Can I Speak With the Manager? ROCKETS REQUIRE LAUNCH

CISWTM is a semi-regular series of observations, best practices and frameworks focused on both excellence in delivering customer service and managing teams as a servant leader. The author has an MBA from Harvard Business School, focusing his studies on service operations, organizational behavior and leadership. He has worked at/with some of America’s most recognized brands including American Express and Tesla. He is available for consultative work for individuals, teams and organizations. Views expressed are solely his.

Since 2016, I have regularly shared my observations and takeaways as a millennial managing (and being manager) in various forms. Based on feedback and a desire for millennial-focused advice, I decided to share out to a wider group using a more structured approach. My perspective is informed by: undergrad and graduate coursework in human behavior and business; experience working at startups, traditional corporations and advisory service firms; and a hopeful desire for an inclusive workplace as an intersectional millennial.

Without a doubt, the resource I’ve received the most requests about on social media — including my other Harvard Business School (HBS) peers and MBAs from other schools — is having a successful “Team Launch.” In the first semester at HBS, all students take a course focused on leadership and organizational behavior (LEAD). Through explicit instruction as part of a class simulation and from subsequent retrospectives of successful and failed HBS-team-exercises, a successful team launch is essential for a thriving team.

In summary, a team launch focuses on setting the rules of engagement early on and empowering the team to use what was agreed in the launch discussion to manage through any conflict that may arise. I will not share the exact step-by-step of what the HBS case discusses ( case, podcast) for a team launch, but I will share how I’ve applied my learnings and the advice I’ve given to those seeking to successfully launch their teams.

Launching Up The Mountain

In January of 2015, I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro with 8 other HBS students in what was one of the most life changing events for me. It was life changing in part because we did not have a proper team launch at the start of our hike — and I did nothing until the 5th night before the summit to speak up in requesting one — and in part because I put my pride ahead of my own well-being. After a humbling 4 days of climbing, I was terrified about the summit plan our lead guide presented to us. I finally spoke up (after socializing the idea and getting input) and asked our student group lead if we could have a team meeting.

All 9 of us were familiar with team launches after 3 semesters of teaming (within and across our sections), so we naturally found our groove. For about an hour we discussed our individual and collective goals: did we just want to make it to the top, did we want to be there to summit as the sun was rising and what success/failure might look like. We presented our plan to our guides and off we went in the dead of night to reach the top of the mountain. Although the climb was personally challenging, I have no regrets about our team’s result because I felt bought in during our launch discussion. This is the essence of a team launch: aligning the team toward a goal with an effective “charter” of how you want to win together, what losing entails and what the tradeoffs are of your decisions.

Storming to Performing

For better or worse, most of life is not climbing Africa’s tallest peak or doing so with 8 peers who took the same 11 courses focused on leadership and management (about half of whom had also taken negotiations). However, the shared experiences of working in a face-paced environment can foster similar conditions for a successful launch.

While at Tesla, one of the teams I managed had interpersonal conflicts that often stemmed from lacking a shared language. This team was high performing (when in sync) and amazing at delivering quality customer experience. The potential was clear. Instead of leading with a team launch right away, I chose to focus on a change management strategy as the prior manager had a much more relational, outgoing style. Building trust with your team often means listening first, doing it their way (so long as results are sustained) and shifting their working style after you’ve demonstrated your intentions.

The moment for action came at the height of growing conflict. [Note: not all conflict is bad: it can be a sign that you are working fast, hitting targets, failing fast and experiencing creative abrasion.] I provided the structure for the next team meeting, materials to read beforehand and had one of my staff lead the discussion. Leading the session was an opportunity for this employee to grow, practice leading peers and in some ways to empathize with this balancing act. Once 11am hit, the team gathered at the white-board. I reminded them that the normal course of a team was “storming, norming and then performing” and we were off on a journey to norming!

On the white board, I included the following:

  • What do we want our team culture to be

I provided each of my staff with post-its, asking them to think about the jobs they had in the past that they enjoyed and to write from that perspective. They filled the board with post-its (not including their names). I asked each person to take one question/segment and summarize what the post-its said in his or her own words. My role was to facilitate and “spot” when needed. For example, the team wanted to celebrate wins with BBQs. I made sure to set the parameters of what goals needed to be met for expense-incurring celebrations (we had 3 BBQs during my tenure that were a mix of self-funded and subsidized). An easier commitment I made on the spot was to provide verbal recognition in weekly team meetings from me and we implemented a Friday exercise of sharing how someone in the circle helped you accomplish your goals that week. A leader can commit to their own actions but should also build in structures that enable team members to demonstrate the actions agreed to in your launch session. The final step was to send out what we agreed to in our launch over email to all attendees.

A few weeks later, one of my staff initiated a productive discussion with a peer using the verbiage “we agreed that we would disagree with each other like…” to have a tough conversation.

  • As an employee, you can approach your manager and say “I’ve tried to reinforce what we all agreed to” but my colleague is not on the same page, what do you recommend. This shifts the framing from the perception of tattling to productive conflict resolution and ideating.

My direct report asked if we could have a follow up discussion to check in to see how we were doing. I obliged. The process of setting norms collaboratively shapes culture. One of my HBS professors used to say “culture is what employees do in their discretionary time.” In this case, the culture being built was one of accountability and collaboration.

Final Words

I’ve been fortunate to manage strong teams and have supportive work environments conducive to trying out these strategies. More importantly, I’ve had staff that trusted me. Your team needs to trust you, believe you have good intentions, believe that they can take risk with you and the failure is part of growth. Without these elements, your team may launch but the rocket won’t go very far.

  1. Your team should internalize the “why” of this exercise and ideally “lead” it. Does your team see the initial problem and believe there is a path to better?Is there someone who would grow from leading this exercise? Can you allow turn-taking if choosing one leader will be disruptive?

Team launches can also be helpful for any activity involving many people with potentially disparate goals. Some examples include vacation planning (a different set of HBS students and I did this for our Cuba trip), cross-country road trips and one friend launched an emotional support system during a health crisis.

In most cases, the author did not ask to speak to the manager, but these suggestions are geared toward managers to organize their business to receive fewer manager inquiries. The author has experience working across several industries and leading teams responsible for service delivery — and yes, he has had many conversations with disappointed customers asking to speak with a manager.

Originally published at on March 16, 2020.

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