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April 23, 2015

Guest Blog: From Failing to Unstoppable: Transforming Your Team

By Maria Simpson, Ph.D.

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The wine shop had been losing money for a long time, and the owners were in debt and not talking to each other. Staff members were frustrated that their expertise was being ignored and they were treated disrespectfully. The little wine tasting bar with a short food menu had few if any customers, and the band that played once a week was terrible, even if it was the owner’s band. The place was disorganized and messy.
Call in “The Profit!” Marcus Lemonis is a business consultant who saves businesses,and does it very publicly on CNBC. His method of saving a business provides an excellent example of what it takes to transform a failing team to a really excellent, unstoppable team. Some of the drama is probably hyped for reality TV, but most of it feels quite real. The decisions Lemonis makes and the leadership he demonstrates are excellent examples of how to create an effective team and run a business.
Lemonis buys 51% of the business, making him the decision-maker. In this case he took several steps immediately. First, he gained support from the staff by asking them what  wasn’t working and what would work better, and respecting their insight. He listened carefully to understand the interpersonal and management problems. Then he went back to the numbers and wasn’t shy about asking the owners how it could have gotten so bad. Finally, he acted immediately to address the problems he found.

As a result:

  • After laying out the terms of the investment, one owner decided to be a silent partner and just took his share of the profits.
  • Senior staff members were made partners and given a share of ownership. When the not-so-silent partner objected, Lemonis reminded him that he no longer controlled the business. (Lemonis asserted his leadership authority generally without anger and respectfully, but he wasn’t averse to arguing, either.)
  • Staff members were involved in all decisions from banishing the band to determining what to sell and how the physical space should be reorganized. They started to work collaboratively.
  • Staff expertise was respected, and they had authority to make decisions in their own departments.
  • Conflicts were addressed immediately. When someone asked to talk to him, Lemonis said sure and went to a private space. He did not ask to finish a conversation, come back in ten minutes, or make an appointment. He acted immediately.
  • When there were blow-ups he worked at repairing relationships, even with the difficult owner.

Of course, the team was transformed, the business flourished, the angry owner changed his behavior, and everyone made a mint. Since the name and location of the business are quite public (Amazing Grapes) the case is real and can be tracked down through CNBC.
On the other hand, challenges are faced very differently in a successful team. 
The guest conductor of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra was ill, and although he’d made it through the first three pieces on the program, he couldn’t make it through the fourth. The concert mistress announced that they would perform Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony” without him.  The symphony is well-known, these are world-class musicians, and they have played it many times before, but not without a conductor, and everyone wanted to see what would happen.
The musicians clearly respected and admired the concert mistress, they respected her position of leadership, and she respected all of them. And the audience was once more greatly impressed with the expertise of the musicians. They might have gotten a little plodding in the middle of the piece, maybe because they all wanted to be very careful, but she said something to her colleagues just before the final movement, and they played with enormous energy. The bravos were loud and the applause long. It was wonderful.
What differentiated this team from the business team? First, the musicians had enormous mutual respect for each other’s expertise and for the leadership role. Many of the musicians have independent touring schedules or play with other groups, and their CDs are available at every performance. Also, many of these musicians have been together for at least ten years, playing a wide variety of music, so they knew they could count on each other to play well. Mutual respect was lacking in the wine shop.
Second, the musicians were well-prepared for their jobs. They had just completed a very modern piece, which required extraordinary musicianship, so they had broad musical experience and preparation that made it possible for them to rise to any challenge. They knew their responsibilities and managed them expertly. They didn’t need oversight. In the wine business, staff expertise was not respected and was instead undermined and ignored.
Third, leadership was obvious and inspired commitment. The music director is beloved by the orchestra and the audience, and his commitment inspires the commitment of every musician there. I’m sure no one misses rehearsals or comes to a new piece without knowing how to play it. In the wine business, the owners were rarely on site but gave no authority to the department heads to make decisions in their absence. Lemonis told the angry partner that all he had to do to be part of the new team was show up, and he failed to do that until the day when the store was being renovated and he had had no input into the decision. Lemonis told everyone what would happen and then stuck to the plan even if it meant leaving someone out.
Last, the LACO musicians trusted each other and their leadership. If they had had disputes, and what team doesn’t, those were put aside in performance so they could reach their mutual goal: wonderful music for an greatly appreciative audience in what was, for them, a bit of an emergency. The lack of trust among wine shop staff undermined everything they tried because they wouldn’t commit to a plan when they couldn’t count on each other to make it work.
And perhaps trust is the most important element in any team’s success. With trust they can talk about anything, explore difficult issues, examine their own performance and count on each other in difficult times or unexpected circumstances. In the wine shop the lack of mutual trust was obvious. Without that basic trust, bad decisions couldn’t be reviewed and better ways of doing things found.
It’s easy enough to have an unstoppable team. All you need is trust, competence, and a shared vision with equal commitment from all. And some really good leadership.


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