Don’t take for granted that your team understands its purpose. Alignment on goals and objectives is universally recognized as foundational to team effectiveness. Because the purpose is so fundamental, it is easy to overlook. In our work, we find that members of even the most senior teams rarely have a unified understanding of their purpose. To wit, we recently asked a team of eight people to write down the purpose of their team and got back eight different answers. When the individuals on a team coalesce around a common mission, it can achieve parabolic outcomes. One plus one no longer equals two — one plus one equals three. State and restate your team’s purpose. Connect it to the larger organization. Create slogans and catchphrases people can use to test their actions and decisions. One of ours was “slow down to speed up.” We were in a period of particularly rapid growth, and that phrase encouraged the team to slow down, do the work, and deliver an outstanding product and customer experience.
Jonathan Kirschner is the Founder and CEO of AIIR Consulting. As an executive coach himself, Jonathan founded AIIR Consulting with the mission to make individuals and their organizations more effective through technologically-enhanced, business psychology solutions. In 2009, he developed the AIIR® coaching method for achieving sustained behavioral change. He also developed AIIR’s technology platforms including the Coaching Zone® and Enterprise Coaching Manager®. Dr. Kirschner graduated from New York University with a focus on Psychology and Religion. He holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Widener University. Jonathan resides in the Philadelphia area with his wife and three kids. When not working, Jonathan derives energy from his vegetable garden, reading existential philosophy, mastering the art of BBQ, and playing late night ice-hockey for his local team.
Thank you for joining us Jonathan. What is your “backstory”?
From a very young age I found myself fascinated with human motivation and why people behave the way they do. I also learned early on that I derive tons of energy from solving human problems. I ultimately pursued a doctorate in clinical psychology, and while that was incredibly rewarding, I found myself wanting to have a bigger impact on the world than anything I could accomplish as an individual.
That’s why I founded AIIR Consulting. I believe that, with better leaders, we have a better world. The insights and tools from psychology can be leveraged to do this. Today, I am fueled and guided by a mission to elevate leaders every day, and I am always humbled to see the way that also elevates entire organizations and communities. AIIR Consulting is a business psychology firm that uses evidence-based techniques to increase the effectiveness of leaders worldwide. We are coming up on our 10-year anniversary and we’ve also recently been recognized for outstanding growth. I’m very proud to have taken AIIR Consulting from a startup to a 120-person organization that serves leaders around the globe. We’ve accomplished a tremendous amount and yet, we’re probably only getting started!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
You meet so many interesting people in the world of business psychology. From Fortune 500 CEOs to academic researchers that are changing the ways we think, it’s a fascinating and thrilling field to work in.
Once, a few years back, I was on a plane headed to kick off an executive coaching engagement. I was sitting on the plane to San Francisco reviewing a rather obscure psychometric assessment that very few people would be familiar with. And as I am doing this, the person sitting next to me leans over and offers, unprompted, his diagnostic insights on this particular report.
It turns out that I had just met a very high-ranking executive that would mentor me for many years to come. He and I talked for the entire plane ride. I shared some of the exciting innovations we were working on at AIIR and he shared some of his business expertise. His advice has been invaluable in taking AIIR from a boutique consultancy to a global firm. It has taught me that you never know when you’re going to meet someone that will completely change your life.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Many years ago I was preparing for one of the most important sales pitches our business had ever had the opportunity to give. I spent an inordinate amount of time creating the deck for this presentation. It was hours and hours, ensuring that I hadn’t missed a single detail. Every slide was jam-packed and, when I look back at it, I laugh when I realize that I had basically taken an entire proposal and stuffed it into this slide deck.
So I arrived at the meeting and got myself ready, obsessing over not missing a single piece of “critical” information. And I dive right into the content. I’m going and going and, the next thing I know, an hour and a half have gone by. I look up at the crowd and I see this group of tired and disengaged corporate warriors whose souls had just experienced Death By PowerPoint.
Nevertheless, I thought I rocked it. I didn’t miss a single detail! A few days go by and it’s time for my debrief call with my main point of contact. He laughs lovingly and says to me, “Jonathan… that was one of the worst presentations we’ve ever seen.” Needless to say, I learned then and there that less is more. And if you can’t have a meeting without a slide deck, you should probably think twice about having the meeting.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to talent today?
I think this is largely true and it’s certainly consistent with my experience. At AIIR, one thing that we know is that it is exceptionally important is for leaders to create an environment of psychological safety. This means making sure that your team members are able to speak their minds and take risks without fear of retribution. You can hear more about that in #4 below. But, in this case, I encourage leaders to really think about whether they are getting and giving courageous feedback. Often, if the feedback is given reciprocally and frequently, things can turn out differently. Give your team members space and support they need to raise concerns, even if they are about your relationship.
The other thing to consider is an organizational fit. Has your organization been clear about its values and goals? Have you expressed your expectations? We live in a very fast-paced world that, for better or worse, is only speeding up. Not everyone is very comfortable with that. The good news is that, for organizations to be successful, you need different people in different types of roles. Be sure that you and the employee really understand each other and think about the environment in which they would thrive. Sometimes small adjustments can lead to much better outcomes. That’s what we talk about in coaching all the time.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
At AIIR Consulting, our research has led us to believe that a team needs two things to be high performing: a great team culture and effective team productivity. Without one of those two things, the team is likely to fail. Either they won’t be able to achieve their goals or they will have a terrible time doing so. In both cases, you can be sure that the results aren’t as good as they could be.
AIIR is actually an acronym that stands for our four-step process: Assessment, Insight, Implementation, and Reinforcement. With both teams and individuals, we always start with an assessment. The AIIR Team Effectiveness™ Survey is a behaviorally-based assessment that gives teams specific insights into their strengths and weaknesses. There are a lot of personality reports out there that aggregate the team’s preferences and illustrate them in one form or another. Those are great but, often, you need to jump-start the team by helping them focus on something tangible that will make a difference. We use behavioral insights to create a Team Charter. This gets everyone aligned. Then, we measure the progress that the team makes over time. It is always an honor to help a team that is stuck get out of its rut.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
As CEO, you are the greatest source of learning for the entire organization. Some of that learning is espoused through formal training and content, but most are absorbed through observations and experiences with you. Every action or inaction will be evaluated carefully by your employees and that ultimately formulates their calculus for what is okay and not okay. What is encouraged and discouraged. Many CEO’s who are running fast doesn’t give enough weighting to this. And yet, the CEO’s values, decisions, mannerisms, and behaviors are incredibly tied up with the culture of the company. As such, bringing great discipline and intentionality to how you show up is paramount.
Next, it is really important for CEO’s to articulate and reinforce a clear, compelling vision. This vision has to resonate with the values and the people in the organization. People, especially today, are looking for meaning in their work. If your employees aren’t inspired by the organizational mission, they will fail. And that means you will fail. It is only with a clear and compelling vision that employees can truly engage with the organization.
And lastly, it is vital that the CEO provides challenging work but also understands how to draw the line between challenging and unsustainable. Growing and changing always involves a little bit of discomfort. The greatest innovations and discoveries did not evolve from a “9 to 5 mindset.” True outperformance requires going above and beyond. And yet, a CEO needs to ensure that a “work-hard” culture is sustainable or it can all come crumbling down. Challenge your employees to be their very best and outperform. Build this into the organizational culture. But know, for this to be sustainable, you have to ensure you have a work environment that values employees’ life outside of work.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need to Know to Successfully Manage a Team”.
1. Keep Your Team Focused
From email and messaging apps to video conferencing, technology has made it easier to connect with your team. But it’s also a distraction, and teams are struggling to stay focused. In our weekly team huddles, for example, everyone used to have their phones on the table and their laptops open. So, instead of engaging with each other, we would inevitably get lost in our screens.
Neuroscience studies have shown that when team members engage with each other, their bodies and brain waves actually sync with each other — you achieve a kind of flow state. And the more eye contact and face-to-face interaction the subjects in the studies had, the stronger the synchrony in their brains.
By allowing ourselves to be distracted by our screens, we would deprive ourselves of the opportunity to sync up with each other. We started doing two things to improve our focus. First, we banned phones and laptops from the meeting. Second, we start each meeting with a guided mindfulness exercise. Sharing a focused, distraction-free experience helps us achieve synchrony from the very beginning of the meeting.
2. State Your Purpose
Don’t take for granted that your team understands its purpose. Alignment on goals and objectives is universally recognized as foundational to team effectiveness.
Because the purpose is so fundamental, it is easy to overlook. In our work, we find that members of even the most senior teams rarely have a unified understanding of their purpose. To wit, we recently asked a team of eight people to write down the purpose of their team and got back eight different answers.
When the individuals on a team coalesce around a common mission, it can achieve parabolic outcomes. One plus one no longer equals two — one plus one equals three.
State and restate your team’s purpose. Connect it to the larger organization. Create slogans and catchphrases people can use to test their actions and decisions. One of ours was “slow down to speed up.” We were in a period of particularly rapid growth, and that phrase encouraged the team to slow down, do the work, and deliver an outstanding product and customer experience.
3. Build Cohesion
Cohesion is the difference between a group of talented individuals and a team. It’s something you have to actively build. Work by one of our partners at the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative has shown that the part of the brain that governs our ability to form and maintain connections with others is physically weakened by isolation.
As a team leader, you have a responsibility to incorporate the little rituals and activities that help your team coalesce. You don’t have to go to a ropes course — small interactions in the breakroom and around the watercooler, making time at the beginning of phone calls and meetings to check in with coworkers, or the occasional coffee or happy hour. At AIIR, we have lunch catered once a week.
All of these activities trigger the release of oxytocin and strengthen the bonds between your team members.
4. Keep It Real
Be genuine in your relationships with team members. Psychological safety, which pioneering psychologist Amy Edmondson described as “the extent to which team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other,” is absolutely critical to high-performing teams. People on teams with higher psychological safety are often more engaged and less likely to leave the company.
Psychological safety is hard to build and easy to destroy. Throughout human history, our survival depended on our ability to uncover the intentions of others. Do they actually want to work together, or do they want to kill me and take my food and resources? 200,000 years of evolutionary programming takes work to overcome.
To create psychological safety, your team members have to trust that you have their best interest at heart. As a leader, it is important to form a real connection with every person on your team. If you aren’t feeling the connection, then neither are they. And that’s a recipe for lack of psychological safety.
5. Listen To Your People
Psychological safety enables team members to speak their mind and exchange honest feedback with each other, and with their leaders. Teams that are able to openly and honestly discuss their strengths and areas for optimization are more capable of identifying and removing obstacles in the way of future success.
I recently brought two experienced leaders onto our team, and last year we established a board of advisors that includes some of the best minds in the industry. Every time I meet with those leaders or the board, they challenge me to think differently. It can be hard to swallow your pride and acknowledge that your ideas might not always be the best ones, but it has been tremendously beneficial to our organization.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could inspire a movement, it would be one in which every business takes it upon themselves to give back. This year at AIIR Consulting, we’ve started to begin fulfilling our moral commitment to society with our pro bono program, The Elevate Project. It is an initiative that is designed to support people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to access world-class Leadership Development services. These are the same elite executive coaches that empower Fortune 500 companies to achieve success. It is our honor to be able to provide under-supported, service-driven organizations with the same services.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Know! A person walks in life on a very narrow bridge. The most important thing is not to be afraid.” These are the words of the 18th century Hasidic Rebbe, Nachman of Breslov. For me, this is such a powerful idea, especially as an entrepreneur. There have certainly been some extremely narrow bridges in my career where I needed to make decisions between two tough options. I am someone who is striving to create an impact that goes well beyond what any one person can do. And that means that I am constantly exposed to situations that are laden with fear.
Over the years, I’ve learned that fear can be tackled in many ways. Sometimes you’re suppressing it or avoiding it. Sometimes you try to circumvent it or maybe you choose to work through it. The power of Rebbe Nachman’s wisdom is simple, yet profound: acknowledge the fear and don’t let it control you. By acknowledging it and accepting its presence, I have found that fear is much easier to move beyond. That has been vital for me.
5 Things You Need to Know to Successfully Manage a Team, With Jonathan Kirschner of AIIR Consulting was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.