Recently I was invited to be the guest speaker at a dinner for the Chamber of Commerce branch in Donald, a small rural town in North West Victoria. For those who don’t know, towns like Donald have been facing difficult drought conditions which have made life tough. As it also happens, it is the town I was posted to as a young school teacher in 1981 and where I remained until 1989.
Now, as a partner at Leading Teams, I had been invited back to speak on the topic ‘Creating High Performing Teams’. I had been asked to focus specifically on community groups, sporting teams and small businesses.
I began by filling in the gaps between leaving teaching in Donald and my current position at Leading Teams. I then outlined our high performing team model and explained how our Performance Improvement Program (PIP) actually works. I also shared some of my experiences from having worked with a wide range of teams in the 30-odd years since I left the town.
Importantly, I spoke of the wonderful grounding my wife, Sally, and I received at Donald as young school teachers. We were encouraged to join many community and sporting groups but we were also encouraged to take up leadership roles. It wasn’t good enough just to enjoy the benefits of participation.
The town needed commitment, not just involvement.
During the night one of the younger members of the audience asked a question which challenged and inspired me, and which I have never faced before: Would it be possible to apply our Performance Improvement Program to an entire town?
I reflected on the question and, after a pause, I thought, ‘Why the hell not!’
The question caused a good deal of discussion and another raft of related questions. We were now well off script but going down a fascinating path.
My conclusion was that conducting a PIP in a small town would be possible but to do so we would need to acknowledge and understand some of the real challenges:
- The first step in beginning a PIP in a town would be to accurately identify the key centres of influence in the town (the people who influence people). Often in small towns you have a wide range of influential leaders running separate community groups and teams but this would have to be a fully integrated approach: one town, one team.
- The next step would be to identify and develop strong succession. Often we wait too long to engage our next generation. Find them, inspire them and train them.
- Gathering the town under one team ethos is the next challenge. At Leading Teams we refer to this as the development of a team trademark. We would have to canvass as many locals as possible and pose the question, ‘What are the key words we would love people to use when describing our town?’ The words have to invoke a sense of passion. For example: Donald is a strong, positive and dynamic town and team.
- We would then need to support our town/team trademark with the required community behaviour we would need to see in action for us to be the town/team we wish to be. Interestingly one behaviour we discussed on the night was to ‘speak positively about our town/team’. In tough times, we can often spread negative messages unwittingly, which diminish hope. These positive behaviours would need to be encouraged, driven and rewarded by all in the town. More importantly, we would have to hold one another to account for performance against the trademark. Can you imagine the board of the local hospital or the shire councillors kicking off their meeting by asking the question, ‘How are we going against the town trademark?’
In short, while it would be a challenge I believe it could be done. What an ambition for a town to set itself. That young man’s question has struck a chord with me; I left the town the next morning thinking that it doesn’t seem to matter how tough things get, I still see a determination, resilience and care that seems unshakeable in the bush. And I’m still thinking about it days later.
I was only in Donald for nine years but I will always speak very proudly of that fact!