Culture: the key to building great teams
In a retail and commercial career spanning more than 30 years and six sectors (footwear, toys, extreme sports, recruitment, football, music), Stephen Balmer-Walters has learned a lot about building teams. Or rather, he said in late April to an audience of locked-down Norfolk Networkers tuning in via Zoom, “Not just building teams, but building effective teams, and teams that win.”
After a TikTok-style warm-up routine (future NN speakers take note: the bar has been raised!), the founder of the 8 retail consultancy moved on to some of his formative experiences and the resulting philosophy and values he puts into operation today.
Stephen’s experience includes successful spells with the British Shoe Corporation, Jaeger and Route One, but the headline moment, for Norwich City fans at least, came from a single day during his time as the Canaries’ retail director: the club’s 2015 play-off victory over Middlesbrough at Wembley. The on-field tactics were spot on and the players executed them brilliantly, but, said Stephen, it wasn’t just the playing and coaching staff who won that match. Behind the scenes a huge amount was done to ensure that everyone at the club knew their roles and responsibilities in the lead-up to Wembley and on the day, and that they had the energy and motivation to get everything right. If they did, then the players, the fans and the backroom staff could together reach their full potential. Teamwork would be the difference between success and failure.
“We did everything we could to make sure we had the advantage,” said Stephen, “and that’s why we won that game.”
So effective teamwork can deliver a big pay-off. Better still, you don’t need the resources of a big football club to build an effective team. Small businesses can aim high, too.
“I’ve worked at lots of companies,” Stephen continued, “from big, multimillion-pound businesses to small, independent businesses, but the fundamentals have always remained the same . . . What’s always been at the heart of all those businesses for me is how we get people to deliver the overall objective, and how we tap into their emotions and get them to believe in the journey.”
The key, he said, is a company’s culture.
"Build teams where people really care, where people show up, where people have got a purpose.”
“I’ve been talking for the last decade about one thing: culture. I’ve said, many, many, many times, the thing that will drive businesses down is not having the right culture, or not understanding that culture, and [that] you can massage the culture and make it a culture that you’re proud of . . . It’s something that I’ve used in the last three decades to build strong teams, to build teams where people really care, where people show up, where people have got a purpose.”
There are many ways to create the internal culture of a business, but Stephen’s focus is on principles and actions that make it clear that managers and team leaders genuinely care for their team members. Among the building blocks are: needs, truth, time, love, commitment, community, agility, leadership and devotion. Together, these individual elements add up to a manifesto for putting people first.
Then, when you put the ‘people first’ principle into practice, things begin to happen.
“You start to get a lot more sharing,” said Stephen, “a lot more emotional content, a lot more honesty, a lot more ‘Actually, I’m not feeling good. Actually, I am struggling a little bit. Actually, I do need help’ … Those things are all about community and all about communication and all about how you get people to be the version of themselves they want to be. And if you can get that, what actually happens is you start to get the economies of scale, but what you also get is the real person showing up, you get that real dedication, you get that real productivity, because you give a damn, you’ve got to know them, you’ve gone beneath the surface.”
Learning the lesson of community
Earlier in his talk, Stephen had shared one of the key reasons he finds community so important: his family history. His mum and dad were both from the Caribbean, with his mum arriving, aged just 8, from St Kitts on the Empire Windrush.
“I often think what it must have been like for them to travel from their homeland, on a ship full of people, to the UK,” he said. “And then, when they get here, not knowing anybody … When I talked to my grandmother when she was alive, the one thing she always used to talk about was a sense of community, and that sense of community really helped them establish themselves in a new city, in a new environment … [and] in business, it’s no different, really. We often do better when we get to know people and understand them, and I think that’s what’s at the real heart of my journey.”