Holding Hands, Silos and Trust

by Marsha L. Koelmel, Co-President

I grew up with two brothers. One was much older so there was no sibling rivalry. I looked up to him and he looked out for me. The other was close enough in age to create a more traditional brother/sister relationship. We got along most of the time, but occasionally we fought. When it became too problematic, my parents would intervene. My Mom tended to send us to our rooms for a cooling off period, but my Dad had a different approach. He would make us sit down and hold hands – and he would sit with us – and wait.  Now, when you’re at what you think is war with your brother, the idea of sitting next to him is tough enough, but – holding hands!? – with the enemy!? – that was cruel and unusual punishment.  But it worked – most often because one of us would start laughing after realizing the fight didn’t seem that important. But with hindsight, I believe it worked more because sitting there holding hands with our Dad looking on reminded us that we were family. United. All on the same team.

Fast forward a few decades and the lesson was repeated. While working as an HR Executive for a company that grew rapidly and added new business lines through acquisition, we discovered that just because the blended model made good strategic sense, it didn’t mean that the new teammates would be guaranteed to see themselves as united, on the same team – let alone act in the best interests of the combined group. In contrast, after the merger was completed, everyone continued to meet with their own customers and although they continued to provide terrific service and support, they wouldn’t work across business lines, let alone allow people from the other teams to meet their customers. As a result, the strategic rationale for the merger was at risk as our customers were not benefitting from our newly expanded product mix. We had merely combined business units that still operated in silos.

We tried all of the usual management strategies:

– Team meetings to sell the vision

– Mixers to make introductions

– Team building to teach everyone how to work together

– Incentive plans to reward the right behavior and outcomes

– New reporting systems to keep track of targeted activity

– Enhanced communication to ensure clarity, etc…

While all of this was important, none of it achieved the results we needed. The teams continued to go through the motions and genuine cross-team trust was not being created.

And then an “a-ha moment”. As we looked and listened a little closer, we noticed that the teams rarely mingled outside of required events. They stayed in their familiar groups, ate lunch with the same people from their old teams and too often still proudly identified as a member of their former team.

We then did something very simple. We decided to reorganize workspaces so the team members’ offices would be blended. Instead of keeping product teams clustered in offices next to each other, they would be separated and mixed with members of the other teams. Proximity of work space, we concluded, would create the opportunity for employees to see their teammates differently and, we hoped, would begin to change the way they thought and behaved as one new team.

No one liked it at first. But, after a short time, signs of progress were evident and eventually, everything changed. By creating an environment where teammates we needed to know and trust each other were in close proximity, they began to interact with each other at the coffee pot, the copier, the elevator and soon that turned to hallway chats. Things continued to progress and soon they were looking at each other’s desk pictures, talking about families and going to lunch together. Little by little the silos came down. Everyone soon started talking about working together on new business opportunities and how they could help each other and work together for the increased benefit of their customers.

In spite of all the planning, thought and effort that was expended to ensure a successful integration of the businesses, we missed an obvious reality. You can’t manufacture trust. It needs to be earned. The old fashioned way. And as they say, culture eats strategy for breakfast. We needed to create the opportunity – in a safe and supportive environment – for new teammates to build relationships – learn to trust each other – and understand their new team was far stronger together than they ever were apart.

So, while I learned many life lessons from my Dad, the importance of feeling united, all on the same team, trusting each other, for the benefit of the greater good, is one I apply often. Don’t let your silos be a reason your organization’s performance falls short of meeting expectations. Take a good look in your corporate mirror. Is everyone in the same boat – rowing in the same direction? Or do you have silos and teams acting independently without a collective purpose? Think about making it easy for your team to “hold hands” – and be the best they can be. That’s what great Dads and leaders do.

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