Building team unity Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

We often overuse the French phrase “esprit de corps,” which literally means “the common spirit existing in the members of a group.”

Today, it is most commonly used to express a sense of enthusiasm, solidarity and loyalty for a shared purpose or goal. It sounds good, but when companies try to develop this team-unity-type atmosphere, most fall woefully short simply because just saying the words won’t make it so.

Virtually every entity that has two or more people claims that its very foundation is built on team-work. The reality, however, is that teamwork must be nurtured day in and day out in the way a group undertakes every meaningful task. This applies whether the undertaking is building a huge bridge over a river or running a corner grocery store.

The streets are littered with companies whose wheels fell off the wagon because everyone in the company had his or her own agenda, instead of working together and focusing on the common cause for the greater good. Many leaders of these failed companies may have had their own play-book for self-enrichment and gratification. Others have simply failed to communicate with their team on how to get from Point A to Point B.

What are the best methods for well-intentioned leaders who want to build esprit de corps for their company of thousands or for their work group of just two or three? The number of participants may vary, but the techniques in building teamwork are the same.

First, the leader must set the direction of what is to be accomplished. Sounds pretty simple, but it’s amazing how many top executives and even mid-level managers play their cards so close to the vest that the people who have to do the work don’t have a clue as to why.

One method of establishing direction and goals is to make it a multifaceted process broken down into simple time frames. An effective and easy way to communicate and measure is to use six months for initial start-up objectives, a year to 18 months for intermediate goals, and everything after that becomes longer term.

Of course, the time frame you use depends on what has to be accomplished. Firefighters measure objectives in minutes, while the successful completion of a major highway construction project spans years. Team members can be motivated when they can see the finish line, rather than being told that there is one out there somewhere around the curve.

Next, get your team members to buy in to why it is they are doing what you want done. Make sure that everyone knows how you keep score of wins and losses, and I strongly suggest that some of the initial goals be more easily attainable than those that are longer term.

Once your players know they can win, it will spur them on and give them the strength to get to the next step. There is nothing wrong if, as the wins start piling up more quickly than originally expected, you raise the bar as your team becomes fueled by the thrill of victory.

As the coach, you need to have daily, weekly or monthly pep rallies. It is also critical that you identify and then empower team captains who will help propel the mission and perpetuate the message.

We all know, however, that there are many pitfalls in building an organization and instilling a sense of pride and purpose. The biggest destroyer of creating esprit de corps is the indiscriminate use of the first-person pronouns. It is nearly impossible to motivate a team to work together if you, as the leader, continually overuse the words “I,” “me” and “mine,” instead of “we,” “us” and “ours.”

We have all heard statements from otherwise very bright people, who almost smugly assert, “I did this,” or, “my company did that,” instead of employing the royal “we” or “our.” When a leader boasts about a recent accomplishment by stating, “I am pleased to announce ...” he is sure to deflate the most zealous team player who will think to himself, “What am I on this team — chopped liver?”

It has been said many times that it’s amazing how much people can get done if they don’t worry about who gets the credit. We have all heard the statement that there is no “I” in team, which rings true as most successful leaders get the most satisfaction in knowing they pulled everyone together to go in the same direction at the same time to accomplish a shared goal.

There is a big payoff for the leader who knows how and when to use the correct pronouns, starting with less use of “me” and more emphasis on “we.”

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at