Why And How You Can Make Vital Team Building Actually Work

Welela Haileselassie found herself working far from her usual desk in the Somers office of IBM last summer. She was in Ethiopia, where she’d traveled in August with a team of colleagues from around the globe to assist the International Medical Corps, a humanitarian nonprofit organization.  

After three months of prep work that started in May, Haileselassie spent one month overseas working in a small unit that helped the charity improve its data collection, contributing her skills as a program manager in IBM’s systems and technology group. Haileselassie was among 14 IBMers who worked simultaneously on five different projects in Ethiopia. After Haileselassie’s team completed its efforts, the charity—involved in healthcare relief, training, and development programs—was able to attract more funds to support its work.  

“We formed a lasting bond,” says Haileselassie of the IBM team. “We were together in the same hotel working on these projects.” Given how short the trip was, she says, “To be able to build that type of connection and work relationships was very impressive.” Beyond that, she says, “I’m originally from Ethiopia. Going back there as part of the IBM team was a very special and unique experience for me.”

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IBM teamwork in action: learning about the water infrastructure in Tschwane, South Africa

and touring Syracuse, NY

Haileselassie was part of IBM’s six-year-old Corporate Service Corps, an elite leadership-development program for high performers that some liken to a corporate Peace Corps. Building strong teams is a foundation of its success, according to Gina Tesla, the Armonk-based director of corporate citizenship initiatives at IBM and herself a former Peace Corps volunteer. “This program is team-based,” says Tesla. “It’s one of the core elements of the program that really makes it successful. It’s sort of like a secret sauce.”

IBM’s Corporate Service Corps is among a number of innovative programs helping Westchester leaders spark teamwork. As many businesses have found, working quickly and effectively toward a common goal is more crucial than ever. Companies of all sizes face challenges such as heightened competition in a more digital and increasingly global marketplace, shorter product lifespans, rapidly evolving technology, and changes in the nature of work that bring more freelance and other flexible talent to their teams, according to Bruce Bachenheimer, a clinical professor of management at Pace University and executive director of its Entrepreneurship Lab. 

“You’re seeing much more need for entrepreneurial, faster-moving teams,” says Bachenheimer. “Companies have to be much more agile now.”

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Many leaders realize teamwork isn’t just a feel-good concept. There’s a measurable payoff for putting it front and center. Among publicly traded companies, for instance, the research firm Gallup has found that firms that increase the number of talented managers on their teams (and double the rate of engaged employees as a result) will post earnings per share that are, on average, 147 percent higher than rivals that don’t.

Gallup has also found that work groups with the highest engagement among employees experience 21 percent higher productivity, 22 percent higher profitability than those with lower levels, and 10 percent better ratings by customers. In addition, being part of these cohesive groups fosters loyalty: The companies that do best at this experience 65 percent lower turnover than less-engaged teams.

That said, creating strong teams is easier said than done. In its most recent State of the American Workplace report in 2013, Gallup found that only 41 percent of US employees even know what their company stands for and what makes its brand unique. 

Media-cost forecasting firm SQAD, based in Tarrytown, brings its far-flung team members together for events like this Alzheimer’s walk.

So how can companies beat the odds and build the teamwork they need to succeed? Cultivating leaders others want to follow is a big part of this. One key focus of IBM’s program, for instance, is helping leaders improve their cultural adaptability and skills in collaboration and listening. Emphasizing strong cross-functional teams is also important in today’s fast-changing business environment. On any given Service Corps assignment, an IBMer from a discipline such as technology might team up with colleagues from other professional backgrounds, like marketing and law. “We like to have all the skills that would be able to provide real, significant value,” says Stanley S. Litow, vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs and president of the IBM International Foundation.

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At many firms, getting increasingly mobile teams together in one place is a big part of team building. Take WTP Advisors, a White Plains-based international tax advisory and consulting firm. (The New York portion was acquired by Ryan, the global tax services firm in Dallas, in December.) At WTP, which has 1,000 employees globally with 50 based in Westchester, the partners hold regular mentoring dinners with groups in the firm. To spark meaningful discussions, they ask each participant to bring three questions to the dinner—two work-related and one personal. “Before, people were a little shy,” says cofounder and partner Michael Minihan. “It would take them until dessert to get to what their serious questions were.” 

To foster cohesion within its team, WTP Advisors also holds “promotion parties” to celebrate when someone has moved up through the ranks. One event was a pub crawl along Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains. Given that workers often work on-site for clients, gatherings like these are important ways to connect, says Minihan.

“If they don’t have a vehicle to get together with other people at the firm, there is no culture,” says Minihan. 

Another firm facing the challenge of far-flung employees is SQAD in Tarrytown, a media-cost forecasting service that serves clients such as advertising agencies and media-buying companies. SQAD recently expanded from 28 people to 52 after acquiring Workhorse Software, which is based in Evanston, Illinois, but also has employees in London and Manila. 

At Scarsdale-based Healthy Home Builders, management and employees work—and play—on equal terms to foster a casual and open environment. 

To bring the newly expanded team together, CEO Neil Klar arranged a meeting in October at Doral Arrowwood in White Plains, which all team members except those far away in Manila attended. As an icebreaker, the employees took a modified Myers-Briggs test and, based on their answers, were grouped by color codes such as yellow and red at a gathering. The icebreaker loosened everyone up so much, Klar says, that soon after starting it, “We didn’t have to bother worrying whose color was what anymore.” Investing the time in the gathering has helped the teams work together smoothly, he says. 

Some local firms, like Healthy Home Builders, have found the digital revolution makes team building easier. After starting its own YouTube channel, the Scarsdale custom builder—which specializes in creating homes using nontoxic materials to improve indoor air quality—chronicled the construction of a home at 8 Kent Road in weekly video updates on its crew’s efforts, such as putting up the walls, over the course of a year. In one such video, project manager Phillip Salerno talks about how he sees the team’s painstaking work as the equivalent of playing on a Major League Baseball team. 

 “I care so much about this house; this is my Yankee Stadium,” says the carpenter with visible emotion, with the building site at the Scarsdale property as a backdrop.

The short documentaries not only offer valuable marketing for the firm but also built continuing excitement among the team, as they watched coworkers appear in the videos each week. 

“There was a general sense that these guys knew they were involved in something bigger,” says Jan Flanzer, Healthy Home Builders managing director, who cofounded the firm three years ago to help others avoid the type of serious health problems she suffered from mold-contaminated indoor air in her home. “They knew they were doing something important. That makes such a difference as they come into work.”

Flanzer says that at Healthy Home Builders a casual and open environment is encouraged. During a recent project, management brought in lunch for the team; they didn’t want to draw a hard line between management and workers.

For small, family-run firms, an informal approach to team building often works best. Statewide Abstract Corp, a title insurance firm that has a main office in White Plains and another in Manhattan, has found that the firm’s personal touch has helped it keep many of its employees for 20 years—and even inspired some to return after leaving. “Family comes first here,” says Ken Meccia, president, who runs the firm his father, James Meccia, founded in 1979 with his brother Alan Meccia, chief operating officer.

Employees don’t need to worry that they’ll be subtly penalized as they might be in corporate America if they need to tackle a sudden problem at home, Ken says. “Everyone looks out for each other,” he says. If someone has a problem at home, he says, “everyone else covers.” 

Small gestures keep the team strong. “We’ll have Mimosas on someone’s birthday and bring in Champagne and orange juice,” Ken says. Extras like these don’t require a big-company budget but the results speak for itself. The firm generates $6 million in revenue and is profitable, Ken says. 

“It’s a fun atmosphere to be in,” he says. “It’s not a high-pressure place. Everyone works and helps each other get ahead.”

And in the end, that’s what gives the firm—and other team-oriented firms like it—a hard-to-beat competitive edge.

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