The Art of Team Building? Servant Leadership and Endless Motivation

Building an effective team is crucial to startup success. They’re your champions. They’re your evangelists. They’re the people coming in early and staying late to turn your idea into a business. 

Making great hiring decisions is crucial. Developing a collaborative, empowering culture is essential. 

Rajiv Gandhi argues that there’s a fine art to building effective teams and operations takes a combination of servant leadership, motivation, clear evaluation standards, and rebelling against negative office politics. Gandhi is a Product Manager with American Express and has experience building products and teams that have served 80 million users in 300 companies. He’s particularly adept at working across multiple departments, cross-functional teams and experience levels to create environments where continuous improvement is the norm.

In a recent visit to LIFT Labs, Gandhi shared some practical ways to ensure that any team — whether in a startup or a Fortune 500 company — is working at its maximum potential.

Interview well

Think long and hard about the attributes and skill sets you’re hiring for — and do your due diligence to find them. Check references. Ask in-depth questions during job interviews. If you’re looking for a software engineer, give them a coding test. If you’re looking for a marketer, give them a copywriting assignment. You’re going to critique their work after you hire them, so why not see samples up front?

“A lot of interviews are disorganized. You call someone in a room, sit down with them for 15-20 minutes and try to get to know them,” said Gandhi. “If you’re willing to invest a significant amount of dollars in their salary, you need to do more diligence. You get what you put into the process.”

Be a servant leader

The best leaders don’t dictate, they serve. They use team retrospectives, one-on-one meetings and casual conversations to learn what their people need to succeed. That type of servant leadership can do wonders for empowering people and improving morale.

“Instead of just telling people what to do,” said Gandhi, “build a culture of guiding, teaching, and learning.”

Motivate your people

Your employees want career progression. They want to learn. They want to help build something special (especially at a startup) rather than being just another cog in the wheel. Make sure you’re empowering them to be entrepreneurial. It doesn’t have to be akin to Google’s famous policy of letting workers do whatever they want for 20% of their time, but you should give them space to think outside-the-box and work on new ideas.

Let people do what they do best

Your team might excel at their day-to-day jobs but could get frustrated if management or communication issues arise. For example a software developer might spend just 30% of their day writing code and the rest in meetings, doing support, or handling the needs of multiple superiors. That can kill their incentive. So engineer your operations so people can do their best work. Shorten meetings. Improve collaboration. Generate ideas faster and promote understanding between team members.

Workplace politics is unavoidable, so enhance the good and minimize the bad

Many startups hope to create a culture that’s so transparent and collaborative that it’s above office politics. That’s simply not possible, Gandhi argues. And that’s okay. They just need to take steps to accentuate the good politics — like rapport building, and anticipating people’s needs — and weed out the bad politics — like gossip.

“Politics is like the wind. You have to operate within it,” said Gandhi. “It’s something you have to deal with because it happens everyday. You just have to identify the bad stuff and trim it out of your organization.”

To read more inspiring startup stories and to stay connected to Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs, sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Twitter.