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How To Build A Better Team

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In today’s workplace, teams of coworkers often collaborate on projects, presentations, and other professional responsibilities. Managers tend to assemble these teams according to each member’s job role, experience, and skill set, but the internal relationships and communication within a team may be even more important determinants of successful group performance.

Luci Leykum and Holly Lanham, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, study the relationships at play within teams of physicians at hospitals. In a recent study funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs, they explored how different styles of communication within a team relate to the quality of treatment the group provides to patients. Their findings may be relevant not only to health care teams but may also give clues about effective teams in other industries.

Leykum and Lanham observed 11 teams made up of attending physicians, residents, interns, and house staff over the course of 28 days as they interacted before, during, and after their daily rounds. They evaluated each team’s habits based on attributes including trust, diversity, respect, heedfulness (awareness of how each person’s role impacts the rest of the team), mindfulness, social/task relatedness, and rich/lean communication.

It turns out that trust among team members and mindfulness of alternative points of view are critical elements of a functional team. Patients who were overseen by teams that did not exhibit those characteristics spent more time in the hospital than patients treated by teams that did demonstrate those qualities — as many as three to seven extra days.

Groups that demonstrated trust and mindfulness (which Lanham describes as “openness to new ideas, seeking novelty even in routine situations, and having a rich, discriminating awareness of details”) communicated more directly and effectively, allowing them to do more effective triage and catch problems they might have otherwise missed. These behaviors may also reduce the likelihood of complications that would lengthen the hospital stay.

As a result, Lanham and Leykum, who presented their research at the recent Health Care Symposium at the McCombs School of Business, recommend loosening up the hierarchy or narrowly defined job roles within teams. Instead, they argue, teams should embrace shared responsibility, reflective conversations, and interpersonal relationships.

Toward a More Flexible Hierarchy

Organizations often embrace internal hierarchies because they establish a clearly defined chain of command. But Lanham says there are several negative aspects to hierarchies that often go overlooked.

“Hierarchies … can be a barrier to organizational behaviors such as problem solving, learning, and innovating or discovering new and better ways to meet performance goals, satisfy customers, raise profit margins, etc.,” Lanham says.

Lower-level employees are often hesitant to speak up when they need further instruction or have ideas to contribute for fear of rocking the boat. But in that type of environment, Lanham says, all members of the team miss out on potential learning opportunities.

“If you want the people who work for you to learn how to do their jobs better, they will at times need to be able to say, ‘I don’t know,’” she says. “One way to get employees to say this is to model it for them. This is important in hospital teams because patients’ lives depend on it. It’s also important, however, in business — particularly in thinking about ethical considerations that businesses face, such as protecting consumers from harm, providing employees with a safe work environment, increasing shareholder wealth, etc.”

Rethinking Job Roles

Like hierarchies, narrowly defined job roles can constrain a team’s ability to express new ideas and share information openly.

Leykum and Lanham’s findings suggest that when each team member only takes on responsibilities within his or her own prescribed skill set, the team does not operate as effectively as a unit. It is preferable for individuals to be able to adjust as the situation may require.

On one team Leykum observed, the attending physician occasionally took the lead on tasks that normally would be done by people lower in the hierarchy — perhaps the issue was particularly complex, it was a busy day, or a team member was out. Leykum says this was a powerful and effective use of role-modeling because it demonstrated to the team that everyone should do what is needed to help each other and take care of people in a timely fashion.

“How we move from saying, ‘This is what I do, this is what you do,’ to ‘This is what we do,’ is very important,” Leykum says.

Job roles should be somewhat malleable, but they should not relax the group’s structure to the point that a manager’s authority or oversight begins to erode, she says. The key is to be able to adapt.

“One of the things I observed in some teams was an ability to improvise, or use what they know or do as the basis for trying something new,” Leykum says. “That way, it is building on a platform of knowledge, not just trying something completely different.”

Recommendations for Managers

Managers of employee teams can take away several lessons from Leykum and Lanham’s research when assembling teams or planning group projects. One of the most important ingredients is mutual trust.

“Building trust as the basis for positive relationships is critical,” Leykum says. “Just by being deliberate in asking for different peoples’ viewpoints, thinking about how one person’s actions may influence another, and admitting that they don’t know something are powerful actions in creating trust.”

Making time for conversation and reflection is also key. “This allows people to think and make sense of things together, in a way that has a positive influence on the relationships,” Leykum says.

Willingness to consider alternative viewpoints from other team members is another factor that could affect a company’s performance as a whole, Lanham adds. “If people are operating on autopilot, they are less likely to seize an opportunity that presents itself, such as noticing a more efficient way to perform repetitive tasks, or notice when a machine isn’t working quite right, which could result in harm for employees or inferior products for consumers,” she says.

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About the Author

This article was written by Rob Heidrick of Texas Enterprise. Texas Enterprise shares the business and public policy knowledge created at The University of Texas at Austin with Texas and with the world. Texas Enterprise stories by drawing on research from all over the university. see more.

Callum Connects

Andrew Schorr, Founder of Grata

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Taking a different route throughout his life, Andrew Schorr ended up in China and started several businesses.

What’s your story?
I moved to China after I graduated from college in 2004. English teaching was the easiest way to get there, so I looked on a map and picked a small town in Hubei, because it looked to be more or less in the middle of China. I was the only foreigner there.

Back then, everything was about the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, so I moved to the capital after my year of teaching. Pretty soon after arriving, I met the co-founder for all three of my companies. We decided to start a company together the first day we met. He has now moved back to the US and builds flight software at SpaceX.

Our first company, an online city guide, was re-purposed into our second company, GuestOps, a web concierge platform. We sold GuestOps to most of the major international hotel brands in China and still operate it. The genesis of our latest company, Grata came from looking at the intersection of hotels and WeChat in 2012, when WeChat was just starting to blow up. Grata expanded from hotels into a live-agent customer service console.

What excites you most about your industry?
Our thesis with Grata has always been that what is happening with WeChat in China is the future of messaging platforms globally, and as an international team building on WeChat, we would be well-placed to capitalize on that trend. It’s taken longer than we expected for the industry (and us, for that matter) to get there, but finally, we’re starting to see messaging as a platform to get better traction in other markets.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian. I grew up in Texas, where all my friends studied Spanish in school. I studied German for no reason in particular. I took a similar path in college: Chinese and Japanese seemed like languages that not a lot of people who look like me studied. I was one of only two students in my third-year Chinese class.

Concur conference in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. (Photo by Paul Sakuma, Paul Sakuma Photography) www.paulsakuma.com

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Shanghai. I should live there, but Beijing has been home for so long. I take the night train down to Shanghai every two-three weeks to meet with clients. Domestic flights are way too unreliable here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Don’t plan too far ahead; otherwise, you plan yourself out of good opportunities.

Who inspires you?
Has anyone said “Elon Musk” yet? Barack Obama would be another.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The gravitational waves recently detected from neutron stars colliding, were so subtle as to only affect the distance from earth to our closest star, Alpha Centauri (4.24 light years away) by the width of a human hair. Perhaps in another life or in the future, I’ll be an astronomer, but a telescope doesn’t do me much good in Beijing.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
When I give advice to students looking to get into entrepreneurship, I advise them to work for a post-Series A startup first and learn from a company that’s already doing things well. I learnt everything on my own, which is slower and you pay for your own education. If you work for a startup that’s small in the beginning, you risk learning bad habits.

How do you unwind?
I Hash! The Hash is a drinking club with a running problem. The Hash attracts good people from all walks of life and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a great way to meet fun-loving people all over the world. It’s also how I met my co-founder, our first lawyer, and my girlfriend.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia. A fantastic beach and where I first learned to scuba dive.

Everyone in business should read this book:
For business in China, Tim Clissold’s, Mr. China.

Shameless plug for your business:
Grata does WeChat contact centers for many top-tier brands in luxury retail, travel, financial services and hospitality. We started developing on WeChat before they even had an open platform. Grata provides the most value for large enterprises with complex routing and content demands for their contact centers.

How can people connect with you?
Check out www.grata.co or email me: [email protected]

Twitter handle?
My personal handle is @andrew_schorr and we tweet about messaging from the company handle @grata_co.

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Benjamin Kwan, Co-Founder of TravelClef

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Making music to create a life for his family, Benjamin Kwan, started an online tuition portal and his music business grew from there.

What’s your story?
I am Benjamin and I’m the Co-Founder of TravelClef Group Pte Ltd, a travelling music school that conducts music classes in companies as well as team building with music programmes. We also run an online educational platform which matches private students to freelance music teachers. We also manufacture our own instruments. I started this company in 2011 when I was still a freshman at NUS, majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

I was born to a lower income family, my father drove a taxi and was the sole breadwinner to a family of 7. I have always dreamed of becoming rich so that I could lessen the burden placed on my father and give my family a good life.

After working really hard in my first semester at NUS, my results didn’t reflect the hard work and effort I put in. At the same time, I was left with just $42 in my bank account and it suddenly dawned on me that if I were to graduate with mediocre results, I would probably end up with a mediocre salary as well. I knew I had to do something to gain control of my future.

During that summer break, I read a book “Internet Riches” by Scott Fox and I knew that the only way I could ever start my own business with my last $42 would be to start an online business. That was how our online tuition portal started and after taking 4 days to learn Photoshop and website building on my own, I started the business.

What excites you most about your industry?
Music itself is a constant form of excitement to me as I have always been an avid lover of music. As one of the world’s first travelling music schools, we are always very eager and excited to find innovative ways to a very traditional business model of a music teaching.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore and I love the fact that despite our diversity in culture, there’s always a common language that we share, music.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hands down, SINGAPORE! Although we are currently in talks to expand to other regions within Asia, Singapore is the best place for business. I have had friends asking me if they should consider venturing into entrepreneurship in Singapore, my answer is always a big fat YES! There’s a low barrier of entry, and most importantly, the government is very supportive of entrepreneurship.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I have been blessed by many people and mentors who constantly give me great advice but right now, I would say the best piece of advice that I received would be from Dr Patrick Liew who said, “Work on the business, not in it.” This advice is constantly ringing in my head as I work towards scaling the business.

Who inspires you?
My dad. My dad has always been my inspiration in life, for the amount of sacrifices that he has made for the family and the love he has for us. He was the umbrella for all the storms that my family faced and we were always safe in his shelter. Although my dad passed away after a brief fight with colorectal cancer, the lessons that he imparted to me were very valuable as I build my own family and business.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
You can not buy time, but you can spend money to save time! With this realisation, I was willing to allow myself to spend some money, in order to save more time. Like taking Grab/Uber to shuttle around instead of spending time travelling on public transport. While I spend more money on travelling, I save a lot more time! This doesn’t mean that I spend lavishly and extravagantly, I am still generally prudent with my money.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken more time to spend with my family and especially my father. While it is important to focus our time to build our businesses, we should always try our best to allocate family time. Because as an entrepreneur, there is no such thing as “after I finish my work,” because our work is never finished. If our work finishes, the business is also finished. But our time with our family is always limited and no matter how much money and how many successes we achieve, we can never use it to trade back the time we have with our family.

How do you unwind?
I am a very simple man. I enjoy TV time with my wife and a simple dinner with my family and friends.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Batam, it’s close to Singapore and there’s really nothing much to do except for massages and a relaxing resort life. If I travel to other countries for shopping or sightseeing, I am constantly thinking of business and how I can possibly expand to the country I am visiting. But while relaxing at the beach or at a massage, I tend to allow myself to drift into emptiness and just clear my mind of any thoughts.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Work The System, by Sam Carpenter. This book teaches entrepreneurs the importance of creating systems and how to leverage on systems to improve productivity and create more time.

Shameless plug for your business:
If you are looking for a team building programme that your colleagues will enjoy and your bosses will be happy with, you have to consider our programmes at TravelClef! While our programmes are guaranteed fun and engaging, it is also equipped with many team building deliverables and organizational skills.

How can people connect with you?
My email is [email protected] and I am very active on Facebook as well!
https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.christian.kwan

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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