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The Seasons of a Team

As I dug in the dirt yesterday and reflected on our work with teams over the past few years, I kept thinking about how similar the work I love to do with teams and leaders is to my love of gardening.  And that teams also have their seasons. 

In the Spring, gardening is so joyful.

 Everything is so lovely and green, the weather invites you to be outside after the cold of winter.  There is a sense of excitement about what your garden will produce in the coming months, plants to be nurtured with care and those nasty weeds to remove as quickly as possible.   It holds your full attention.   

Consider for a moment, the excitement of a new member to your team.  An individual you chose because of their experience, knowledge, and hopefully passion for the work you do. They bring fresh new perspectives and a new energy to the team.    There’s onboarding, introductions to stakeholders, leadership support from you and others to ensure their first introduction to your organization is positive and ongoing feedback and nurturing. We call it the ‘honeymoon stage’.

And to take that one step further, consider a new project you have just assigned to your team.   Everyone is excited about the possibilities, opportunities and sometimes anxious about the scope and expectations of the project.  There’s conversation to get mutually understanding, assignment of roles, a project plan, etc…    Everyone wants to do well so there is energy and focus.

Summer moves in…

And back to the garden, summer moves in and there are so many other distractions like bike riding, camping with family and friends, hiking or walking the trails, picnics, and games in the park, etc… And along with all those distractions, come the weeds and the bugs, and the maintenance of the garden.

And is that not exactly what happens with your new team member?   As that individual starts to become an integral part of the team, your attention moves to other distractions.   They don’t need the same nurturing and care.    We get lost in other distractions, and sometimes forget that employee still needs maintenance, just as your garden does.   The good news is they don’t often recognize they’re not getting much attention at this stage.

And if we revisit that new Spring project team as we move into summer, we see less conversation, more heads down, let’s just get this work done.   But the excitement and commitment to the project is still there so all is moving ahead as it should…or at least appears to.

Until Fall!

Now you are reaping the rewards of your gardening expertise….bring in the bounty so to speak.   And we say things like, I couldn’t possibly eat another zucchini and I just don’t have time to do anything with those apples that are now rotting on the ground.   And then there’s the cleanup after the harvest as you set the stage for next year.    Now it feels like work and you’re feeling a little empty because the season is over.

And that employee who started in the Spring, will be the star employee if  nurtured by consistent clarity of feedback, applause, collaboration and challenging work that is celebrated. If not, this employee is now starting to complain about some of the processes and/or people. They have their favourites on the team, but there are others they avoid. They like some of the work, but not all of it. They’re not getting any attention, as it’s all focused on the latest new hire. So that Spring employee starts to slack off a wee bit without anyone taking notice. If you don’t act now to recharge or rejuvenate this employee, they will either quite and stay, or leave the organization, and we all know what either of those cost!

Your project team that started working together in the Spring, maybe working along like a well-oiled machine if they felt safe to discuss issues and challenges with the intent of finding solutions to overcome barriers, felt supported and appreciated for the work they were doing. Or they may now be bogged down by delays, supply and demand challenges, new challenges, competing priorities, feeling the time pressures, etc…   

The bloom is off the rose! The work has become tedious, the team members are working in silos, and the results are dismal. The only attention they get is when they screw up, or when someone from above notices they’re behind. The attention and care is non-existent because their leader is off to new projects and other time demands. If nobody notices at this stage, the project is at risk.  Lethargy will increase, mistakes will happen, your potential star employees may leave, and deadlines will be missed.

The Winter of Discontent!

 …to use Shakespeare’s words. There is nothing left in the garden; snow covers the frozen ground!   There is nothing left of that new employee you hired in the Spring; they are de-motivated, non-productive and when they threaten to leave, you cheer!  And there is nothing left to save that project or your credibility as a leader.

A little melodramatic for certain, but as leaders, you have all experienced what I’m talking about.  Successful teams, as with gardens and humans, require:

  • A great start!  It takes the right environment, the right fertilizer, the right attention, and for employees, all of the ingredients for growth – clear expectations, mutual understanding, relationships to support their growth, etc..
  • Consistent care and nurturing; they need to feel valued. You can not afford to take your foot off the pedal completely.  Just like your car, every human has an overdrive, drive, neutral, idle, and reverse.  If they are in neutral or idle, you need to back up and start over again as a leader.
  • Sometimes, it takes an intervention.    A new type of fertilizer, some additional watering and care, protection from the elements. etc..    And in the case of teams, it might mean a conversation to align with your purpose, values, and goals.   A reminder of the scope and commitments that come with the project and how you might recontract to reenergize the team.   A simple conversation about the challenges that exist, lessons learned, and how to move past them.
  • As with your garden, each of your employees and your team need consistent nurturing and care, sometimes weeding out or removing non-performers, sometimes giving one area extra fertilizer to ignite growth but always in conversation about what matters to them and to you and your organization.

Watch the seasons of your employees!  From our experience, there is a definite pattern for you as a leader, a new employee and/or new team.  Overtime we lose our commitment to support each other.   Keep the love alive!

Team leadership is complex and so very fulfilling when you get it right!     Watch the seasons of your employees and your entire team.  Reflect on what you need to do as a leader to nurture your team right now!   And if you need help, we love supporting team success.

Linda Maul is the founder of Accountability by Design Inc., a serial entrepreneur, seasoned executive coach, and author; passionate about growing leaders and teams.