Stephanie Chung laughing in a library collaborating team

How to Build Teams That Collaborate Instead of Compete

Stephanie Chung, author of Ally Leadership and the featured speaker of the 2024 4word Gala, shares examples of healthy and toxic company cultures, and gives examples of how she built teams that collaborate instead of compete.

You can listen to this conversation with Stephanie on our podcast, Work, Love, Pray! Listen below or click here to find your preferred listening platform.

Here’s an example that covers both: A leader stepped into an organizational culture as the new leader of a team that had been working together for well over 10 years. Because the team had been working together that long, they definitely had some unhealthy things that they were doing. So this new leader came onto an unhealthy team and he made them healthy by doing a few different things. The team was used to doing things a certain way, and within the team, there were certain cliques that had developed. The team also did not have healthy dialogue, so disagreements weren’t voiced in meetings but rather in side discussions after meetings.

When the new leader noticed this lack of healthy dialogue, he began to force the team to have healthy confrontation. A lot of the team members hated it, because if you’re a person who doesn’t like confrontation, this is your worst nightmare. If you’re a person like me, you don’t go looking for confrontation, but you also certainly don’t avoid it. This leader would start ‘arguments’ by throwing out opposing opinions about whatever was being discussed, thereby forcing the difficult conversations to have to happen right there in meetings.

For the first year, this new culture was just really tough. People would leave the meetings absolutely emotionally exhausted. But what was good about this approach was that it made this team go from being unhealthy to working in a way that was very much like siblings. And the business catapulted in a good way because of this. 

I really admired what this leader did because it took courage for him to sit there, throw a grenade into the conversation, and then watch the aftermath. This ultimately was the best decision for the organization, because it forced them to set all of their egos and work together as a team. Whenever I take over a team, an easy thing to spot is a team that isn’t used to dealing with healthy confrontation. One of the fastest ways to get your team rallied behind a common cause is to get everyone comfortable with healthy confrontation.

One building block that I would recommend is to overly communicate. A second building block is to get people in a position where they understand and have empathy for their colleagues. As soon as I took over one of the companies that I have run, I could tell that part of the issues they were having came down to the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. People were in their silos and working really hard and doing the best they could, but they really didn’t connect the dots with each other because there wasn’t a good flow of communication happening. 

So one of the first things that I did was create an all-hands meeting during which I could address the entire organization. I expected every single leader to know what the vision and goals of the company were so that when they had their departmental meetings, they could echo the same things to their teams.

I remember one day counting all the different ways that I would communicate with the team, and there ended up being like seven different ways. I communicated these seven different ways because everybody receives messages differently. I wanted to make sure that I gave the information in different ways based on how people wanted to hear it. As a leader, you have to be incredibly mindful of communication tactics like this.  

Before I became a company president or got into the C-suite, I was always overseeing sales teams. Sales teams are really interesting because they are designed to compete. You actually want a sales team that is all about competition! But one of the things that I had to was make sure that the sales team remembered they were not in competition with each other and to keep in mind that their competition was outside of those four office walls. 

Whenever I would take over a sales team, I would always start with the same exact message on day one: you are your brother’s keeper. I wanted them to know that although they were all individual contributors, they were still part of a team and we’re all going to win together or we’re going to all lose together. I made sure that everyone knew not just the number that they were each expected to hit, but also understand what the entire team was being expected to produce.

Another tactic I loved to use when I led teams was to have everyone do ‘walk a mile’s. Everyone on the team had to listen, sit in with, and ‘walk a mile’ in somebody else’s shoes within the company. If someone was in finance, they might spend a couple of hours in marketing learning what marketing does. If they were in operations, they might spend a couple of hours understanding what sales does. Every single department had to do a ‘walk a mile.’ In doing this, my teams were reminded of what business the company was in, and how every single person within the company was contributing toward the main goal together. A major positive to having the different teams and departments intermingle was everyone had a lot more empathy towards their colleagues because they saw and could understand what their day-to-day looked like.  

As leaders, we also need to have some fun, right? I was big into team building or running different promotions that would just get the team to be able to have some fun with each other. I always say you’re creating a baseball team, meaning everybody has a role to play and everybody has an expertise. Utilize those gifts and talents in the best way possible and I guarantee that any leader who’s reading this will see their company and their team accelerate to a point that you didn’t actually imagine was possible. All because you’re utilizing everyone’s gifts and you’ve got the right people on the right bus going in the right direction, all walking to the same beat of the same drummer.

Stephanie Chung in a blue dress

With over 30 years of experience catalyzing transformative growth in the aviation sector, Stephanie Chung is widely recognized as a trailblazer, from her early career as a progressive sales leader with Bombardier Aerospace and US Airways (now American) to later being appointed the first African-American president of a major private aviation company when she took the helm at JetSuite.

In 2020, Chung joined Wheels Up, one of the largest private aviation companies in the world, as the first Chief Growth Officer, focusing on generating revenue through new client acquisition by building preference and loyalty among diverse customer segments, including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women. In 2022, Chung transitioned roles and served as a Global Brand Ambassador for the company. 

Stephanie is an active member of c200, a community of the most successful women in business, and the Business Executives for National Security (BENS), a nonpartisan nonprofit comprised of business executives who apply best practices and cutting edge ideas to help solve some of the nations most complex security challenges. Chung also serves on the Advisory Council of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and is on the board of Make-A-Wish. 

Stephanie has received numerous accolades in hospitality, luxury travel and aviation. She was named to Adweek’s Women Trailblazers and to Robb Report’s  magazine featuring “23 Black Visionaries Who are Changing the Luxury World Right Now.” She was also named one of “Top Women in Travel & Hospitality” by Women Leading Travel & Hospitality. She was listed on the Ebony Power 100, in Savoy Magazine’s “Americas Most Influential Black Executives”, in D CEO Magazine’s Top 500 and in a feature article on “Women Who Built Dallas.” Stephanie has been a contributing columnist for Inc. and Black Enterprise Magazine, and is a highly sought after speaker whose work has been translated into 40 different languages.