’re watching their backs so they don’t have to.  Give them the credit when things go right.  Fall on the sword when they don’t.  Ultimately, be a servant leader.
  • Deliver on commitments: if a team member asks you for help, make that your top priority.  If you can’t get it done right away, let them know where you’re at.  This goes back to building trust.
  • If they have to leave for awhile, re-program them upon return: one of his biggest concerns  was when a team member got pulled into an operational mess, they’d come back with their minds flipped to corporate vs. team culture.  I recommended when they do come back, have a 1:1 with them, find out what happened, and provide an update on the project.  Even if they’re only gone for a day, it’s good to have a quick chat.
  • On-board new members: at certain intervals of the project, the core team have to bring in others.  Once there’s a team culture, acclimating others can be a challenge.  Though I don’t have a secret ingredient for this, my recommendation is have a 1:1 with them and invite them to some stand-ups before they start.  Build relationships early so when they are on the project, they’re going into an environment they WANT to be part of.

I understand a corporate culture that sucks, but that doesn’t mean your team’s culture needs to.  It’s not easy.  I told him he’ll spend more time relationship building, especially at the front end, than doing other work and it will lead to some long days.  But, in the long run it will be worth it.  Your team will have an awesome culture and one they want to come to everyday.

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