8 tips for leading a low ambition team
Don't confuse a low ambition team with low effectiveness
The lessons from leading a so called low-ambition team were huge. Why we need to move away from male coded goals and norms
At the end of last year I was assigned to assist a major CRM project to increase employee engagement in a Help Center of an international organisation. Before I started, I looked at the staff list and saw that the team was composed of 98% women, mostly in lower to mid grades. CRM is not usually a high-grade function. Many worked on part-time or short-term temporary contracts. The rest worked remotely for part of the week. There were a few freelancers on daily contracts. Some worked virtually. I wasn’t sure how to handle managing what is called a low ambition team to meet quite demanding objectives. I felt as if I had been had been given the entire marzipan layer to motivate.
What is Low Ambition?
These women have made decisions to tailor their work and professional lives around other activities. I had mums, with kids or aging parents. I had entry-level students (male and female) who needed to work to pay university tuition. There was a woman who was running another business in the evenings. I had seniors who wanted to supplement their pensions, fund a cruise and interact. There were others who were jobbing contractors. They are a group not looking for career advancement. They had the skills to do their jobs well, or well enough, but none were looking to add to their personal development. They were not eager for promotion, increased responsibilities or professional challenges. They wanted to come to work, feel happy, do a reasonable job, have some social interaction and most importantly pick up a pay cheque. There is nothing wrong with that.
Finding a different approach
How do you motivate a team of people who by corporate standards are a low ambition group? They are not motivated by all the usual corporate carrots and the buzz of delivering high quality work on time. My budget was tight and I couldn’t give an additional financial incentives. Even if I could have offered more money, it would not have impacted their availability because of other commitments.
Many of our notions about corporate motivation and engagement are focused on male codes. These feature "winning" and standing out as a way of gaining recognition and being "better than" on an individual basis. A low ambition team is potentially also a volatile and unreliable demographic in a corporate structure. Employees who are not seduced by the usual corporate incentives will happily jump ship if something doesn’t suit them. Unless they are in desperate need of the money, they are quick to change jobs.
Here are 8 tips to manage a low ambition team
Here is what I learned managing a low ambition team.
#1 Test your own biases
The first thing I had to do was check my own assumptions and expectations of the team. I wanted to make sure I was going to adopt the right approach. With such a diverse team I had some pre-conceived ideas about what I could expect. I needed to factor those in to make objective decisions. I discovered that not all the seniors were slower learners or the Millennials digitally savvy. I had to get over my stereotypical thinking.
#2 Treat them all differently
I understood very early that I needed to treat them all as individuals. The Path Goal Leadership Survey is a good way to approach this situation. This methodology determines the employee’s and the environmental characteristics, so you can chose a leadership style and focus on different motivational factors to help each employee succeed.
#3 Get to know them
It was important to get to know my team to find out what made each of them tick to establish their key drivers. I found just like you see on the movies that almost everyone had surprise undeclared skills. The senior who had been an accountant, the Mum who was an organisational wizard and the freelancer with a voice (and the legs) like Tina Turner. Sadly we didn't need those assets.
#4 Ask for their input
It was surprising how many suggestions to improve process flow the group made. If you give a team the opportunity to make an input, it will generate a huge number of considerations. Some of them were great - others were a bit strange. It's important it doesn't turn into a whingefest. Small proposals, which when they were all implemented, added increased value. The removal of long-standing irritants helped to make things easier. One consistent request was to sound proof the break out room. It's very hard to relax, with the noise of the place you are trying to break away from, ringing in your ears.
#5 Identify their needs
They were all different and each one had different needs. What I offered was to allow the staff to select their own rewards. The range of options went from gift cards, movie tickets, gym sessions or vouchers for dry cleaning companies, car wash or meals. Access to the subsidised full-time and permanent staff cafeteria became an important perk to the entry levels and seniors, but less so for the Mums who tended to use their lunch break for personal admin or who were on post baby diets. Flex was important to the carers. The more highly motivated, results driven, high-tech team members could take additional days for remote working if they wanted. Different things motivate different people. A one size fits all approach didn't work.
#6 Create a team manifesto
I decided to create a manifesto where we all agreed to the purpose of the project and our overall goals were clearly defined, stated and understood. We created a departmental tagline and thanks to the design skills of one of the students we now had a declaration poster to put on our wall.
#7 Set up a communication policy
A communication policy was created and the use of an intranet task dashboard installed where everyone was required to log in and out on a daily basis. This involved coaching for the seniors by the Millennials. We also had team members in different geographies and time zones and this was an important tool for them so they didn't feel excluded.
#8 Core hours
We agreed core hours twice a week when everyone had to be available for a brief meeting either in person or via video conference, excluding those who for time zone reasons made it really difficult. This was where there was the greatest resistance, but eventually it worked. Freelancers, understandably, were less enthusiastic about being tied to one company's timetable. I eventually found freelancers who would accept that condition as part of their contractual arrangements.
Low ambition is not low effectiveness
What I discovered about this assignment that the lack of corporate ambition in the traditional (male) sense doesn't mean that people can't be motivated to do the best job they can. Not everyone wants to head for the top. It should definitely not be associated with professional graveyards. For me as a Project Manager it was extremely satisfying. We surpassed our targets and even have a waiting list of people who would like to be happy stuck in our marzipan layer! Very often when people are in transition, have multiple demands on their time, or simply need to earn additional money, we shouldn't adopt a superior attitude about it. There is no reason why people cannot apply their skills, earn their salary before returning or going on to whatever it is they want to do. Or they can even stay and do a good job.
But the most important lesson was just because someone is not ambitious in a male sense does not mean they don't want to do a great job and make the best contribution they can.
If you are looking for leadership coaching - contact 3Plus
Marcia is a CRM process management consultant and project manager
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