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Working Together: Building a Culture of Autonomous Leadership

Spotlight on Culture: Join Gina at ICMI Contact Center Connections from October 28-30 in Chicago. She'll be speaking in session 602: "Top 10 Must-Haves to Build an Effective Team."


I love what I do, I love my coworkers, and I love where I work. I believe these three things are the key ingredients to employee engagement that positively impact business success. I have the privilege of leading a team of 40 support individuals in a flat organizational structure that encourages self-management and collaboration, and adds value across our company. Our customer satisfaction is over 97%; our staff turnover in 2018 was 8%, with zero turnover as of May 2019; and this past spring, we received the Team Excellence and Best Service and Support Culture Awards at the HDI 2019 Conference & Expo. Here’s how we did it.

The History

In 2013, our team was awarded the HDI Team Excellence award for external support. Shortly after receiving the award, my manager said “Support is broken.” I thought, “How can support be broken? We just received a Team Excellence Award!” To be fair, he was very complimentary of our team; I just latched onto the word “broken.” As the manager of the support team, my focus is on making things better. So to hear it was broken, I felt responsible.

After I processed a variety of emotions and questions, I was able to reflect and hear what he was trying to tell me. We had an awesome team that was ready for the next level. We needed to build a team of leaders that could take action without having to follow the traditional escalation channel. We needed everyone to feel empowered and encouraged to take action when they had the skills, knowledge, and experience, rather than pass an issue or task to the next group.

At the time, our organizational structure was the traditional hierarchy of six to eight people per team with a dedicated supervisor. It was common to hear comments like, “We are not allowed to do that. Send it to Tier 2,” or “That’s outside my job duties.” These negative statements are so powerful and can hinder growth and performance. They also break down learning and collaboration by encouraging escalation or “punting” without ownership. We found that individuals put more emphasis on working within their job title rather than adding value to the team.

The mission was set. We needed to reduce the focus on our titles and job responsibilities and build a team of critical thinkers that solve difficult problems, self-manage, and collaborate with others throughout the company.

The Discovery Phase

I read many books on team formation, holocracy, and developing leaders. I spoke to other support managers to find out what they were doing. What worked? What didn't work? They key lesson I learned is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. You can’t take an operational handbook from one organization and apply it to yours. What you can do is determine what will work best for your organization based on the goals you want to achieve.

Our team worked together to explore all options and identify what was important to our success. We thought about what we would do if we were creating a team from scratch. What would we keep? What would we change? We discovered that we weren't treating support as a career. We were treating it as an entry-level position with an expectation that we would get two to three years from people before they moved on. That was the “a-ha moment” for us.

The Action Plan

So, we set out to make support a career! We recognized that we had an effective support methodology that was our foundation and most likely helped us to win the HDI Team Excellence Award. Keeping that intact, we intentionally focused on people, not titles. Everyone in support that works with our customers was given the same title: Support Advisor. Tiers were removed, and the salary range was widened to align with our training and software product teams, which were where individuals sought advancement within the company.

We identified five key functions and skills that were needed for an effective support organization. When we looked at everyone on our support team, we saw people who excelled as leaders (Coach); those who loved to make sure information was documented and shared (Scribe); those who were really good at critical thinking and solving complex problems (Technical); others who worked really well with our development team to ensure issues were understood and properly prioritized (Marshall); and those with a strong service sense and a natural ability to connect with customers (Advocate).

The goal was to have each of the five different responsibilities build up to a well-rounded support team. Everyone was encouraged to identify which of the five areas they excelled in. We formed seven teams based on our most common product areas, and each team had up to six people. These teams were designed to facilitate collaboration, engage in joint activities and discussion, help each other, maintain efficiency for case escalation/resolution, and increase knowledge sharing. 

We created a one-year onboarding program to ensure that all new hires understand and embrace our methodology. We created a mentorship program so every new hire could have a dedicated person to guide them. We also developed a training day called Support Experience for other departments in the company to learn about the support team. Attendees learn how the support team operates, what we do and how we do it, and end the day by job shadowing with support staff to learn about the tools and processes the team uses. One hundred and fifty people have attended the Support Experience, and all future employees will attend as part of their orientation.

This program allowed us to educate the company on our values and purpose within the larger organization. When asked about their perceptions about Campus Support prior to the session, one of the attendees said, “I guess I thought it was a lower level position, but it seems like it is extremely challenging and the team works closely together and has fun.”

The Key Takeaways

Kevin Costner was right. In The Field of Dreams he said, “If you build it, they will come!” Our referral rate for our new hires is 40%. The average tenure of the support team is 5 years; some have been here as long as 15 years. In an industry where the average tenure is only 18 months and burnout is prevalent, our high retention rate reinforces that our changes are working.

Encourage everyone on your team to be a leader. Leadership isn't a title—it's influence that inspires and motivates others to take action. You don't have to be a manager to be a leader, but if you are a manager, be sure your leadership skills are in tip-top shape because most people don't want to be managed, they want to be led.

Be specific and intentional about the skills and behaviors that are needed on your team. Your culture is a by-product of your strategy. A key ingredient to an autonomous team is having people that are able to self-manage and focus on adding value to every situation. Jim Collins said it best in Good to Great: “Get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.”

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