Chicago is filled with buzz these days. The Black Hawks, our hockey team, just won the prized Stanley Cup – the championship trophy awarded annually to the National Hockey League (NHL) playoff winner at the end of the Stanley Cup Finals.
As I shared the excitement and pride with my fellow Chicagoans, I thought about the Hawks and what made them successful. Then, I thought about my team, Raksanna’s Near East Dance Ensemble, and what makes us successful – and found startling similarities. Here’s what I discovered:
- Rules: A Must Have – Certainly, belly dancers are very creative, free-thinking individuals. But the reality is we all need structure. Clearly communicated roles and rules about how the team operates go a long way to avoiding drama and misunderstandings. For example, we have Friday night rehearsals at 7:30 pm. We got into some very bad, sloppy habits, with people showing up late and not starting practice until 8:00 pm or later. This wasted a lot of time and caused a great deal of frustration to those who had made practice on time and were ready to go at 7:30 pm. We agreed to the $20 late fee rule. Promptly at 7:30 pm, based on the treasurer’s phone clock, all dancers must be in the studio, ready to start. Otherwise, they have to pay $20 cash right then and there. (Guess what? I was the first one to have to pay the fine!) It does not matter the reason (we’ve literally had dancers take someone to the hospital and be late, but pay the fine right then – because they respect the team and they respect the process). Funds collected go into our touring fund to help offset theater costs, props, etc. This clearly defined and agreed upon rule made our team operate more efficiently and smoothly; now, we start on time and get more done during the hour with less frustration on everyone’s part.
o ACTION: Sit down with your team, brainstorm on what rules work for your troupe, write them down and get everyone’s agreement.
- What about Roles? Hand in hand with rules are clearly defined roles. In the late fee example, we all know who our treasurer is and we respect the authority she has to enforce and collect late fees. There is one leader who is the ultimate decision maker. My style is collaborative and I love getting input from everyone, but when it comes down to the final decision, the team knows and respects that the buck stops with me. My assistant director manages the team when I’m traveling. I trust and respect her judgment – but she also respects me and my leadership role. If she makes a decision about staging or an emotion that goes with the dance, she always qualifies that it’s subject to change if I disagree. We have an actual organization chart that clearly communicates roles and responsibilities and the net result is that we avoid power struggles and drama.
o ACTION: Take into account each team member’s strengths and establish a working model of who does what, based on their strengths. A formal org chart might seem over the top, but it provides a visible structure that is easily understood.
- You have to have a common goal – Every team member needs to know and buy into the team’s overall goal, with an understanding of what you’re doing and why. We started with the specific goal of taking my book, Confessions of a Belly Dancer; Secrets of the Hieroglyph ©, and putting it on the stage as a theatrical adaptation. Confessions is a collection of true-life stories from dancers around the world – our personal stories – and putting them on the stage, through dance, elevates belly dance as an art form. Every dancer had an individual investment in the outcome – to put our personal stories on the theatrical stage in an artistic, professional and authentic way. We all bought into it, we all committed to it and we all gave our all to it – and the result was a show debut to a sold-out audience at Chicago’s Paramount Theater, Copley Stage. Now, we are dedicated to touring with the show and our next stop in NYC – a dream come true for all of us.
o ACTION: Reflect on what you are doing and why. Build your vision and mission statement and write it down. Are you a performance team? Is your troupe for profit? Be concise and use this statement as your guide to make decisions.
- What? Shared Values and Thinking – It goes against conventional thought to say you need a team of people who think the same way. But in truth, it’s actually one of the most important parts of a team that works. I don’t mean group think or surrounding yourself with people who are ‘yes’ people. Rather, it’s about creating a team of individuals who share common values of work ethic, respect for each other, acceptance for each person’s individual quirks and nuances and place the same priority on the team and the team’s goals as the rest of the members. Each team member must know how to work within and fit into the team culture. Someone, whose name escapes me, said it beautifully: A team should operate as a mosaic whose unique strengths and differences convert into a powerful united force.
o ACTION: Sit down with your team and brainstorm what values are important to each other. Write them out in a Value Statement. Spend time deciding (ahead of time) what actions should be taken if someone ends up not being a good fit. The old saying, one apple can spoil the whole bunch, is true. If someone doesn’t fit in, it creates negativity and can literally destroy your team. Be proactive and map out how you’ll address the issue before it takes place.
- Show you care – with feedback! Just like the dance teacher who provides constructive criticism to help you grow, effective troupe leaders must give proactive feedback to make sure the team stays on track. It should be constant, proactive and part of everyday dialogue. If you wait until a problem arises, you risk damaging the team and not having the skills to effectively provide feedback. Confront complacency. It’s easy to get in a rut – so be on the lookout and provide guidance if the team relaxes too much. It goes both ways … As a leader, you also have to be open to and humble enough to accept feedback from all sources. You never know when that nugget of wisdom that could make the difference between success and failure will come.
o ACTION: Make a conscious effort to recap at the end of a rehearsal. Identify what went well, how to make things better and lay out the direction for the next steps. Ask for and be open to suggestions from your team. You don’t have to act on every one, but be receptive and show them you are listening. It shows you value their opinions and thoughts, which builds loyalty and trust.
- Acknowledge, Respect and Reward – Feedback is not all negative. It should be positive, as well, and must include acknowledgement, respect and rewards. Give your troupe members the accolades they have earned and deserve. Being a dancer means putting your heart on your sleeve and being vulnerable. Troupe dancers want to be part of a larger good and want to make a difference. Be thoughtful – recognize their individual contributions and growth. Reassure each member that you are paying attention to their efforts. Be genuine. Respect goes a long way in building trust and loyalty – and the byproduct is that it generates even more effort for the greater goal!!
o ACTION: Take time to notice each dancer during class and provide one correction or recognition of progress made. When making corrections, be specific about what needs to be changed and tell or demonstrate how to do it correctly. Recognize when a dancer is doing something well or shows improvement on previous corrections.
- Celebrate!!! Take the time to celebrate success. Step back, reflect on the collective accomplishments and what the team has learned. It’s important to understand why the team is successful and how their success inspired and positively impacted those around them. Be sure to stay focused on the team – too many times, leaders get caught up in their own ego and fail to recognize that it is team as a whole was responsible for the success, not just the leader. Rejoice in the success stories, the tremendous effort, sacrifice and perseverance that each member contributes. It doesn’t take much time to celebrate – live in the moment and remember what it required to cross the finish line, so that your team will be able to run the next race with you.
o ACTION: Make celebrating a part of your team culture. Start a rehearsal by going around the room and having each dancer share something great that happened in their life that week. It doesn’t have to be strictly related to dance. Impromptu get-togethers after rehearsals are always good for genuine friendship and meaningful conversations.
Building an amazing, drama-free troupe takes time and effort. You have to be committed to creating the right team dynamics, making good decisions, including diverse personalities … but if you do, everyone wins in the end.