Becoming the Team Leader of a team that was falling apart, during a time when companies were (and still are) fighting to get the best talent, is perhaps not everyone’s dream job. If we then add the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting necessity of switching to remote working overnight, it could have been a recipe for disaster. However, this was not the case for Tamara.
She managed to build a high-performance team almost from scratch and proved that anything is possible if you are willing to try harder every day.
So, Tamara how did it all start?
Almost 2 years ago, before I became the team leader of my current team, I was part of an earlier iteration of the team, that had been going through some difficult times in terms of cooperation, understanding and communication among the team members. At the time, I was a software architect and I was responsible for most of the integrations related to Utilities and infrastructure management processes (hence the UIM name).
At one point, the majority of the team gave up the ghost and decided to leave the company. We were just starting with some really interesting new challenges: building our own UIM product, being involved in an international project in Jamaica, and as a result getting the chance to discover a new culture. However, at the same time the team was falling apart.
There had been 9 of us originally, but suddenly only 3 of us
were left to pick up the pieces. You cannot imagine how disappointing it was and
as a result, I was not very enthusiastic when I was asked to become the manager
of this unsettled team.
What was “the light at the end of the tunnel” that kept you going, and kept you believing that you could make it happen and be successful together?
There was not just one, but several things that kept me going:
First, I realized I could count on our management. They were willing to change things, starting with talking to the employees and taking responsibility for past problems and reassuring me that I could always count on them.
Second, other team members reached out to me with supportive words and offered their help, which was really important for me.
Next were the three amazing people who were with me in the team. At first they were downcast, but also hopeful, and they trusted in my belief that fair and open communication could overcome the past issues. This, in turn provided me with a fresh starting point to build up a team to be proud of.
And, last but not least, I could count on my BE-terna coach, Tina Škerlj, to help me with all the organisational, goal-orientated and reporting activities that had been added to my new role as a team lead.
Team workshop in Jamaica
What did the transformation look like? What were the first steps?
We first informed the team that I was officially taking on the role of team leader, but also that we would have a transition period of a couple of months, during which my manager would cover team management activities on my behalf (such as regular meetings with employees, reporting, etc…), and that I would cover just the project related activities.
Then we divided the whole transformation challenge into smaller chunks, to be able to deal with them better in parallel.
1. Firstly, was the Team organisational challenge
At the time I wondered how a coach would be able to help me, but today I cannot express how grateful I am for my coach Tina. We connected immediately and after just a few sessions I had a very good idea of how to deal with the situation: from defining clear team goals, defining each person’s goals and development plan, setting up regular 1:1 meetings with them, setting up a standard reporting system - basically finding out our rhythm of business.
I decided right at the beginning that I could only do that if I stayed true to myself: to be as fair as possible, have open communication and give everyone a chance to be heard.
2. Secondly we had the challenge of employee dissatisfaction that had (initially) caused the team to breakup
As a team, we took the time to prepare a list of good and bad practices in our company. This gave us the opportunity to compare each other’s expectations and to put them into a more realistic perspective by being critical, not just towards the company, but also towards ourselves.
The finalised list was presented to the management. Our management performed an analysis of it, and then took the time to talk with each employee in person to discover what was bothering some of them. This was a clear sign that they were also very interested in improving the company’s internal culture.
Good vibes only ;)
3. Next was the Jamaica project organisation challenge
Our team immediately got a new member, so there we were - 4 women facing the entire Jamaican project team. As we could not cover all the aspects of the project by ourselves, management helped us by providing two great project managers, first former BE-terna employee Mateja Zorman and then Gal Šmidovnik.
They also organised temporary help from other teams. I’m glad to say that even though the other teams were already busy with their own assignments, they were still able to start helping us immediately. This is something I now try to remember every time someone asks me or my team for help.
We expanded our knowledge and later shared it with our new team members, thus leading by example.
4. Lastly was the UIM product development challenge
This was the part I enjoyed the most, as it meant starting with an idea, designing it and bringing it to life. We started by brainstorming ideas, designing solutions and developing them, mostly with the invaluable help of our product team. We all worked towards a mutual goal that really brought us together.
Looking back, these steps seem like small ones, but they were the foundation of the team as it is today: members trusting each other, feeling confident in expressing their opinion and ideas, having no fear when facing new challenges.
You managed to turn things around, to develop a motivated team and grow the business, even travelling to Jamaica together, and then BAM!! Covid... All of a sudden the team had to work remotely 24/7. How did you manage and what did you do?
This was really something that was not a new thing for us. Working in Europe for a Jamaican company had already meant that we had to deal with the 7-hour time difference and the great physical distance between us. So, we were accustomed to having meetings and workshops on-line, most of them in the afternoon and evening hours. In addition, one of our team members was also located in Belgrade, and we worked on-line with him constantly
Therefore, when Covid struck we just continued with our daily routine, meaning that instead of just one member, all of us were connected on-line. We already had a team channel to communicate through, team activities such as planning, fine-tuning, 1:1 meetings were regularly on schedule, people posted photos of their home offices, and we all used our cameras to see each other as often as possible.
As proof of this, our team expanded by 4 new members in this period, we accomplished an on-time go-live in Jamaica and also started with a new offer analysis. We even had an on-line celebration for the go-live, with champagne and speeches. It was new, it was good, and it felt very nice. And all this was done on-line. Today we have a Jamaican implementation reference, a new implementation project, 4 new members who are confident in their roles, and we are a team in which the bonds among us are stronger than ever.
Remote work can be fun too.
Did you have any difficult moments?
Of course, there were difficult moments. Going from 4 to 10 members (as we feel that our project manager Gal is also a member of the team) meant raising/bringing our team organisation to a new level. I had to learn how to lean on other team members more, to delegate more responsibilities to them, even when all I wanted was to do things by myself. I had to give others and myself the chance to prove ourselves in new challenges. There were also some frustrating times when I couldn’t see how to reach the next level, but luckily, I had my coach Tina right there beside me. As an endless source of ideas and with an extraordinary positive spirit, she helped me through these hard times, which now seem like a distant memory.
What is the situation like now?
Today we are a team of 10, including our project manager. We are a mixed team of men and women who socialise even after working hours by playing volleyball together, and we are planning to have our own team building as soon the Covid situation calms down. All of the team members are highly motivated and are looking forward to gaining new knowledge at every opportunity. They have successfully passed 5 certificate exams in the past year as a matter of routine. It is not a joke to say that some of them get a little anxious when their To-Do lists are too short, so I always try to provide new activities to keep them on their toes!
Volleyball is the most popular after-work sport activity at BE-terna
What are your plans for the future and what are the next steps?
Continuing to build the team, of course. Helping each team member to climb the next step, to take on more responsibilities, and to take on new roles. Every improvement the team makes means new possibilities for all of us, and I include myself in this.
To summarise – what do you think the crucial elements are in developing a high-performance team?
I rely on sincerity and fair play to begin with, but to develop a high-performance team you need more.
As nothing happens by accident, I believe that a clear vision of the team is essential. From there all you need is a plan of how to achieve it. In our case we developed our strategy:
- Firstly by having ambitious goals for the team as a whole and for individual members
- Secondly by having a personal development plan for each individual in the team
- Then by agreeing on activities that need to be carried out regularly (team meetings, 1:1meetings, etc…) and by involving each and every one of us in the process
- And finally by monitoring the execution, making corrections to the plan if and when they were necessary and sticking to the plan
When life gets blurry see with your heart 😉
What are the 5 key lessons that you have learnt on this journey?
The top 5 as I see them are:
- Communication, communication, and more communication. I mean this in every way, within the team, with the management, with other teams. Expressing our thoughts, and accepting other opinions, both with a healthy measure of critical thinking, provides us with the space to grow and trust.
- Never stop striving to be better and always see new challenges as an opportunity to improve. This keeps us motivated and provides opportunities for each one of us to shine. And who doesn’t want to shine?
- A busy team is a happy team. Of course, it is good to have some downtime occasionally, but not too often and not for too long. Being useful makes us feel good.
- It is good to work together in person, but we manage just as well remotely when the situation demands it and we can get the most out of it.
- I believe that strength doesn’t come from just one person, true strength lies in team spirit. Trusting your colleagues and working together is what can overcome any issue.
Team members at BE-terna Ljubljana office
Would you do it again?
I can say that looking back, I am happy that I have been able to contribute and be part of this journey. Furthermore, I am satisfied to still be on-board. But doing it all over again? With these same people around me? I think yes, any time.