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In the most recent installment of his CMO to CEO column, Paul Evans reflects on why difference is an important currency for any leadership team, or indeed any marketer.

Marketers — good marketers — are taught to seek out differences. To create value in differentiation and distinctiveness. We do this as part of solving business problems, whether this be via product innovation, customer experience design, or advertising communications. Bottom line: standing for something – and standing out – is a highly effective strategy and generator of commercial return.

Professor Mark Ritson believes this is ultimately the biggest part of any marketer’s job, and underlines the application of this to their role: “It’s about whether your brand stands out to the customer, whether it looks like itself, whether it comes to mind. This is the big job, it is 70% or 80% of it. The first rule of brand should be, first they must know it’s me.“

So if differences matter – if we know there is value in difference – why is it so hard sometimes to embrace differences when it comes to people, teams, their perspectives and opinions?

Although it’s not specific to my journey from CMO to CEO, I felt there were some valuable observations in this reflection that would benefit anyone interested in understanding and optimising team dynamics to drive high performance outcomes.

Recognise your blind side

The Adgile leadership team is made up of four very experienced individuals with very different backgrounds – a team created by design over time (long before I joined) – to ensure complementary skill sets and values would be present to consider the challenges and opportunities that we’d inevitably face as we grew.

Five months in since arriving at the business full time, and it’s been a non-stop pressure-filled ride. Mentally stimulating and physically exhausting (I’m doing 18 hour days typically, given the AU:UK time zone difference – more to come on that in my next column) but I couldn’t be luckier to be working with the group of people that I currently do.

On the whole, our team dynamic works. We’re respectful, emotionally aware, considered, but also still forthright with our views. We do have our moments for sure, and I’m probably up there with the best of them in igniting them. I’m quite a passionate and driven individual, built off firm beliefs in what is right and wrong when it comes to business strategy and direction. This stems from a 20 year combination of intuition, education and experience in understanding the customer from a marketing perspective. It grounds everything I do.

Don’t get me wrong though – I’m not a dictatorial alpha-leader in any form. I like to collaborate and reflect on different opinions to find the best answer to solve a problem. However, what comes from the strong sense of conviction and principle in what I believe to be right, is what can only be characterised as a personal blind-side in realising where my team mates are coming from – why their views are equally as valid and deserve full recognition.

My blind-side then, despite years of conscious reflection and awareness, is what is present within the understanding of a concept called Group Development Theory.

Storm to perform 

I actually love Group Development Theory. It was one of the first models I can remember learning as a fresh-out-of-uni graduate at Nestlé. It’s also one of the models that I talk to teams about in the early stages of coming together, as it helps to explain what will happen. And this is one of the key points of the theory – it WILL happen.

Group Development Theory – otherwise known as the ‘Form–Storm–Norm–Perform‘ model was first proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965. What he advocated was that these are all necessary and inevitable phases that a team must go through in order to grow, face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work, and deliver results. Notice the words necessary and inevitable.

His model – through the analysis of over 50 works on team theory at that time – aims to help individuals understand how teams are building their inter-relationships because, as it turns out, quality of team relationship has a profound bearing on quality of outputs.

There is much more (and much better) that you can find online about the model, phases and how to embrace them, but for context, here’s my one line reference to each:

  • Form: when the team literally comes together and gets to know each other, more as individuals, rather than as a collective.
  • Storm: at some point the honeymoon is over. Something happens. A flare up or challenging point of debate. Ultimately, we see inevitable conflict.
  • Norm: teams recognise each others strengths and differences, collectively working towards enabling a potentially positive team dynamic.
  • Perform: this is where everything clicks, naturally, with an easy understanding about how each other works. And the outcome – great performance.

Although forming, storming, norming and performing takes teams on a journey to high productivity and quality of outcomes, it shouldn’t be mistaken as a linear process. Depending on the personalities and experiences of its members, a team may move forward and backward through the phases. What’s key then is recognition, empathy and perseverance, so that a team makes it’s way through the phases as effectively as possible.

In my team we continue to put the model into practice – to greater and lesser degrees of consciousness – as we learn about how we each approach different problems and choices.

We are stronger together as a well-functioning unit that – although not perfectly attuned just yet – are embracing our differences for the better.