In the fast-evolving world of business, there aren't many true secrets to success. But one is certainly building and maintaining a trusted team.

Entrepreneurs, investors and leaders need people they can count on to handle their responsibilities with care and provide honest feedback-- whether it's good news or bad--and help course-correct when things aren't going right.

So how do you build that team? And once that's been done, how do you maintain it? I've been fortunate to work with incredibly talented partners and colleagues in my career. I've learned, too, from the successful startup founders we have backed and advised. Here are my takeaways from them:

Embrace the familiar--and the new.

When my husband, Ian Simmons, and I started our family office, Blue Haven Initiative, six years ago we quickly discovered that hiring a team was the most important--and challenging--thing we had to do.

Every organization has insiders and outsiders. The insiders you know well or have worked with before are vitally important because they have a good grasp of your mission and what makes you tick. But outsiders--contractors, advisors and new hires-- bring expertise and objectivity that your closest confidantes might not have. We often need outside specialists to advise us on investments in our impact investment portfolio--and they work closely with our internal team.

Ian and I have found that the mix of viewpoints and experience that we get from employee insiders and specialist outsiders makes our organization stronger.

Create a safe environment--and let down your guard.

Building trust within a team is a two-way street. Employees and associates will make mistakes and need to know they can recover from them. Otherwise, they won't share ideas or take risks that help an organization innovate. Reporter and author  Charles Duhigg has written about the incredible power and productivity of teams created in environments where there is psychological safety.

I've experienced this first-hand: I was a professional actor for 15 years and step back on stage from time to time. I've found my theater training to be incredibly helpful to me in business. I was reminded of the importance of showing vulnerability and building trust a few years back when I played Ophelia in a production of Hamlet. Ophelia, quite famously, goes crazy, though the text is pretty vague about how she does it. That gave me a lot of leeway in playing her descent into madness--but it also meant that during rehearsal I had to go through different iterations that really didn't work. And I had to do it in front of people I respected.

That was more terrifying than anything I've faced in business. But I learned that showing vulnerability and helping create a listening environment where others can be vulnerable too can help build a strong team. The group didn't make me feel foolish when I took chances. My failed approaches made them feel more comfortable as we worked things out--and they became more invested in looking for ways for everyone to succeed.

Find ways to partner and bond beyond the office.

This can be easy and spontaneous, perhaps playing a sport, making a meal or volunteering. Not long ago, our growing team competed in a trivia contest at a local bar.

A word of caution: If you want to feel more insecure about your intellectual capability, try trivia night at a bar near Harvard and MIT. For a while, we thought we were doing really well and were high-fiving and patting each other on the back. We came out 11th of 15 teams, which in the end was hilarious--and liberating. We bonded as a team by struggling as one.

Embrace unstructured time with colleagues.

Now that so much of our time is over-scheduled, I'm a big fan of unexpected quality time when conversations flow and meander--often in unusual places and odd circumstances.

At a brown bag lunch recently, one of our staffers taught us all how to play Texas Hold 'Em, one of those unplanned-but-great things that can happen during unstructured time in the office. Our team saw a spirited side of an associate, and she was able to play a leadership role in teaching us something new.

Another example: We do a lot of work with entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa, which means we are often stuck in traffic or traversing rural roads together. Over the years some of our most productive conversations have taken place in cars in Nairobi, say, waiting out storms or heavy rains that close roads. Those moments have taught me to seize and savor unexpected "found" time.

Ultimately, every leader builds a team based on a combination of intuition and experience. There is no secret recipe. But trust is the key ingredient. It's the foundation of any great team and any great business. By embracing a diverse mix of colleagues, creating an environment where ideas can be shared and mistakes made, and finding ways to communicate and bond beyond meetings and conference rooms, you can form that trust--and find success together.

Published on: Sep 28, 2018
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