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Winning Teams

Organizations that use assessment tools to build and enhance work teams are finding significant returns on their investments.

Friday, October 2, 2009
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When Ken Meyers took on the role of senior vice president of organizational transformation and people development at Hospira Inc. in December 2008, he was immediately tasked with finding a way to create greater alignment and camaraderie among the seven individuals on the company's senior-leadership team, of which he was now a member.

"We're a very data-driven organization," he says of the Lake Forest, Ill.-based injectable-pharmaceuticals and medical-device manufacturer. "Our leaders like to look at data to drive decisions and behavior. So we were ripe for using tools that would provide them with that data."

Meyers set about creating a process for holding regular sessions with the team "where we take a hard look at how we can improve the dynamic between us seven," he says. "We use certain assessment tools that provide each leader with an understanding of greater self-awareness of their personality, leadership style and their preferences in how they behave."

He says the benefits become apparent when, "in using those tools, as they gain greater self-awareness about themselves, they also apply [those lessons] to how they impact others who work on the team."

Among the tools Meyers' team used were the Myers Briggs Type Indicator personality assessment, the Hogan Development Survey derailment tool and an internally created team-effectiveness tool that looks at different criteria and alignments of behavior, such as how team members prefer to communicate with each other to resolve differences, and that measures the level of pride workers had for the team.

"Essentially, we used a battery of tools to give our leaders more self-awareness and [knowledge about] how their style affects others," he says. "Open sharing on scores and personality test results [showing] how they impact the team dynamics" also helped bridge gaps between the team members.

Hospira's experience using assessments points to a recent trend in which more organizations are using such tools to improve how teams work together, says John Fennig, owner of human resource consultancy DRI Consulting in North Oaks, Minn.

"The fundamental unit of work, in my mind, is the team, so assessing the team is vital," he says. "It's a growing trend because it's a valid and reliable way to measure certain key elements of how a team functions.

"Team assessments," he adds, "tell you whether there's a collective strength, or an Achilles heel, or some other insight that isn't being tapped."

Those key elements can include team members' understanding of the work requirements, how well a team is functioning together, work-style similarities and differences within the group, and the importance of each player on the team.

With increased scrutiny on the bottom line during the recession, more companies would be wise to add such assessments to their arsenal, Fennig says.

"With lower operating margins," he says, "little differences make big differences."

For Hospira, using assessment tools allowed its leadership team to "reach an understanding based on data of who we are," Meyers says. "And I find that approach extremely helpful from a team-development point of view."

Taking Out Emotion

Meyers says the assessment experience has provided many advantages for Hospira's leadership team, but perhaps none more important than the fact that such tools help take emotions out of the equation. That's especially helpful when considering how sensitive people can be when their skills (and shortcomings) are discussed openly.

"You're starting from a point of data," he says. "Now, it's not about being mad at Johnny for not talking; that's emotion. Now, it's about needing to pull Johnny into the conversation because you know that he's quiet [and] he's just processing information. It brings it to a point of understanding based on factual data."

One additional advantage, he says, "is about pointing out who we are as human beings, and that our preferences are very different."

Despite the advantages, however, getting buy-in from some groups may be hard-earned, says Meyers.

"Sometimes, people who aren't familiar with assessment tools may not understand how impactful they can be, so they brush them off as psychobabble that they are not comfortable with," he says. "But [that resistance is] nothing that you can't counter with education and communication. You don't just send out the tools and say, 'Do this by this date and that's it.' Once people understand the tools, they're very open about them because they can create harmony."

For example, the in-house survey created by Hospira asked respondents to rate how well the other members "listen to each other's point of view," and how effective team members are at giving and receiving constructive feedback. Knowing the answers to those questions, says Meyers, allowed the team to train its focus on improving communication skills.

Meyers advises HR leaders to "make sure you communicate what the tools are about," he says. "Support the message that comes out of these tools so that it becomes a language within the fabric of your culture and people can talk about it and get comfortable with it. That way, it becomes part of the common language and people can have fun with it, and it reinforces the diversity of your organization. None of that is bad."

Mergers and Acquisitions

As the economy continues to lag and more organizations face the prospect of being acquired or merging with others, assessments are also gaining traction as ways to help newly merged teams hit the ground running.

Kforce Services Corp., a Tampa, Fla.-based staffing firm with 2,000 core employees, places approximately 10,000 contract workers per week, according to Vice President of Human Resources Douglas Rich. He says the company's use of assessment tools to build teams stems from a decade of using Roswell, Ga.-based assessment provider PreVisor's assessment tool for selecting new employees.

"Over time, we continued to tweak the assessment to adjust for our needs, and we started using it as a mergers-and-acquisitions tool," he says.

When Kforce purchased Hall Kinion, a publicly traded staffing firm based in Novato, Calif., in the summer of 2004, Rich says, it started to promote the use of personality profiles within new teams of recruiters that were coming together as a result of the purchase.

"Recruiting is a team-based activity," Rich says, "so understanding the different personalities associated with team members helps in knowing how they'll react in certain situations."

He says the best way for such assessment programs to succeed within an organization begins with being mindful of the organization's overall goals and mission.

"It's really not something you just want to put in place without putting some thought into really determining what's important for your organization based on its culture," Rich says. And because the company stresses teamwork within its recruiting function, the results of the assessments can be even more effective, he says.

"Nine times out of 10, when someone reads the results of their profile, they say, 'Yup, that's me, that's correct,' " Rich says. "And when you do it in a team meeting, it's reinforced even more. It helps break down barriers and allows for people to have discussions on different characteristics they see in the group and where their strengths and weaknesses are."

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He adds that getting the organization's top management personally involved in the process will also create a better environment for overall success.

"I'd have all of [senior] management go through [a team assessment] themselves and see the value in it," in order to convince them it works, he says. "You've got to get them involved in the vetting of it, and it might actually make them work better as a management team, too."

Finding New Direction

While assessment tools can be used to help both new and existing teams get better at working together as a group, they can also support larger goals, such as drafting a new strategic plan for an organization.

So says Sam Albrecht, a senior account manager at Mount Laurel, N.J.-based Association Headquarters Inc., which provides staff resources for nonprofit organizations with a focus on medical, professional and trade associations.

"We cover whatever a staff would do for a nonprofit organization," he says.

Currently, the company manages 28 different associations, including the American Society of Transplantation and the League of Professional System Administrators.

Albrecht says assessments helped find a new direction for the American Society of Histocompatability and Immunogenetics, an association of 1,000 international lab directors and technicians who are involved in tissue typing for solid organ and bone-marrow transplants in order to determine the best matches between donors and recipients.

"ASHI wanted to do a new strategic plan," says Albrecht. So as part of the fresh perspective on its future, 15 people, including both the ASHI board of directors and the staff at Association Headquarters (including Albrecht), submitted to the Golden Personality type-profiler online assessment tool by San Antonio-based talent-assessment group Pearson in order to create personal profiles that explain the basis for each individual's decision-making skills and the way they relate to other people.

"We used my profile as a sample and walked through the individual profile and how to use that, and then we looked at a group profile to see how everyone fit on the matrix of 16 different personality types to better use our skills and talents to move the organization forward," he says.

"It was beneficial to use the Golden Personality profile to help [the ASHI board] understand how we're each unique ... then we went through a team profile to understand how to best move forward. We really wanted to understand how to work -- not only individually, but as a team -- for those new strategic goals."

As a result of the assessment process, Albrecht says, the association is now better positioned to meet the needs of its members.

"I think we ended up with a better strategic plan as a result," he says. "And we now communicate better as well. Now there's a three-year plan in place that really helps the organization be stronger."

Ultimately, DRI Consulting's Fennig says that, while team assessments may not be on the radar of every HR leader, there certainly is a place for them within the right organizations at the right time.

"The more sophisticated HR leader knows when the time is right to administer team assessments: when team goals are known and when there's a good structure and reasonably the right people in place," he says.

But he cautions that, while the upside of a team assessment is high, it is a process that may not be suited for every organization.

"This is not an everyday, every-organization kind of thing. I would bet only about 10 percent of people who work have participated in a systematic team assessment," he says. But I would encourage it more than be afraid of it."

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