Dear Leaders

A weekly letter with actionable leadership ideas.

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Don’t Lose Customers, Forge Elite Teams Instead

By Hamza Shayk

I’ve been a loyal Starbucks customer for 20+ years, mainly because of the consistency in their service and product. However, one of the locations close to me nowadays is a true test of patience; horrible attitude towards customers, lack of consistency in drinks and, worst of all, employees backbiting about each other, their superiors, and the company, to the customers. You know, the usual characteristics of a highly dysfunctional team.

Most of us experience dysfunctional teams first-hand daily. And, clearly, even great organizations can have their share of dysfunctional teams (although not too many since group dysfunctionality is usually a reflection of an organization’s overall culture).

For the record, I still love Starbucks and still go there daily. Just not to that location.

So, leaders, before you lose customers, try the following five that have proven timeless for me in creating and sustaining elite teams:

1. Instill a collective sense of purpose:

By definition, a team is a group of individuals being led by a purpose. When that purpose is not clear to them, they become confused about their roles and the overall direction of the group. Naturally, people start to think more of their own interests and agendas and start forming factions. It’s the leaders’ job to clarify group strategy (embedded within the organization’s strategy, derived from the company’s mission and values), and then consistently communicate it to the group. As a result, the group becomes clear of their positive mission that unites the members, each member having full clarity of their respective role in successfully executing that mission.

2. Assemble the right team of lieutenants:

The bigger the organization the more important this is. Lieutenants derived from a dysfunctional team result in a perpetually dysfunctional team – and the entire organization soon thereafter. Some basic yet crucial standards when cultivating a team of right lieutenants are:

a. Hire the most competent person for the job. Don’t base your selection on people’s charm, and don’t just hire your friends.
b. Be diligent in vetting their character.
c. Ensure they’re imbued with the organization’s spirit and the collective sense of purpose.

3. Let information and ideas flow freely:

Don’t isolate yourself by making yourself hard to reach or choosing to receive all relevant information solely from your lieutenants (or another singular source). Walk the floor, talk to individuals in the front line from time to time, talk to customers often to get an accurate picture of their experience. The idea is to put measures in place where you consistently receive information from different perspectives. The diversity of such information-gathering will provide you with a much clearer picture, consistently leading to more informed and productive decisions by you.

4. Infect the group with productive emotions:

People are more susceptible to the moods and attitudes of the leader than anyone else. For example, calmness is one of the most important productive emotions. Phil Jackson, the most successful basketball coach in history, noticed that a lot of other coaches would try to rev up the team before a game, getting them excited and even angry. Jackson found it much more productive to instill a sense of calmness that helped the players execute the game plan and not over-react to the ups and downs in the game. As part of this strategy, always keep the group focused on completing concrete tasks, which will naturally ground and calm them.

Remember, infecting the group with a sense of resolution has to emanate from you. Don’t get upset by setbacks, keep advancing and working on the issue at hand. Stay persistent. The group senses this, and individuals feel embarrassed for becoming hysterical over the slightest shift in fortune.

5. Battle-test the team before the battle:

You don’t quite learn their strengths and weaknesses in good times, but you can certainly count on adversity to reveal their true character. Every now and then, it’s a good idea to give various members some relatively challenging tasks or shorter deadlines than usual and see how they respond. Some will rise to the occasion and even do better under such stress while others won’t, giving you a clear idea of everyone’s capabilities and temperament – and their overall strength and character. For lagging individuals, this provides a fair chance to improve before an actual crisis. For the team, it serves as a practice run with them getting a chance to learn about each other and improve chemistry.

Jocko Willink said that a leader must be humble but not passive; quiet but not silent.

Effective leadership can be a tricky lot so if you have any questions about the framework above or need help implementing it, please contact me at

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