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Effective Ways to Inspire a High-Performing Team

Tomika Russell

Tomika Russell

Head of Technologies for Sales, Marketing, Finance, Data Intelligence, Architecture, and IT Sourcing at Daimler Trucks North America

Tomika Russell, Daimler Trucks North America

Leadership is a delicate balance between clearing roadblocks and providing autonomy for your team so they can achieve success in their roles.

Quartz Network Executive Correspondent Britt Erler sat down with Tomika Russell, Head of Technologies for Sales, Marketing, Finance, Data Intelligence, Architecture, and IT sourcing for Daimler Truck North America to discuss successful leadership practices that have been effective in her organization.

Tomika draws on over 16 years of experience with Daimler Trucks to offer insight into:

  • Successful strategies for leading a high performing team
  • Striking a balance between leadership and team autonomy
  • How to win as a team

Quartz Network: Can you give some context on your background and role with Daimler Truck North America.

Tomika Russell: I have been with Daimler Trucks North America for the last 16 years in a variety of roles. I’m largely focused in North America. As a Detroit native, I said I would never work in automotive. Never say never. But I will say my career has largely been focused on healthcare software as a service. And now commercial vehicles, but in many different capacities. I’m one of those people that is lucky enough to enjoy what she does every day.

Quartz Network: How do you define a high performing team and why is this a leadership priority?

Tomika Russell: I’ll start with the tail end of that question first because we’re really in a war on talent. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about frontline workers, or if we’re talking about IT. Especially with emerging tech positions, we’re really in a war on talent. Whether we’re talking about seasoned talent or new employees that are entering the market, they can really decide where they choose to go. And we really seen an uptick on this during COVID.

Most people are very surprised to learn that people can easily jump ship and go to other companies. But this is very much what we’ve been seeing in our organization. And I know that the trends show that it’s happening across the globe, not only in the US, but literally across the globe. So we’re definitely in a war on talent, and we should expect that it continues.

When we talk about definitions, inspiring teams is very much like Cloud or digital transformation. One of those terms is very popular and heavily used. For me, it really comes down to core principles. I would largely define those as the team having clear goals and priorities and a common purpose that everyone can feel connected to. So why are we here? So that the team is engaged and committed towards that common purpose.

And then lastly, there’s autonomy. They can function as entrepreneurs and really feel very committed and have some independence towards working towards those goals.

Quartz Network: Is there an ideal balance between the level of leadership engagement and autonomy within a team?

Tomika Russell: Definitely. You want to make sure that you give the team enough autonomy, but also stay really connected, where they feel supported. You can clear those roadblocks, which is our jobs as leaders. A one size fits all model will not work. You really have to use my favorite tagline in both personal and professional lives, which is to know your audience and really get to know each person in the team and know the strengths and also know the opportunities. This works well for a hyper high performing team. The team begins to learn how they can help to support each other so they function well as a unit and will support each other. Moral independence and accountability is very key. We win as a team and we also fail as a team.

Quartz Network: Are there certain characteristics that you look for when hiring?

Tomika Russell: Yes, definitely look for individuals that are more interested in the common good than the individual wins or moments to be on the stage, if you will. Other strengths are really about how can I contribute my talents towards uplifting the entire team? My contributions as a whole rather than individual self. And the interest in being a part of something greater than selves.

Quartz Network: How do you see a connection between a high performing team innovation and digital transformation?

Tomika Russell: We need the team to help us get there. The days of having this waterfall methodology where the leader has to be the smartest person in the room, and the leader has to tell the team what to do – those teams, those days are long beyond us. We have to have those ideas also generate within the team. Where the team has the flexibility and also the freedom to come up with new ideas to try and fail fast.

Take the responsibility to come up with new ideas to challenge and really give them the opportunity to be successful. A lot of times in traditional leadership, we’re so used to having very tightly controlled processes, that we really don’t give a lot of freedom and flexibility to be successful. And that doesn’t work in an environment where you’re really trying to inspire creativity. We’re all professionals, we’re all adults, so let people be adults.

Quartz Network: Can you share some personal experiences from your current company Daimler as to best practices, what you’ve seen work and what’s been effective for you?

Tomika Russell: I just launched a program called gearshifts. And that’s really to get the team to think a lot bigger in general. I observed behaviors where I didn’t necessarily think that we were thinking big enough, in all cases, or maybe in other cases. I want us to be able to learn the basics of how to tell a story.

IT people aren’t all creative people, not everyone is a UX designer, for instance. So how do we craft a story? A lot of the things that we do is in monthly town halls is where I talk about economic indicators or how the market is doing. I don’t want us to just show up in a meeting and talk about metrics or other things. I want us to be able to connect those dots, because if we’re closely tied to the market and our customers and our dealers, we can craft better solutions. So a piece of that is helping the team get more closely connected to what we do. And then we can help innovate towards better solutions.

But some of it’s also pretty basic. I had two guys in my team that sit on these types of calls all day. We have Teams fatigue and Zoom fatigue and pick a platform fatigue. We’re not really getting work done.

They approached me about having a meeting free day. They presented the idea in my leadership meeting and said, “Hey, thanks for listening.” I said, “Guys, we’re not done. You didn’t come to just present. Now let’s talk about how we make it happen.”

So we did that and that night, I sent out an invitation to my entire organization. And we now have meeting-free Wednesday afternoons, during actual working time. I told them be prepared, because I’m going to name drop, I’m going to put your names in those emails. Because I want the team to know this is what it looks like. And I also listed in that same invitation, it’s experimentation, meaning it doesn’t have to be perfect for us to start, we just have to start.

So those became the building blocks. We take those examples, and we start building on them with more and more examples of how we start to reshape the organization from within. It’s not one person that changes a culture, it’s a group of people.

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