SEI Investments is setting the agenda for total teamwork. Its success yields four important lessons.
1) Top leaders look for leverage.
What's the role of senior executives in an organization built around self-managed teams? "I look for leverage points," says CEO Al West. "I'm working on building our competency with interactive media and the Internet. I also lead a team that's creating a knowledge center dealing with family businesses and high-net-worth individuals. If it's not a leverage point for the whole company, I don't dive in."
2) Team leaders need a sixth sense for trouble.
Teams at SEI have maximum freedom to experiment - but clear responsibility to disclose when an experiment doesn't work. "Bad news is like fish," says senior executive Richard Lieb. "The older it gets, the worse it smells."
Team leader Bob Aller says one way to get bad news is to uncover it yourself: "You build a sixth sense that tells you whether a team is making progress or not. You can read people's expressions. And you can tell a lot from the informal updates you get in the halls."
3) To identify leaders, let them identify themselves.
Even self-managed teams need leaders. But top executives at SEI don't use a heavy hand to appoint team leaders. "I won't send out a memo declaring that someone is the go-to person on a project," says Lieb. "You've got to show leadership ability through your knowledge, initiative, and energy."
Why the soft touch from above? Because teamwork means that leaders need a soft touch with their peers. "You're responsible for perusing the company and figuring out who you'd like to have on your team," says Rob Prucnal, a team leader. "Then you have to build it. It's a very soft sell. You want people to say, 'That sounds like a team I'd like to be on.' "
4) You get what you pay for.
SEI's commitment to teamwork is woven into its organizational fabric. But even in a company of believers, money still matters. That's why incentive compensation is a big part of total compensation at SEI - making up anywhere from 10% to more than 100% of base pay. "Each team gets a pot of money," says COO Henry Greer, "and decides how to distribute it."
Some teams have members vote on each other's bonuses. Others defer to the leader. SEI has been known to appoint facilitators to help teams that have trouble wrestling with this always-sensitive issue.
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.