Great teams don't just happen

Throughout his nearly 40 years in human resources, Darryl Robinson has seen plenty of teams. 

Some he'd even call "great." 

Mr. Robinson is senior executive vice president and chief human resources officer of Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health, a nonprofit, Catholic health system with 140 hospitals across 21 states. He previously served as executive vice president and CHRO for Dignity Health, which he joined in 2013. Prior to that, he held human resources positions in a number of different industries, including financial services, IT, infrastructure engineering, and manufacturing.

Becker's caught up with Mr. Robinson to learn what sets exceptional teams apart, what brings them down, whether remarkable teams must be intentional or can be coincidental, and what he sees as the endgame or solution to the Great Resignation. 

Note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity. 


Question: Let's start by getting specific on what makes for a great team. What do you consider defining traits of these extraordinary groups of people? 

Darryl Robinson: Teams are foundational to success. You rarely hear about one individual who championed everything from beginning to end. 

I'll celebrate my 40th year in human resources next year. I've been blessed to work with people who work collaboratively, and I think collaboration is huge. Second is the issue of excellence and wanting to be better tomorrow than you are today. Then there's integrity and purpose — what are you really in this work to do? It's tactical things as well as strategic, and how to help the organization be better. If you don't have an alignment to the values that complements your work, I think you can get off track. Finally, an essential part of a great team is that it achieves its goals. It's great to like each other, but if you don't achieve goals, that's not very beneficial. 

Q: When you have a great team in motion, working cohesively, getting things done — it seems like a win-win situation with little room for loss or risk. Are there any threats that come with high-performing, dynamic teams? 

DR: A strong team, to me, by its very nature is diverse and able to listen to different points of view, then coalesce around common ground and move forward. When you have a great team of individuals who all think alike, you can have success and still move the ball forward. But you get more richness out of the diversity that exists within a team and the different points of view. I think a risk is being myopic. Another risk is solely listening to one voice on a team, or listening to one voice over the others. 

Another detriment to teams is if you don't keep each other in mind. In an organization as large as ours, if I push on an area solely that is a talent acquisition area but I don't think about compensation, that's not a good recipe for success. If I think about the talent development people and ignore what we're doing on the benefits front, that's not good. It's about considering all the constituents and ensuring everybody's heard so the organization can move forward. 

Finally, teams don't coalesce, take shape or strengthen on their own. You need really good leadership. Good leaders think further out than their nose; they think ahead. The more you evolve from a leadership perspective, your time horizon has to extend and be longer so you can lead others and anticipate when things might occur. Great teams typically have great leaders.

Q: Related to your first point about embracing diversity on teams and other points of view, I think every leader would endorse and encourage that on paper. But then there are the smaller interactions — in meetings, in one-on-one conversations — that let you pick up on whether a leader really carries that out in the day to day, right?

DR: Exactly! People are very intelligent. They have insights and amazing intellect and are very aware of what's going on around them. So when you have a leader who purports to do one thing and then actually does something else, and thinks they can do that in the shadows, they're fooling themselves. People know whether you're walking the walk or not. 

Q: Let's talk about a concern that any leader has, and that is how a great team can drag downward to become a mediocre group. What do leaders need to be aware of and defend their teams from to help preserve their spark and shine? 

DR: Communication and authenticity are huge. Have a good plan as to what you want the team to accomplish. Inclusion in the strategy and direction is important, so people can sign off on the direction. Privately and publicly help people who struggle or do not see the vision and strategy in the same way. It's an active process. 

I think about goals in terms of a pyramid: What we'll accomplish this year is at the base. Next year we are going to build on that base. And the year after that, we'll build upon that most recent base. If you build upon goals, and some people succeed but others do not succeed, then your foundation is not as strong. If everyone unifies around the goal of building a strong pyramid, then they will help each other. 

One other thing: You have to care about people. And I mean really care about the well-being of your people. I don't know anybody who wakes up in the morning and thinks about being average. I just don't. Now, they may not be at the stature you need them to be in the role they are playing, but they come to work with great intentions. Authentic leaders help bring forth the power of the human spirit. 

Q: What are your thoughts on the coincidental versus intentional nature of great teams? I've seen both cases play out: There are compatible, harmonious, complementary teams laid out on paper that do not work in real life, and there are surprising, near-accidental groups of people that take off to function as a really strong team in what seems like an effortless way, accomplishing big things together. 

DR: It's a great question. I think people have to buy in to the direction. You can have teams that have a loose leadership structure and succeed, and the reason is because they collaborated together, have a shared vision of what they want to do. You cannot succeed if you do not know where your true north is. 

Q: There is so much literature and research out there about team building and growth. What is a dynamic that you feel is underrecognized?

DR: The belief in the power of the human spirit, and that people want to do good work. 

When you have that belief, you approach individuals with that positive mindset. "Let's come together, work together and do something and succeed." Some people don't buy into that, and you'll find out who does and doesn't. But I believe in the power of the human spirit, that people can accomplish great things, and that people want to get up in the morning and do good work. They want to come to a place where they are valued, that is consistent and where they can trust leadership. 

We got this thing going on right now around the Great Resignation. It is within the control of organizations to manage that. If your organization gives you a great place to learn and grow; to be successful, supported, valued and trusted; and honors your need for flexibility ... if people communicate with you and give you a sense that there is a future and you can be part of something bigger than yourself, we wouldn't have this situation we have today. We should stop talking about it and start being about it. If you want to stop the Great Resignation, if you will, you have to bring those components to the workplace so people say, "I want to be here."

Also, not every manager is a good manager. When you find these managers that cannot step up to the plate on those things, you have two choices: Let them go or remove them from their leadership role, because they are probably pretty good at something. Don't stand around and watch people be abusive and unsupportive to staff who are trying to do good work. If you find team members who are doing that, you have to make some decisions. It's an active process to build a great team, and it starts with leadership. 

Q: Is there anything we haven't touched on that you want to share in closing, Darryl? 

DR: Leadership is hard. It's difficult work, it really, really is. To come into work every day and know people rely upon you for their work life, the type of work they do, the environment they work in, their overarching feeling of whether they feel comfortable and safe. You have dominion over all of that, and then some influence over what happens in their personal lives because decisions you make as a leader could affect someone's employment, career growth or working relationship. 

But I believe there are more upside benefits to leadership than downside benefits. The way you get through that is the display of your values and your expectations and behaviors around those values. At CommonSpirit, our values — compassion, inclusion, integrity, excellence and collaboration — are strongly rooted in the legacy of the women religious who founded our ministry. We strive to create a culture that reflects these values because they serve as the basis for how our employees interact day in and day out with one another, with patients and with the communities we serve. We are truly grateful to these women religious for giving us such a strong foundation.


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