I’m about to begin a new job, and though I’m excited for the new opportunity and looking forward to the adventure ahead, I am struggling with saying goodbye to my team. In the life of my career, I have certainly experienced running out the door as quickly as possible, barely able to contain the excitement that I’m finally escaping a job, a boss, a team for a fresh beginning. I’ve felt the relief of leaving a toxic environment for something new and hopeful. I’ve known the celebration that comes when a new job feels like a welcome release from the prison of work that was sucking the life out of me. I’ve survived those jobs in the past, and gratefully moved on, but none of those feelings could be further from how I feel now. I’ve been with this team for over 5 years, and they feel like family. I feel blessed to have been a part of this special group and I will grieve this transition. I am certainly looking forward to new opportunities that will build on my strengths and push me to grow, but with this change comes the loss of a team of women I hold near and dear to my heart…a team of women who lift each other up, propel each other towards growth, care for each other through professional and personal hardships, and celebrate successes. As I’ve reflected on how much these past 5 years have meant to me, and how hard it will be to move on, I’ve been considering what made this group so special and how it might be repeated.
How to Build a Team that’s Hard to Leave
1. Take a chance on a passionate rookie. Oftentimes, a person with a fire to learn can be a surer bet than someone with the right credentials and years of experience. I did not perfectly meet the criteria in the job description, but the hiring Director had seen my work in a volunteer capacity and heard from someone she trusted that I was eager and capable of learning, so she encouraged me to apply. Seeing my desire and passion for growth and development, she believed in me from the beginning and gave me the courage to rise to the occasion. I’ve developed more in the past 5 years than I ever thought possible, and it’s because I had a boss and a team that pushed me, believed in me, encouraged me, and provided a safe place to land for any falls along the way. Their faith in me enhanced my desire to live up to and exceed their expectations. They bet on me and I was determined to make them proud!
2. Show compassion. We are so much more than employees. We have lives outside of work that touch every part of our hearts and minds and we must remember this as we work with one another day in and day out. I was in my third trimester when I was offered and accepted this position 5 years ago, and my start date was set for 12 weeks after delivery. I unexpectedly had a very difficult pregnancy and ended up completely debilitated. My maternity leave turned into short-term disability and I was out much longer than anticipated. The hiring Director showed patience and kindness and never once made me feel like a burden. When I finally did start (not knowing if I would be physically capable of working), she went out of her way to make sure I was comfortable and supported. My colleagues were gracious and understanding and never indicated that I had been an inconvenience due to my delayed start. In fact, this group of women embraced me at a time I wasn’t sure I would be able to hold down a job or live a “normal” life. After 6 months of darkness and hopelessness, I was attempting to complete typical daily activities, not knowing if I would ever be healthy again. Amidst my fear and trepidation they welcomed me warmly. They were a significant part of my new beginning and they brought light and hope after months of wondering if I would ever return to my standard way of living. As I stepped back into being, they were there with open arms showing nothing but compassion and acceptance. There are not words to describe the deep gratitude in my heart for them then, now, and forever.
3. Provide mentorship. When someone takes the time to transfer their wisdom, everyone benefits. Individual growth leads to team growth. When I started, there were only 4 of us. We were a small team, but I quickly observed how powerful they were as they worked together. They took me under their wings and spent their valuable time training me, guiding me, answering my questions, assigning me ambitious projects to enhance my skills, coaching me, encouraging me, believing in my ability, and seeing me through each challenge. They passed on their wisdom, ensured my success, and cheered me on as I grew. There was never any knowledge hoarding and I never once felt alone.
4. Have each other’s backs at all times. Gossip is poison. Not one time in my 5 years did I hear someone talk negatively about another person on the team. If someone made a mistake, the team would jump into help repair it while building them up and helping them fight off shame. There was never any finger-pointing or blaming, just support and encouragement and moving forward. On day one, they made it a point to tell me, “we are a team that helps one another. We have each other’s backs and we NEVER throw anyone under the bus.” I thought this was a lovely philosophy, but I had never been on a team that actually lived this out. They soon proved that these were more than words. They stuck to this motto and we thrived.
5. Hold each other and yourself accountable. Knowing you’re on a team where others have your back at all times makes it easier to admit your mistakes and help others fix theirs. We raised our hands when we fumbled, and said, “it was me and I will fix it,” and with that admission, other’s on the team jumped in to help. We gave each other permission to speak up if something needed addressed, and we did so without condescension or contempt.
6. Leave room for getting to know one another – Make time to connect. Knowing a little about each other’s lives outside of work helps develop relationships that go deeper than just getting the work done. Rapport builds compassion and empathy and helps resolve conflict when frustration during stressful times inevitably arrives. We spent the first 5 minutes of every team meeting getting to know a little bit about each other. Throughout the week we shared pictures, quotes, and articles we’ve enjoyed reading in an effort to offer connection and encouragement on a consistent basis. In a full time job, we spend more time with each other during the week than we do our own families, so it makes sense to nurture these relationships beyond the surface level. This doesn’t require that everyone be “friends,” but a little relational depth allows us insight into what makes each other tick, and aids in understanding each other’s reactions, strengths, weaknesses, and how to provide support and feedback in a more holistic way.
7. Work hard and laugh together. As cliche’ as it is, “work hard, play hard” really does help build a connected and healthy team, and having fun together is made much easier when you’ve already established tip #6. We put in long hours and brain-stretching work to get it right. We took pride in our work as a team. We saw the value in each other and in the work we delivered, therefore we worked hard as individuals and as a cohort to support one another in getting things done timely and getting them done well. We got the work done and then we celebrated. We lived in all parts of the country, but when we connected on the phone, we laughed together. We told stories. We got silly and let loose. We’ve done the hokey pokey via video cam and shared pictures of our pets. We talked about our vacations, our kids, our gardens, our aging parents. We took the time to relax for a few minutes before the real talk began. Pushing the reset button is important and it’s refreshing to have co-workers who can let loose and not take themselves seriously 100% of the time. We didn’t get together face to face very often, but when we did…look out world! It’s a wonder we were never asked to leave an establishment due to our raucous laughter. We knew how to let our hair down when we weren’t pounding the pavement and this helped us survive the moments of overwhelm that regularly occur in our industry.
8. Offer constructive feedback with kindness and respect. In a high performance culture, we have to be open to feedback. In order to grow and develop we must look for ways to push ourselves beyond our comfort. We should desire feedback, however it is often given in a way that tears a person down and dissolves their self-esteem. I have had the privilege of learning from this group of women how to receive and provide professional feedback that is about genuinely helping the other person grow versus getting a leg up, making a power play, or destroying their confidence. Feedback should look and sound like, “I want to help you because I believe in your potential and I want to see you soar…here’s what I believe is holding you back. Based on this feedback, how can I help you reach the next level?”
9. Proactively help one another. It is important to reach out to others and offer help when we can. This does not mean saying “yes” to every ask. This is about proactively offering assistance when we have the time. When someone on the team saw a need, they would reach out. When someone had bandwidth, they would send an email or IM asking if they could be of service in any way. This is more than saying “yes” out of obligation or guilt…this is offering a hand before anyone has to ask. This is proactively creating an environment of selflessness and support.
10. Include the team in hiring decisions. Allowing employees to be a part of choosing new members for the team creates a culture of responsibility in making certain that the new employee succeeds. There is buy-in from the very beginning when employees are given choices and allowed to make recommendations. It makes sense that those who have to do the hard work together each day would have a say in who they will rub shoulders with all those hours. When we were asked to help interview for new positions on our team, we took the task very seriously. We met beforehand to discuss what we were looking for to ensure we were all on the same page. We met afterwards to debrief on the interview and share our insights before making any individual recommendations. We did our very best to find people who shared our work ethic and embraced our philosophy on creating a positive team culture, and that resulted in building an incredible work family that is now difficult to leave.
I have learned a lot of lessons from this amazing group and I hope to bring these lessons with me to my future team. Although these women could never be replaced, I pray I can help build a team culture similar to the one that has blessed me these last 5 years. I’m not going to lie…I’ve already cried twice while writing about leaving these strong, kind, capable, loving, loyal, fun, smart women, but I hope I can carry on the spirit of this team to all future jobs. I am so thankful for their earnestness in helping me grow and their kindness in a time I thought life as I knew it was over. I am so thankful for their encouragement and wisdom. I am so thankful for their never-ending support. I am so thankful for each of them and who they are to me and to each other. I could not be prouder to have been part of such an incredible group of brilliant and powerfully caring women! Thank you ladies for what you poured into my life these past 5 years. You are easy to love and hard to leave!