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Taking the offensive Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

Tom Cornwell has seen the way a group of people can bond as a team at the right time in order to accomplish greatness. Just look at the St. Louis Cardinals’ improbable playoff run to win the 2006 World Series.

The team struggled throughout the regular season, and while it managed to finish on top in its division, no one expected the Cards to make any noise in the playoffs. Instead, the team jelled and ended up winning it all.

“Exceptional teamwork allows you to take good, but not necessarily super performers, and accomplish extraordinary things,” says Cornwell, general manager at DRS Sustainment Systems Inc., a subsidiary of $3.3 billion (FY2008) DRS Technologies Inc. “What we attempt to do as leaders of this organization is to recognize that the benefit of the team and its success is greater than any individual’s objective or goal.”

In the business world, chemistry problems often occur when the broader team that represents the entire company begins to split off into smaller teams, each with its own set of goals and objectives.

“There is a natural tendency that when we organize a group of individuals, we establish a leader and we typically then want to treat that organization as a team,” Cornwell says. “There is also the element of competition within our society. If you’re not careful, having multiple individual teams as part of an organization can create competitive situations that actually become conflicts between departments. In its most extreme example, you get type A personality leaders with a conflicting objective to another department. It’s akin to all-out war.”

When Cornwell took the helm of the 800-employee DRS-SSI, he did not see a war brewing at the defense contractor, but he did see some cracks in the foundation.

“What I was seeing was that we had functional organizations that were created, supported and focused for the benefit of the functional organization,” Cornwell says. “It wasn’t necessarily for the benefit of the whole organization or the benefit of the customer.”

Cornwell needed employees to commit fully to their individual tasks but to do so in such a way that they wouldn’t lose sight of the big picture.

“If done correctly, every employee should have an individual goal that supports the strategy so they can relate to it and say, ‘I’m helping grow the business because I’m doing the following and it’s part of my goal,’” Cornwell says.

Here are some of the ways Cornwell helped employees see that connection to make DRS-SSI a stronger team.

Minimize conflict

One of the best ways to keep employees from being distracted or drawn into tangential conflicts is to keep their task simple. It’s something Cornwell has made a priority at DRS-SSI.

“It may seem strange that I would mention this in the concept of teamwork,” Cornwell says. “We have a very complex business. We have over 150 products that we’ve manufactured in recent history, anything from a ground surveillance radar, which is a very complex piece of electronic equipment, to a water bottling machine that is used on the battlefield, and everything in between. … Trying to manage that can be very challenging.”

It becomes less challenging if you overlay the work that your employees do with a basic idea, a core competency that defines what your organization is all about.

“When you can define your business with one core competency and then pursue it, you will move forward in simplifying the business,” Cornwell says. “There are certainly support functions that you must have in the process of doing that. But if you can define one core competency, you can have employees rally around that specific opportunity.”

In the case of DRS-SSI, Cornwell felt the best core competency to rally around would be providing great customer service.

“We’re very fortunate that we can group or categorize our customer into one very important category,” Cornwell says. “It starts with rallying around that. That’s a wonderful opportunity in terms of customer focus.”

The idea is that no matter what department you’re in or what product you’re making, you all are working toward the goal of getting your customers what they need.

“One day we’re working on this program in support of the Navy,” Cornwell says. “Another day we’re working on another program in support of the Army. At the end of the day, we’re all working together under a standard set of expected rules of engagement.”

As a means of promoting the team concept, Cornwell and his team tasked a group of employees to come up with an idea to recognize teams who exhibited strong performance in support of the customer and worked together to do it.

“I personally recognized a couple years ago that I wasn’t sure we were treating one another in a respectful way,” Cornwell says. “I wasn’t quite sure if we were recognizing employees for good behavior and good things. And I certainly wasn’t sure about the reward system we had in place.

“They created what we call the R3 initiatives: respect, reward and recognition. We’ve used that as a basis to try to establish standard practices of what’s acceptable behavior and this idea of customer focus, but at the same time, working together as a team. That’s probably been one of the most significant successes associated with this concept of empowerment holding all levels of the organization accountable.”

The reinforcement and reward encourages employees to do their best to support the team concept. So what happens when people show that they don’t want to or can’t work with others as part of a team?

“I’ve made it very clear relative to what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable relative to working together,” Cornwell says. “In those instances where individuals were incapable of working together, we’ve made changes.”

Set a good example

It sounds too obvious to even say it, but in a good organization, employees take leads from their leaders on how to act and behave in the workplace. If you want employees to feel like they are part of a team and act accordingly, you need to show that you support it, too.

“If the employees that we have as part of this organization can see us as a leadership team visibly working together for a common cause and promoting the organizational goals over departmental goals, I think employees and members of our team begin to get it and support it,” Cornwell says.

“It’s the point of time when the actions don’t support the words that can be very hypocritical and destructive. So we are constantly needing to monitor that, and it’s not easy.”

DRS-SSI has a legacy that stretches back to World War II, and Cornwell says that wasn’t always easy to work with in his effort to come up with the team concept that he wanted to develop.

One of the key steps in the process is the idea that employees can see their importance in the organization being in direct correlation to how their team rates or is thought of. If it feels like the team you are working on is making a difference and contributing to the goals of the company, you’re going to feel a lot better being part of that team.

Cornwell had to work through the challenge of getting leaders of his various departments to take authority and show leadership to their teams.

“Every question that was asked, the middle manager would just

send it up the chain of command and say, ‘They want to know this,’” Cornwell says. “We finally said, ‘Guys, you have that answer. You have that ability to answer that question, please go ahead and answer it.’ It’s been very rewarding in terms of watching our leaders grow and provide on-the-spot feedback to our employees to what might be considered in the past difficult questions to answer.”

To ensure that these middle managers could be strong leaders for their teams, Cornwell initiated what he called huddle manager meetings.

“Every two weeks, we assemble about 10 percent of our organization who are middle-manager leaders, and we have a senior leadership team member who will share information firsthand,” Cornwell says. “We can then discuss at that meeting any questions, issues or feedback. We ask those huddle managers to go back into their natural work groups and share that information. They are empowered to address questions or concerns from their employees.”

Cornwell says he is willing to accept that, in some cases, the communication may break down and a middle manager may provide incorrect information.

“We just go ahead and correct it,” Cornwell says. “We stand behind the leader recognizing that none of us are 100 percent, and we support them when maybe the answers aren’t as accurate as they need to be.”

The goal is to give those leaders an active role in what you’re doing so they convey the energy and sense of team that you need to get things done.

“We challenge our collective 800 employees to think in terms of, ‘How do you take that vision and goal and drive it into your day-to-day job?’” Cornwell says. “That’s how the leaders of our company are challenged. They are asked to sit down with each of the employees and talk in terms of what they can do and what we can do in support of the goals.”

When you or others leaders in the company talk with employees, don’t just say, ‘Hey, I’m here, you got any questions,’ Cornwell says.

“People are very quiet,” Cornwell says. “They’ll say, ‘Nope, I don’t have any questions.’ But if I go into a work environment and see what they are doing and I ask them, ‘What is that? What are you doing? Where is that used? How is that used?’ People then are comfortable and they’ll talk about that. Maybe that’s the icebreaker. Then I believe they are very quick at that point to share concerns they might not have brought up in a strictly question-and-answer group thing.”

You also need to resist the urge to try to fix every problem on your own.

“That’s probably one of my biggest challenges,” Cornwell says. “I have a tendency when someone brings an issue to me, I feel compelled to fix it. In my career as a leader, I’ve had to train myself to accept the input but allow the responsible party to address the issue. … It’s very important that employees have a sense that we support the managers, supervisors, vice presidents, whatever in this organization and that we support the work that they do. Otherwise, I don’t think anybody would want to be a leader.”

How to reach: DRS Sustainment Systems Inc., (314) 553-4000 or www.drs.com

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