• Innovation & Transformation
    • Improve Efficiency

How to build a tough team for tough times: Three strategies from the 2022 WIRED Trailblazers

  • 15 min read
  • Article

This article was produced by WIRED Consulting, as part of the WIRED Trailblazers Programme

Nestled down a small lane in central Edinburgh is a library dedicated to failure. With a mission to avoid another Great Recession, its contents tell cautionary tales of financial bubbles, spectacular crashes and management malfunctions.

Illustrations by Fabio Buonocore

The curators of the ‘Library of Mistakes’ believe that there is much for today’s economists, financiers and business leaders to learn from the failures of the past and the institutions, organisational cultures and individuals responsible for them. As its website states: “If Einstein is right and the sign of madness is to do the same thing over again expecting a different result, then a study of financial history may help to reduce financial madness.”

Betsy Williamson, founder and CEO of Core-Asset Consulting, the leading independent recruitment supplier to Scotland’s finance sector and one of the 2022 WIRED Trailblazers, is an advocate of the library’s mission and values. Sharing and learning from mistakes has been fundamental to her company’s ability to survive periods of economic uncertainty. It has operated for 17 years, has steadily grown its turnover of £23 million, and has an average employee tenure of ten years. It would seem that her learning has paid dividends.

As the threat of recession looms, a lesson of which Williamson is especially mindful is the importance of building resilience – not just as a leader, but across the workforce more broadly. She’s not alone in recognising the role that team resilience plays in sustaining business continuity, competitiveness and growth – it’s an area that many of the WIRED Trailblazer leaders are focussed on as they kick off 2023.

Teams are the lifeblood of a business. Well managed, happy and motivated teams are the machinery that keep the wheels turning, especially in tough times. Conversely, poorly managed teams can cause the wheels to fall off – particularly during an economic downturn.

It is a challenging and uncertain time for small businesses. Our recent research tells us that nearly half of small business owners are worried about the impact of the next six months. But we also know that the majority feel confident that they will survive, with a third expecting to see a jump in profits. Helping business owners to cultivate resilience, including amongst their teams, will be absolutely essential as we enter into 2023.

Peter McIntyre | Head of Business Banking, HSBC UK

So how can business leaders help their teams to withstand, and even succeed in today’s precarious business environment? How can they encourage them to adapt to change, stay driven and work through challenging times effectively?

We put this question to three of the 2022 WIRED Trailblazers and asked their founders to share their practical advice on building more resilient teams. There were three key areas that stood out.

Three strategies for building more resilient teams

1. Ensure your values underpin everything you do

Cultivating resilience is not easy in the face of multiple challenges: disrupted supply chains, skills shortages, rising energy prices – the list goes on. In this operating environment, having and bringing to life clear organisational values, and a well-articulated purpose, can provide a strong foundation for building a more resilient business.

For Williamson: ‘‘Mission and values – the how, what and why of what we do – are what ties a team together in difficult times and they are a key component in establishing how we collectively deal with a problem when it arises.’’ Her clear-eyed view is that long-term effectiveness depends on the ability of leaders to live out these values, which must be woven into the fabric of the business – from recruitment, to performance management, rewards and recognition, and even dismissal and exit policies. In other words, don’t pay lip service to your values, demonstrate them through action.

This view is shared by Sharon Chan, founder and COO of Sourceful, a leading EnviroTech firm helping businesses to slash the carbon footprint of their packaging. Its values include being creative, using ingenuity and having a ‘no-blame’ approach to finding solutions to difficult problems. Chan screens candidates accordingly. She assesses their approaches to problem-solving and whether they would seek to ‘win at any cost,’ as opposed to pursuing collective approaches to resolving challenges. Those who would seek to win at any cost, are not a good fit for Sourceful.

For Ben Maruthappu, founder and CEO of Europe’s fastest growing healthcare at home company Cera, embedding values into business practice, from team meetings to staff recognition, has been critical for building trust in relationships and maintaining alignment and accountability across diverse functions. ‘‘Every couple of weeks we will recognise an individual achievement and frame it in the context of our values. This could be anyone – from product and software development, to HR, finance, logistics, marketing, branding, to the thousands of carers who help us to achieve our mission daily.’’

Meanwhile, Core-Asset Consulting increased employee salaries by 10 percent after advising clients to do the same. While this might not be feasible for all businesses, for Williamson it was a price worth paying to demonstrate her credibility and integrity, exemplify her values of being transparent about pay, and to attract and retain talent in the face of a cost-of-living crisis.

So while there are many practices that foster and nourish resilience, core values are what hold teams together and ensure that everyone is pulling in the same direction. So be clear what these are, communicate them consistently, live them out, measure progress against them, recruit people who align with them, and be brave enough to let go of those that don’t.

2. Build a culture of open and honest communication

According to multiple studies, the ideal team size is anywhere between three and five people. Harvard Business Review, has explored the risks associated with growth in team numbers, reporting that as teams grow from one to 50 members, their capacity to identify novel approaches to problem-solving plummets. So what does this mean for leaders of fast-growing businesses, keen to encourage collective problem-solving as a way of boosting resilience, but with an increasingly dispersed, remote and culturally diverse workforce?

According to Sourceful’s Chan, the solution lies in building trusting relationships between groups by opening channels of communication, while recognising and celebrating the need for small teams and its members to express themselves individually. Sourceful has grown from two to 70 employees in two years, comprising over 18 nationalities with 20 languages between them. For Chan, introducing simple mechanisms to foster connections and openly communicate has had a noticeably positive impact on teamwork and morale across its diverse cultures. ‘‘Our team is split between Manchester and China, and we have huge diversity in terms of people’s ability to express themselves openly. But open and direct communication, creating space for people to share how they are feeling and collaborate on ideas is really important to us. That is why we launched two new emojis on Slack. One shows people you’re not feeling 100 percent, and need to just get through tasks. The other is that I ‘feel good good.’ We took this from a Chinese Starbucks, and it means you feel energetic and open to collaborating on ideas. This has made it easier for our China team to express their emotions without feeling uncomfortable.’’ This straightforward and novel idea is breaking down cultural barriers, enabling effective collaboration and fostering innovation across two diverse teams.

Empowering employees can also help to build trust and share the load. Some leaders might feel resistant to delegating decision-making as their companies grow. But delegation can pay dividends, as self-sufficient, empowered teams foster resilience. For Cera founder, Ben Maruthappu, stepping back and allowing others to lead has been fundamental to the company’s growth to 10,000 staff in just six years. He has facilitated this in a number of ways: communicating his own changing role; setting clearly defined team goals and outcomes; delegating to experienced senior leaders and giving honest and direct feedback.

Resilient teams also need clear feedback loops. Leaders of trailblazing businesses regularly check in with their teams to gauge how well individuals are working together, and to assess job satisfaction. These ‘temperature checks’ can come in a variety of forms, including anonymous staff surveys, listening sessions, coffee talks and town hall meetings. They are vital to understanding internal challenges, and for identifying ways to address them. But don’t just talk about what you’re going to do; make a plan, commit to a change, and stick to it.

3. Embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and develop

For Core Asset Consulting’s Williamson, resilient teams are able to reframe mistakes, seeing them as positive challenges and opportunities to learn. In her view, it’s important for leaders to foster a positive approach to problem solving, advocating learning and “not to get emotionally compromised when things go wrong”.’

This approach – investigating what’s gone wrong, but avoiding blame-culture – is also practised in Sourceful. As Chan explains: “When things go wrong, we lay out a timeline of what happened, find the root cause, and make sure everyone learns during that process. We then issue open and direct feedback to solve it. We don’t let emotions build up as that’s what destroys trust.”

Teams that share information, ask questions and maintain an openness to learn from each other’s successes and failures are better equipped to adapt to change. But as Edinburgh’s Library of Mistakes reminds us, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Smart companies find ways to avoid organisational amnesia by embedding the lessons learned. They create checklists; establish knowledge-sharing processes, implement protocols and policies; and build online repositories where institutional knowledge can be stored, shared and continually expanded.

After all, as Williamson points out: ‘‘resilient teams are not built overnight, they require time, investment and cultivation. Organisations that have strong interpersonal bonds, can build on past experiences and adapt to change will be the ones that stay afloat in tough times.’’

Are you ready to discuss your business ambitions?

Get more insights from the WIRED Trailblazers

Visit the WIRED Trailblazers knowledge hub – an essential source of information and inspiration to fuel your growth.
Wired trailblasers in partnership with HSBC UK

Need help?

Get in touch to learn more about our banking solutions