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Three Steps to Building a Winning Team

It’s June so many of you are probably getting your team ready for the fall semester. Maybe you’ve lost some folks and are hiring. Maybe you’ve already been through the hiring process and are thinking about how to best onboard them. But even if your team is fully intact from the spring semester, you’re going to want to invest in that team so they don’t abandon you to the Great Resignation. Today we’re going to talk about how you can build a stronger team that’s set up for success, both for your students and your department.

Now we’re still in the midst of the Great Resignation or Reshuffle or whatever you want to call it. You might have already had folks in your department leave. If that’s true, how challenging was it for you to balance their work while you were searching for their replacement? (That is, if you got to replace them.) Whether you’re doing the work of an extra person for a few months or indefinitely, that’s added stress on you and your team that might make more folks think about walking out the door. In fact, maybe you’re one of the people thinking about leaving. Whether you’re onboarding new folks or just trying to integrate that extra load with your current team, you need to invest in that team to both increase productivity and avoid losing more of your team.

Now, if you’ve been lucky enough to avoid losing anyone recently, how likely do you think it is that it will stay that way? If you’re not sure, let’s talk about the work environment at your institution and in your department. In a recent survey by Cornerstone and Ellucian, 69% of HR specialists in Higher Ed said they had difficulty retaining top staff members. They also found that 41% of institutions reported an above average turnover rate for staff. That’s bad news for Higher Ed in general, but if you’re one of those institutions there’s a good change it’s going to impact you directly.

Now, I want to clarify that I’m not judging you in the slightest, whether you’ve lost staff members or not. I know everyone out there is just doing the best they can right now, and probably wishing they had the energy to do better. But given how stressful things have been lately for everyone plus the Great Resignation, what’s happening in your environment is going to directly impact your team. That includes how productive they are and whether they decide to stay on that team. If the current culture at your institution isn’t one focused on employee engagement and wellbeing, you’re going to run into problems with both.

Many things at your institution may seem out of your control, so what can you do as a supervisor to create a winning team; a team that people will want to stay on? Here’s three things you can control that will invest in your team’s success.


We’ve talked about employee engagement before, so the idea that employees want development opportunities shouldn’t be a foreign one. Q6 of Gallup’s Employee Engagement Survey is “There is someone at work who encourages my development.” Q11 is “In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress. And finally, Q12 is “This last year, I have had opportunities to learn and grow.” That means three of the twelve questions on the survey are specifically about development opportunities.

To hammer that in, Gallup did a survey with Amazon in 2021 and they found that 57% of U.S. workers want to update their skills. Even more importantly, 48% would consider switching their job to do so. More specifically, workers aged 18 to 24 consider upskilling more important than retirement benefits, sick leave, parental leave, life insurance and vacation. When they looked at workers 55 and older, 53% say upskilling is "very" or "extremely" important. Basically, that means if you’re not providing opportunities for your team to grow, there’s a good chance they’ll find somewhere they can.

The added stress of Covid in Higher Ed has meant all too often that developmental opportunities have taken a back seat to other priorities. But this isn’t sustainable. There are already discussions happening in organizations like ACPA, NASPA, and across Higher Ed about how to keep people from leaving the field. As a supervisor, the more opportunities you can provide to your team for growth and development, the more likely you’ll retain them AND increase their engagement.


We’ve all seen the motivational and often cliché posters about teamwork. If all it took was a poster to make our teams work more effectively, we’d be golden. But unfortunately, supervisors don’t always know how to get their folks to work together in a way that brings out the best of the collective team. Part of this stems the third thing, which we’ll talk about in a minute. But part of the problem is right now, most teams are simply functioning as individuals who happen to work in the same location. Sure, you might collaborate with those people. You probably have endless discussions and meetings about your department and how you can best support your students. But if your team doesn’t have a framework for maximizing their performance with respect to other members on your team, your team isn’t being as effective as it could be.

So, what’s the key to better teamwork? This probably won’t surprise you, but it’s strengths awareness. When people understand their strengths, they form better partnerships which those around them. Those partnerships build strong teams. Strong teams are more productive and engaged. When your team members know and value each other’s strengths, they can better relate to one another, avoid those conflicts that take up so much of your time and energy, and create a more positive environment where everyone can thrive.

Ironically, the best way to improve your teamwork is to start with the individuals on your team. Of course, I am a huge fan of CliftonStrengths to do this. It’s a powerful framework that gives you and your team a common language and vocabulary you can use to better describe, communicate with and understand each other. When team members know and understand the talents of everyone on the team, they can see the connection between those strengths and folk’s behavior. That also means your team will be able to see the connection between people’s strengths and how to be more successful. That framework allows you and your team to better plan, strategize, and direct your actions so your team is not just more productive, but also the quality of what they produce is higher.


The last of the three things I want to talk about today, is you – and possibly other members of your team if they supervise others. You probably already know this, but most supervisors are never given training on how to supervise their people. This is a huge problem because managers control around 70% of the variation in team engagement. No matter how well intentioned you may be, your team will pay the price if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do to manage your team’s performance, increase employee engagement, or develop your team.

Now this actually ties back into the first two things we discussed. Gallup has found that only one in three managers strongly agree they've had opportunities to learn and grow in the last year. And back to Q6, only 30% of managers strongly agree that someone at work encourages their development. Again, it’s been an incredibly stressful time in Higher Ed, so many of you have probably felt that it was selfish or a waste of your limited resources to “treat yourself” to development opportunities. But nothing could be further from the truth. The more you know about supervising and the more skills you develop, the better off your team will be.

Strong managers reduce turnover more effectively than anything else in your organization. Prior to the pandemic, Gallup data found that it would take a pay increase of around 20% to get employees to leave managers who create an environment focused on employee engagement. When you’re thinking about how to best retain your valuable team members, investing in your own skills and knowledge is one of the best ways to keep your people where they are. That’s both true for you and anyone you manage that supervises other people.

So those are three ways you can build a winning team; one where people want to stay and are maximizing their performance. As much as we want to focus on students, we have to remember that the bedrock of their success is you and your team’s wellbeing. If you and your team don’t get the support and development you need, it’s eventually going to negatively impact student success. And that means student engagement and retention. So, as you’re prepping for the fall, you need to make sure you’ve left enough space and resources to invest in your team.

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