Getting Past Polite at eBay and Thomson Reuters

Don’t get me wrong — politeness is important. But we need less of it than we think we do. And it’s  amazing how efficiency can be driven by transparency about your shortcomings and insecurities. When my friend eBay CEO and former Reuters Markets CEO Devin Wenig was faced with the merger of Reuters with Thomson, he knew people integration was as important as systems integration. He had over 50,000 employees in 93 countries, a senior leadership team comprised of seasoned professionals, and they were all being asked to accomplish significant business objectives with brand new colleagues – in some cases, people they’d just met.

Start with Storytelling

When I met with Devin’s group, we started with “storytelling” over dinner. For hard-nosed business leaders not accustomed to talking in this way, intimate, personal storytelling is not easy. As the head of a media business quipped on the occasion, “Most of us didn’t get to where we are by showing weakness.”

But teams that don’t waste energy shoring up personal defenses or hiding from their organization’s “shadow side” speak to each other more candidly and get to the point faster. For Devin’s team members, we asked them to recall a professional relationship that was instrumental to their success and then to reflect on what made that relationship both strong and productive.

Initially, their body language said it all – arms folded, leaning back in their chairs –  but they came around. We see this happen time and again. At other engagements, stories have spilled of alienated childhoods, broken marriages, the deep legacy of family poverty just underneath an executive’s bespoke suit — nothing is taboo, and the vulnerability tightly knits the group. The next day, at the office, people walk into the conference room 5 pounds lighter. They feel free to tackle tough business challenges together. The levels of cooperation and peer-to-peer accountability achieved are stunning.

We’re Wired for Cooperation So Turn It On

This happens because the cooperative drives within humans get triggered. A whole science — economics — was developed around the idea of humans as self-interested beings equipped with the ability to make judgments that push them toward their goals. As evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak points out in his book Supercooperators, reciprocal cooperation is as natural a behavior as eating itself.

Neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga puts it another way: Humans are the party animal. HIT works because the human brain is uniquely designed for making more  altruistic decisions than the structures seen in other animals. That helps us remember feelings of warmth and understanding toward others and their plights. Together, the structures make us able to be self-centered and competitive and compassionate and generous.

Strong, effective teams are the difference between progress and procedural log jams, between productive decisions and reactionary reflex behaviors that waste time and resources.  That’s why Devin had us come into eBay to repeat the transition of his leaders into a High Impact Team as we had done for him at Thomson-Reuters.

How to Get a HIT From Your Team

High-impact teams — or “HIT” in our company shorthand — are business-critical because they collectively take calculated risks, solve problems together and execute on more sustainable decisions that drive business results. And they get there by building trust. But they do not happen by accident. We began designing a recipe that we’ve since honed over a number of engagements, including at companies like eBay, British Telecom, Thompson Reuters, Accenture, SAP and many more. What we found is that the team “ingredients” are less important to the final outcome than the steps they take. That is to say, who’s at the table matters less than what they’re asked to bring.

First up is a willingness to make themselves vulnerable to one another.

Whether at a long, slow dinner — “at the table” isn’t just a metaphor — or in a conference room, people are  asked to share an experience that shaped who they are and how they work today. To many C-suite people this sounds counterintuitive. The personal is what you avoid because it makes you seem vulnerable. It’s believed to clog the wheels and open up the opportunity for friction among co-workers. But humans have operated without a strict separation between work and personal life for a lot longer than we’ve been carpooling and telecommuting. Being able to trust others to handle the fact that you don’t feel all-knowing all of the time unleashes tremendous power.

Lead with Generosity

The second thing people need to bring to the table is a willingness to help and be helped. Leading with this sense of generosity gives us permission to establish intimacy.

What you’ll find in dysfunctional teams is politeness aplenty but none of the true caring that lets team members say to one another, “I have your back and won’t let you fail,” and truly mean it.

The ultimate goal, after all, is increased productivity and accountability. As one HIT session participant put it: “My team had been in survival mode for so long, but not anymore. Now we celebrate successes; we have discipline, rigor, honesty, trust and empowerment. We walk into each meeting knowing that we are about to be part of something that will make us grow personally and professionally.”

Personal and  Professional Staff Meetings

Want to infuse some of our HIT methodology into your regular staff meetings? Start by going around the room to share what’s new since the last time you met – a personal and professional check-in. Share only what you’re comfortable with.

The first time, it might feel a little awkward. But if you to try it for three months, you’ll see a substantial difference in how your team connects and genuinely works with each other.

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Keith Ferrazzi

Keith Ferrazzi


New York Times best-selling author, speaker

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