Thursday, 19 February 2015

A recipe for disaster or a blue-print for success? How 1 team defied the odds!

As part of my work, I deliver the HR and people development support to a brilliant charity in Bromsgrove. One of their key services is the recycling and resale of unwanted furniture and in January 2014, I was tasked with developing a team of volunteers, to work in the woodwork workshop, a well-stocked space, specifically designed to accommodate a team of up to 5-6 carpenters/workers.

The team now has 8-9 people and continues to face some significant challenges:
  • As volunteers, they're of mixed ability and volunteer with different agendas. Some are retired and just want to contribute to society, some have mental health challenges and regard woodwork as part of their therapy, others are encouraged to be there by the job centre (ie - "if you don't volunteer, you'll lose your benefits ... you decide!") 
  • Of those seeking jobs, the best will only be with us for a short period of time for the simple reason that they find jobs relatively quickly. Therefore, there's a high turnover of volunteers, and it's usually the best performing job-seekers who we lose. This presents a merry-go-round of new faces for the core members of the team as well as challenges to the quality of service we're trying to offer.
  • There's currently no funds to pay for a manager/leader/team leader/supervisor. Essentially, they see me as their manager and physically speaking, I'm remote, because I don't specifically work in the woodwork team and I'm only present on site for a short period of time each week. Thus there is a low level of accountability or any sense of central leadership.
  • The team is fragmented because the volunteers all attend on different days. Whilst there is a core team of 8, those volunteers who attend only on Mondays will never meet those who attend on Thursdays and Fridays. How do you create unity in such a team? How do you set inspirational team goals which draw in the team? How do you create a smooth hand-over of work between volunteers? The problem is exacerbated by the fact that as volunteers, whilst they favour a set pattern of days, sometimes, they simply show up and leave whenever they want, something which can lead to a 'chaotic' atmosphere.

In spite of these challenges, a vibrant and united team has emerged, producing a superb quality of work within a positive and harmonious working culture. When issues do arise, they generally sort them out with the minimum of fuss. They're the perfect example of a successful 'agile' team although if you asked them what an agile team was, they wouldn't have a clue what you were talking about!

There are some specific reasons why this team is so successful and these reasons provide some useful insights for leadership in general:

Lesson 1) Cautious and Comprehensive Recruitment Process

Part of our mission as a charity is to assist those furthest from the job market, (ie, we'll use just about anyone as a volunteer - whoever you are and whatever's gone wrong for you!) but the woodwork team is different. It's the one team where I'm fussy as to who I recruit because they're the only team without a designated leader.

For the woodwork team, I'll only recruit people with strong technical skills otherwise I'm putting undue pressure on my team and any new volunteer MUST have a 'coachable' mindset: essentially, a blend of humility, general positivity, a desire to get on with people and a good working attitude. There's no room for slackers in the woodwork team. In other parts of the project, I'm more patient in working to develop slackers, but not woodwork. 

Once they've been accepted into the team, I'm clear about what I want and how the team functions so there's no misunderstanding as to what it means to volunteer in the woodwork team. 

Lesson 2) Servant Leadership 

If you'd have told me I'd be leading a woodwork team at some stage in my life, I'd have wondered which illegal substances you were taking! I failed my GCSE in Craft and Design at the age of 16 and I've not improved much since. So rather than point out where people are going wrong (I wouldn't know even if they were), I bring them cups of tea, chat to them about their lives, admire their work and check what they need from me. Such informal chats have led to improvements in Health and Safety and general working practice and this has required them to change how they work. However, the change process has been painless because they've driven it, spurred on by my non-threatening questions and genuine concern for their well-being. 

They recognise that I exist to serve them and I deliver on my promises (big and small). It's no surprise that in seeing how their leader treats them, they pass on the same behaviour to each other. 

Lesson 3) Positive coaching environment  

They work autonomously and are allowed to experiment with techniques and ideas (so long as it doesn't endanger their safety). If their experiment goes wrong, we look at what we can learn and move on. As a result, they don't stop chatting (about their work) and there's a constant flow of education among the team, something which underpins a great pride in what they produce. They don't need to be told to work hard or be more focused because the pride in their work takes care of this. 

Lesson 4) Humble team spirit  

There's some serious skills in that team, but it's fascinating to see that no one brags about what they do. They encourage each other, recognise that each has more to learn and are very welcoming to new volunteers. It's wonderful to see their obvious delight when a colleague has produced yet another brilliant piece of work, whether it's restoring a rocking chair or bringing a wardrobe back to life and saving it from landfill. This culture characterises the team but I believe it's been born out of lessons 2 and 3. 

Lesson 5) Systems (simple, safe and sensible)

Given the chaotic nature of attendance, the high turnover of quality team members, the tight working space, the range of hazardous power tools and overwhelming workload, the role of effective systems is vital. We regularly review our processes so the chaos is minimised and does not evolve into foggy confusion.  Our systems and procedures must be simple, safe and sensible, yet also have the potential to be easily re-shaped so that as the team grows, changes are gradual and constant rather than infrequent and catastrophic! It's one of my tasks as the leader to stay on top of the systems and help the team develop them in line with their own evolution. 

Lesson 6) Clear sense of why they're individually & collectively priceless!

Some volunteers in the team will never meet each other, but they all understand the crucial purpose of why their team exists. It's made clear to them at the beginning of the recruitment process and is constantly re-enforced by me, the rest of the leadership team at the charity and by the other woodwork volunteers. Because of the volunteers, the charity saves on landfill and after restoring the furniture back to it's original state, it's sold at very low-cost to financially disadvantaged people and in many cases, it's given away for free to people in critical need. The volunteers understand this - it will never stop being re-enforced and they'll never stop hearing the moving stories about the customers/clients who benefit from their skills.

... a wonderful team; diverse, rich, thriving, engaged and beset with challenges - it's a privilege to watch it unfold!  

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