The Power of Shared Purpose in Building High-Performing Teams

 

Carissa A. Gilman
American Cancer Society
X and Threads: @chickybird
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/carissa-gilman-ab4320a/

Take Home Points

 

  • Shared purpose could be the most important element in building high-performing, collaborative teams.
  • To be successful, a team leader should have a clear vision, be able to articulate it, and use it to guide decisions.
  • When team members are motivated by a shared mission, leaders are able to afford them greater autonomy in how they do their work, leading to higher job satisfaction and work-life harmony.
  • Shared clarity of purpose assists teams in prioritizing work, managing resources, and evaluating potential new initiatives.

The other night I was at a dinner party for my husband’s business, and a new acquaintance asked what I do for a living. I told him, and he said he wished he could use his professional skills to do something equally fulfilling. Experiences like that are a good reminder that leading a high-performing team in support of a meaningful mission is a privilege and a joy. For all the cynicism expressed on sites like Retraction Watch or in editorials by former journal editors-in-chief about the current and future state of scholarly publishing, I believe strongly in the value our work brings to the evaluation and dissemination of scientific research output, as well as the benefit it ultimately brings to society.

 

The last four years have brought tremendous change in how we bring teams together and lead them to achieve our respective missions (see here and here). I have come to believe that the most important element in building a high-performing, collaborative team, especially during transformative events, is shared purpose. Time is the most valuable resource any of us has, so when you build relationships and ask people to give their time to an organization, you owe it to them to ensure that they are lending that time to something meaningful. This is true whether the people in question are staff, contractors, vendor partners, or volunteers.

 

Organizational Focus and Guiding Principles

In both professional and personal pursuits, I have found that there is great power in clarity of purpose. As a leader, you set the tone, so if you don’t have a clear vision, you can’t expect your team to. In their book, The Discipline of Market Leaders: Choose Your Customers, Narrow Your Focus, Dominate Your Market, authors Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema argue that organizations cannot try to be everything to everyone. Those organizations that are most successful focus on one value discipline and do that thing very well. As a team builder, you should be clear about your organizational focus; you should be able to articulate it to your team, and it should inform every decision you make. For example, at the American Cancer Society Journals, we strive to distinguish ourselves by offering the best author, reviewer, and editor experience we can, while keeping the patient at the heart of everything we do.

 

In addition to that shared purpose or organizational focus, a leader should also be able to clearly articulate the team’s values or guiding principles. For example, team values of the American Cancer Society Journals include commitment to furthering the wider American Cancer Society mission (to end cancer as we know it, for everyone), maintaining a standard of excellence, finding joy and fulfillment in the work, supporting each other, modeling empathy towards our constituents and each other, and cultivating diversity across the entire editorial team.

 

Recruitment

The post-pandemic era brought with it profound shifts in the recruitment and retention of staff. The pandemic caused many people to re-evaluate their priorities and what they want from their careers. Jobseekers now act like consumers, and you are competing with other employers for top talent. When considering positions, candidates not only weigh factors like compensation and benefits, but also convenience (e.g., flexible hours and leave policies, the ability to work from home) and reputation. (See here, here, and here.) Candidates are asking themselves whether a position will offer a development opportunity and a challenge as well as meaning and purpose. From the hiring perspective, I find that a strong desire to join the organization and contribute to the mission is a key predictor of success. I am seeking a candidate who wants the job, not a job.

 

Performance Management and Retention

I strongly believe that work should be enjoyable and fulfilling, not a slog. That means putting and keeping people in positions where they can thrive. In my experience, people who excel on our team tend to be motivated not just by monetary compensation and status, but by personal satisfaction in furthering that shared purpose. Several management theories, including Crucial Influence and the Fogg Behavior Model, center around the concept that a team member’s success depends on a combination of two things—ability and motivation. This is the basis for the Skill Will Matrix performance management tool that some managers find conceptually useful. Someone can have all the ability in the world, but if they aren’t motivated to achieve their goals and thus contribute to your shared purpose, they cannot be successful. As much as I wish I could, I have learned through tough experience that I cannot coach someone to care about our shared purpose and their role in achieving it if the team/organizational purpose does not resonate with them. They owe it to themselves and our organization to find work that fulfills them and contributes to their team. And I owe it to my organization to make sure that my team is made up of people who are working toward the same goals and guided by the same principles.

 

Autonomy and Accountability

One effect of the pandemic on the workplace is that it broke the hold that command and control leadership had on corporate culture. Employees want more say over when, where, and how they work. But autonomy is only feasible and achievable when you have a culture of accountability. And accountability begins with engagement—feeling emotionally connected to the work and shared purpose so you exert greater effort to achieve strategic goals. When team members are all self-motivated and focused on a shared mission, you can allow them to manage their own time and workloads. You can work together as a team on policies, procedures, and metrics that keep everyone on the path to success while utilizing each person’s individual strengths and talents. You can give people ownership of their workloads rather than micromanaging them. It sounds silly to even have to say it, but your team members are adults—agree on deadlines, deliverables, and priorities, and then allow them to determine how they meet and achieve those milestones. For far too long, companies treated employees like children, beholden to an employee handbook and rewarded with trivialities like Jean Fridays, team lunches, etc. Hopefully, those days are gone for good, and self-determination has taken its place. Ideally, the downstream effect of this autonomy should be greater work-life harmony, the nurturing of which is the responsibility of the team leader.

 

Adaptability

One thing we can count on is that our work is constantly changing as the publishing ecosystem evolves. But change should equal growth and opportunity, not pain. As a leader, you should be focused, optimistic, and open to new ideas. At the same time, we must recognize that we do not have the time or resources to pursue every potential new initiative that presents itself.  This is another instance where that clarity of purpose becomes useful. Which initiatives align with the team’s chosen organizational focus? What investments in technology might help the team achieve the mission? In my case, how could this opportunity improve the experience of the American Cancer Society Journals’ authors, editors, and reviewers? What could be the downstream benefit for the patients we ultimately serve? If my team decides to pick up this project, is there something else we can put down that isn’t serving our shared purpose quite as well?

 

Unstoppable forces are bringing both long-awaited and unanticipated changes to our field and the day-to-day work we do. We might not be able to wholly predict what our work will look like two, five, or ten years from now. But I know that the heart of that work and its success or failure will still rest on strong leadership and team relationships and the shared purpose that brings us all together.

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