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Breakthrough teams: life’s a shipwreck, but don’t forget to sing in the lifeboats

September 24, 2014

I spent a recent Saturday at the Moelfre Lifeboat Station on the east coast of Anglesey for their annual open day, when you can wander around the station, meet the volunteer lifeboat men, read the accounts in the log of rescues through the years, and pause to reflect on the bravery, heroics and humanity which the RNLI represents, from the old photos and press cuttings on the boathouse walls. I left inspired and humbled.

Moelfre Lifeboat Station, which opened in 1830, has a remarkable history of bravery, with its lifeboat crews awarded 37 medals for gallantry, four of which are Gold – the V.C. of the lifeboat institution. Gold Medals were awarded to Captain Owen Jones, volunteer lifeboat man, and William Roberts, second coxswain. The remaining two Gold Medals were awarded to the outstanding figure in the station’s history – Coxswain Richard Evans, one of the few lifeboat men ever to be awarded a Gold Medal for bravery twice.

Dic Evans became a crew member in 1921 when he was just 16. He took over as coxswain from his uncle, John Mathews, in 1954, himself a recipient of the Silver Medal. His father, and both his grandfathers had already served with Moelfre lifeboat by the time he was born. He earned his first Gold Medal five years later, during a rescue saving the crew of the stricken SS Hindlea in hurricane force winds. The second Gold Medal came in December 1966, when he helped save 10 men from the Greek ship Nafsiporos, adrift in heavy seas.

In 1969, the year before he retired, Dic received the British Empire Medal. He died on 13 September 2001, aged 96. A 2m bronze statue of Dic Evans, sculptured by Sam Holland is located at the Seawatch Centre, Moelfre, keeping a vigil over the sea. For sculptor Sam Holland it was a passion, as her grandfather served on the Moelfre Lifeboat with Dic Evans.

The RNLI has saved more than 139,000 lives since its foundation in 1824, at a cost of 600 lives lost in service. The charity was founded with royal patronage as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwrecks after an appeal made by Sir William Hillary. Hillary lived on the Isle of Man, and had witnessed the wrecking of dozens of ships from his home. The name was changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854.

Today, the RNLI operates 444 lifeboats and provides Lifeguards on 200 beaches. Crews rescued on average 23 people a day in 2013. Most lifeboat crew members are unpaid volunteers. The RNLI is principally funded by legacies (65%) and donations (28%), with the remainder from merchandising and investment. As an organisation it has clear statements of purpose, vision and values, vital to give an organisation – and individuals and teams – an identity and focus:

Purpose: The RNLI saves lives at sea.

Vision: To end preventable loss of life at sea.

Values: Our work is based on, and driven by, our values. Our volunteers and staff strive for excellence and are…

Selfless: willing to put the requirements of others before our own and the needs of the team before the individual, able to see the bigger picture and act in the best interests of the RNLI, and to be inclusive and respectful of others. Prepared to share our expertise with organisations that share our aims.

Dependable: always available, committed to doing our part in saving lives with professionalism and expertise, continuously developing and improving. Working in and for the community and delivering on our promises.

Trustworthy: responsible, accountable and efficient in the use of the donations entrusted to us by our supporters, managing our affairs with transparency, integrity and impartiality.

Courageous: prepared to achieve our aims in changing and challenging environments. We are innovative, adaptable and determined in our mission to save more lives at sea.

In terms of what an organisation stands for, and in setting an RNLI life boatman’s personal compass, the above words are inspirational, full of vitality and purpose. Without doubt, the bravery, performance and contribution of the teams of voluntary lifeboat men can give us clear learning points to take into our business thinking about team work. RNLI teams achieve extraordinary results by fusing talented individuals into what I call a ‘breakthrough team’.

At the heart of any great organisational success, you will find an inspired team of individuals who have united to make something remarkable happen – a revolutionary, high performance team, energised, producing outstanding and innovative results by harnessing the individual talents to achieve team goals. The team is transformed from a collection of individuals into a single entity with a shared identity – team members become a plurality with a single-minded focus and purpose.

This team achieves a breakthrough – a ground breaking result, a unique achievement never realised before – and then goes on to make its mark with further notable performances and impacts. Examples of such ‘breakthrough teams’ include Steve Job’s Cupertino team at Apple, Kelly Johnson’s Skunkworks team at Lockheed in the 1940s, and the Apollo XI moon landing team under the guidance of flight director Gene Kranz.

Breakthrough teams differ from traditional teams along every dimension, from the way they recruit members to the way they enforce their processes, their culture and values, and from the expectations they hold to the results they produce.

The headlines from my research shows that breakthrough teams are fundamentally different from successful groups that most organisations have, in several ways:

  • Their working style has an unforgiving, frenetic rhythm and set of expectations; maximum effort is the minimum requirement
  • The team emanates a discernible energy and focus
  • They are utterly unique in the ambitions of their goals, the intensity of their conversations about their objectives, and their focus on results
  • Intense, yet personal and intimate, they work best when forced to work under strict time constraints, but retain a focus on the welfare of colleagues
  • Team members put a great premium on collaboration, there is authentic team-working
  • They focus on thinking correctly under pressure
  • Each team member has a personal credo of be the man that makes a difference; be relentless, be limitless

I’ve fond childhood memories of the RNLI station at Moelfre, I spent many happy summer holidays there as a child, sat on the pebbles eating fish & chips and watching the lifeboat launch, time and time again. On my recent visit the cohesion of the team, their vibrancy, their single-mindedness, their intimacy and camaraderie were evident from their passionate talks and enthusiastic demonstrations.

There is something both uplifting and concerning about seeing a lifeboat crew arrive at the station and launch. As a young boy it’s the spectacle, as an adult its appreciation of the bravery as to the uncertainty waiting for them and what the result of their actions will be. Here’s a team where the results are genuinely a matter of life and death.

High-functioning teams are what make high-performing organisations like the RNLI click. High performing teams, like the RNLI lifeboat crews, aren’t the result of happy accidents, they achieve superior levels of participation, cooperation, and collaboration because their members trust one another, share a strong sense of group identity, and have confidence in their effectiveness as a team. In other words, such teams possess high levels of group emotional intelligence.

A team, like any social group, is governed by shared attitudinal and behavioural norms, which, though sometimes unspoken, are understood within the group. Teams that enjoy high levels of group EI have established norms that strengthen trust, group identity, and group efficacy. As a result, their members cooperate more fully with one another and collaborate more creatively in furthering the team’s work. When you create a climate of trust and the sense that ‘We are better together than we are apart’, it leads to greater effectiveness.”

It’s also important to establish comfortable, group-sanctioned ways to express the inevitable anger, tension, and frustration that arise in a team endeavour and to positively redirect that energy. Inevitably, a team member will indulge in behaviour that crosses the line, and the team must feel comfortable calling the foul.

To have a great team, there is no easy recipe for success, but it resonates around collaboration, having people who understand each other and work well together. Having the right mix of trust, ambition, and team mind-set among your team members is crucial. Reflecting on this, here are my ten thoughts about teams based on my experience and research:

Mutual respect is a key element in relationship development, the catalyst for a strong team. Inevitably, the team will take shape and will discover common ground and mutual connections, and as the teamwork progresses and conflict arises – an unavoidable part of collaboration – the team that has respect for each other will be able to move past conflict towards resolution and ultimately work together.

Specialisation A rugby team shows that where players have different roles but combine effectively to win the game, good teamwork comes from members coalescing their special talents to achieve an end goal. Figuring out who works best where will come naturally as the team spends time together, but it’s important not to suppress individual talents. Allowing each person to make their own unique contributions will lead better outcomes.

Establish clear objectives If the goal of the team, whether short or long-term, isn’t clear from the beginning, many hours will be wasted in frustration, working that goes nowhere. The very first step should be to determine a clear outline of the aims and the end result. Change is always necessary along the way, but a clear focus at the outset is paramount.

Adaptability Being flexible is a key trait of any team player, confronting and resolving crises, rushing to meet deadlines, or working to face unexpected challenges all require adaptation. If someone on a team is unable to change gears and refocus, odds are more issues will arise to further impact the efficient workflow process.

No finger pointing When a mistake is made, it’s easy for members of a team to find a scapegoat and lay individual blame. This will only lead to distrust and low morale. It’s possible that if one person keeps making critical mistakes, they may not have the right skills. The entire team should accept responsibility for shortfalls and move forward together make sure it doesn’t reoccur, before resolving team membership issues.

Hold your hands up If a project has setbacks, it’s better to admit it and start over rather than giving up or presenting a flawed product. A good team will roll with the punches, recognise that each step is essentially an experiment, and stay positive even when facing serious setbacks.

Patience Working with others requires the most the most difficult trait of all, patience and tolerance. We all strive for it, but few people are truly unflappable. Patience will keep a team motivated and allay conflict.

Delegation A capable leader will know one of her primary jobs is to delegate responsibility. One or two team members should never be saddled with all the work, instead the workflow should be distributed evenly and each person given a reasonable amount of work to achieve.

Self managed teams A team doesn’t need a superstar leader to excel, but they do need a self-assured, trustworthy, ambitious leader that keeps morale high and knows when to rally the troops. From this, all team members should listen constructively, monitor the quantitative and qualitative results and maintain good peer-group support.

Competitiveness A healthy dose of internal competition is fuel for inspiration. When you’re working on a team it’s easy for people to become jealous or possessive of each other’s attributes or contributions. However, healthy, respectful competition motivates others to develop even better ideas, because it makes people ask themselves, ‘if she came up with this, can I create something even better?’

Building a breakthrough team requires the expression of open, positive emotions. Recognising individuals not only strengthens a team’s identity, but it also spotlights its effectiveness and fuels its collective passion for building a sense of solidarity, efficacy, and identity – clear traits in the RNLI breakthrough team.

Voltaire said ‘Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats’, whilst Churchill, on the 100th Anniversary of the formation of the RNLI in 1924 said, ‘The lifeboat drives on with a mercy, which does not quail in the presence of death; It drives on as a proof, a symbol, an affirmation, that man is created in the image of God, and that valour, and virtue, have not perished in the British race.’

Two quotes that vividly capture the image of the lifeboat enduring in our lives in times of hardship, and thereby the crew, a breakthrough team of unity and collaboration. The best teamwork comes from men who are working independently toward one goal in unison, recognising that none of us is as smart as all of us. I hope you can build a breakthrough team in your business, and achieve outstanding success.

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