Teamwork – ESPN exec back in Milwaukee

Former ESPN VP helping Milwaukee design firm get most of team structure
A year after the Milwaukee design firm Hanson, Dodge + Sutter restructured to create workplace teams, a survey of clients showed a marked increase in satisfaction with customer service.
“I think everybody here sees team structures as a positive,” says Rusty Borkin, who joined the firm in February to help the 60-person firm as vice president of operations and organizational development.
Teams aren’t the answer to everything, notes Borkin, who was born in Chicago but reared on Milwaukee’s North Shore. “But there’s a lot to suggest that they can play a positive role in a firm’s success.”
Borkin was director of human resources for ESPN, the Connecticut-based sports information media company, when a dinner meeting with the visiting Ken Hanson in New York led to a job offer.
Growth at Hanson, Dodge + Sutter had prompted Hanson and co-owner Tim Dodge to look at new ways of doing business – of managing people. Or, rather, of not managing them. It abandoned the command-and-control method of operation, repositioning itself as a company of self-directed work groups.
The teams, which each has a name such as “High Rollers” and “Mission Control” and which have leaders, are given a breadth of responsibility. Within certain parameters, the teams determine what resources they need to service an account, what budget they need and what the design plan will be. Still, they work under company-wide goals and have restrictions. They can’t, for example, go out and hire as many people as they want to, Borkin notes.
But the team is seen as an integral factor in the continued growth and success of the design firm, says Hanson, who serves as the firm’s CEO and executive creative director. “We have incredible talent, but to continue our growth, Hanson, Dodge + Sutter needs to be the place for highly creative people to work,” he says, adding that programs being developed by Borkin will enforce that position.
It’s all client-related, Borkin says, stressing that teams can only be successful if they are formed and maintained with the customer in mind. “The main thing that keeps the team together is the customer,” advises Borkin. “We’re a studio, not just a group of teams. You can’t be locked into teams; customer needs are continually changing, and thus teams must be continually changing.”
The ability to accept and deal with that change, Borkin believes, will be the hallmark of successful companies in the coming years. “Flexibility in organizational structure will be the future, not locking onto one method or another.”
Even the team-based system at Hanson, Dodge + Sutter has changed since its inception a year and a half ago. “We’re realizing that we need to be incredibly flexible,” Borkin says. “The whole goal always is, what’s best for the client?”
Borkin sees team structure as more customer friendly on a number of fronts. Beside fostering a feeling of ownership among the team for the client’s project and offering the client a group of people who become experts on the account, the system increases the number of contact points with the customer. Those contacts, which formerly were primarily between the client and an account executive, “are the real key to success.”
Not to say that multiple points of contact can’t happen otherwise. “But this makes it easier for it to happen,” Borkin says.
How do you develop and decide upon a team structure? There’s no cookie-cutter approach. At Hanson, Dodge + Sutter, the partners looked at how other firms were handling teams and benchmarked against the successful ones. “But it’s a lot like talking about bread,” Borkin adds; “there are a lot of different kinds and each has a different ingredient.”
Teams must be customized to each firm’s needs and the needs of its clients.

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