Building a Dynamic Team

There are hundreds of team-building exercises, but many of them seem forced, and most people feel some level of discomfort participating. The key to successful team-building is creating a unity while celebrating the individuality of each member — common purpose colliding with unique contributions.

It is easy to focus on budgets and corporate goals, and too often our team gatherings revolve around these objectives. This quantitative-driven approach allows team members to learn more and more about what is driving the organization, but little about what drives the people who drive the organization.

Once a year, in November, I gather all of my staff for an informal afternoon together. I call it our annual Dream Session.

Each of my twelve staff members is asked to bring with them a list of one hundred dreams. Sitting around in the conference room, we spend the afternoon going from person to person, each team member sharing one dream each time around. Feedback, insight, and encouragement from the other team members begin an organic process of creating a strategy to achieve those dreams.

During this process, we also try to identify a time frame for each dream — within the next twelve months, one to five years, or five years or more. Each team member also reports on his or her progress over the past twelve months. All share their triumphs and trials, the dreams they achieved and those they failed to achieve.

New staff members often comment that this is the first time they have actually sat down and committed their dreams to paper. As other team members share their dreams, we often see the new staff reaching for their pens, making notes, and adding to their Dream Lists.

The passion of dreams is contagious. This is the passion that our teams need to be injected with. Get them passionate about their personal dreams and that passion will overflow into your organizational dreams.

It is amazing to discover people's dreams. Some of my employees' dreams are relatively simple, so much so that consciously acknowledging them and writing them down all but guarantees that a person will achieve them in the near future. These dreams tend to be manageable and achievable without much planning or preparation; it is simply a matter of making them a priority. Others are complex and much more involved. These dreams tend to require significant planning and constant vigilance if they are to be attained.

Year after year, as I sit there listening, I am amazed at some of my employees' dreams. In some cases, I have been working with these people for years, yet still they manage to surprise me.

What strikes me most, however, is not what happens during the Dream Session, but what happens casually and informally in the weeks and months that follow. I overhear them talking to each other about their dreams, asking each other what progress they are making with a particular dream, and encouraging each other to keep at it. In small ways and large, they begin to help each other to live their dreams, and this spirit of cooperation naturally overflows into their work together as a team.

I also find myself thinking about their dreams. We will be in a staff meeting or working together on a project, and I will catch myself wondering, How can I help him live that dream? or Which of her dreams can I help her accomplish this year?

The best part of all this is that I don't think my response — a desire to help my staff members achieve their dreams — is extraordinary. I think it is human. When we know the dreams of the people around us, we want to help them live those dreams. There is something incredibly fulfilling about helping someone else achieve a dream.

This process, which is disarmingly simple and seemingly far-removed from anything to do with business, changes me as a manager, changes my people as employees, and transforms us collectively as a team. It creates a unique intimacy that gives birth to an extraordinarily dynamic type of teamwork.

In January, I hold staff reviews and I encourage each of my employees to bring their list of one hundred dreams to their review. As part of their review, I like to talk to them about their dreams, and during that meeting I try to pinpoint one dream that I can help them achieve in the coming year. Sometimes it is a simple thing, something that can be easily attained. At other times, the dream requires considerable planning.

Bethany Hawkins is one of my event coordinators. She is responsible for managing my visits to more than one hundred cities in the United States each year, and she does an amazing job. She is dedicated, loyal, passionate about what we do, and relentlessly committed to continuous improvement and excellence. The days on the road are long and filled with challenges and pressures. So when my team and I are not on the road, we each need to find ways to be rejuvenated.

Last year, during our Dream Session, Bethany mentioned that she would like to volunteer in a school, teaching children to read. Within a month, we had made arrangements for her to have a few hours off each Thursday morning to volunteer in a school not too far from our offices. She can check that dream off her list…and move on to the other ninety-nine. Each week, she leaves the office for two hours to live a dream, but you can be sure our work is better off because she does.

I want a team full of people dedicated to pursuing their personal dreams. If they cannot be passionate about their own lives, how can I reasonably expect them to be passionate about our work?

Sara McClure is another example. She is twenty-five years old, remarkably capable, and has a wonderful “can-do” attitude. Sara manages all the responsibilities of our front office. The dream that jumped out at me on her list at our last Dream Session was: to spend a month in Europe. Having done just that myself the summer before, I was particularly committed to helping her to live this dream.

I got the rest of my staff together and floated the idea that perhaps we should help Sara accomplish this dream sooner rather than later, and asked them to give it some thought and come back to me. A week later, they came back to me with a plan. Those closest to Sara had discovered that she had been saving for the trip and was in good stead financially. Bridget, who organizes much of our travel, suggested that with our travel contacts we could get her a cheap airfare. Beth explained that she was eligible for some vacation and suggested we could offer her leave without pay for the remainder of the time. And Walter suggested that she could go in July, which is the quietest month of the year anyway.

“That's great!” I said. “Who will do her work while she is gone?” They took out a document that outlined Sara's roles and responsibilities, which they had divided among themselves and had agreed to cover for the month she was gone.

In the summer, less than twelve months after her first Dream Session, and just over a year after joining our team, Sara spent a month in Europe and had an extraordinary experience. How do you think she feels about the people she works with? How do you think she feels about the organization she works for?

I could tell you dozens of stories of dreams that have been identified, pursued, and achieved through this process — some team members wanted a new watch or a new car, others wanted to buy their first home, and others still, hoped to improve a relationship with a spouse or a child. Identifying their dreams and being supported in their dreams by their coworkers has animated the people I work with, both personally and professionally, and in the process has transformed them into a team that thrives on dynamic collaboration.

The reasons are simple.

First, when we know the dreams of the people around us, we want to help them live those dreams. In helping them live their dreams, we become personally invested in them — one of the fundamentals of teamwork.

Second, nothing animates people like chasing down a dream. The passion and energy that are the telltale signs of this animation cannot be confined to one area of our lives. Both the positive and the negative of our personal and professional lives flow freely between our life at home and our life at work. When people are chasing their dreams personally, the positive energy that is generated spills over into their professional lives.

And finally, helping someone else accomplish a dream gives us a satisfaction that rivals the fulfillment we experience when we achieve our own dreams. People are enormously grateful to the people who help them live their dreams, and that gratitude between team members makes them willing to go the extra mile for one another.

An organization changes when the habits of the people who make up that organization change. Get your people in the habit of pursuing and achieving dreams in their personal lives and they will be much more effective at chasing down the goals and dreams you place before them in the workplace. Achieving dreams is a habit.

I have worked with Fortune 500 companies and small, family-owned businesses, football teams and nonprofit organizations, trade associations and colleges, and I have never worked with a team that didn't benefit massively from the Dream Session exercise.

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