3 Team-Building Secrets Dance Retailers Need to Thrive Post-Pandemic

Building a strong staff culture is at the heart of excellence in retailing. Here are three key rules to follow.

Close up view of young business people putting their hands together. Stack of hands. Unity and teamwork concept.
Getty Images

Think about the best team you’ve ever had. Remember how smoothly the store ran? Remember their awesome customer service? Remember what a joy it was to be working side by side?

Well, that’s the kind of team we’re all going to need to thrive in the recovery. We are going to have new customers to win over. And old customers with new online shopping habits to win back. Customers have changed. We’re going to need our staff’s input to understand them and adapt. Our team will need to be agile and smart.

So how do we build a great team? Or keep one together? It isn’t about just getting great people. We’ve all had groups of great individuals that underperformed as a team. No, the secret to a great team is to have a strong culture, because that creates a place for awesome employees to thrive, and for average employees to raise their game. 

Researchers at Harvard University found that companies with a strong culture had 756 percent higher net revenues over an 11-year period. You want a strong culture. But how exactly do you build one?

New York Times best-selling author Daniel Coyle spent four years studying a variety of highly successful groups, from Pixar to Navy SEALs. In his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, he shows how teams with great cultures are built on three universal rules:

  • Build safety
  • Share vulnerability
  • Establish purpose

Build A Feeling of Safety

The primitive part of our brain is always working to see if we are safe. This is true physically but also emotionally. An employee who doesn’t feel safe will hold back. Employees need to feel known and accepted. They need to feel that they belong and that together you share a common future. Safety is the foundation of a team’s culture.

Don’t assume that your staff always knows that they are a valued part of the team. The message needs to be consistent and frequent. We tend not to say it enough; we need to say it more often.

Use key moments, like a person’s first day on the job, to establish belonging. Make sure you spend as much time learning about them as you do telling them about your store. To prove this, a call center tested two different first-day routines. One group of employees were told about the company and received two company sweatshirts. A second group were asked to talk about themselves and received two sweatshirts with their names printed on them. Seven months later, employees in the second group were 250 percent more likely to still be with the company.

Think about how you can create that sense of belonging on the first day. What about a welcome card signed by all the staff? Even better; a welcome card and a giant chocolate bar. Build store traditions that reinforce their sense of belonging, like gifts on their birthdays.

Layer belonging clues into how you relate to your staff every day. Make sure that your staff feels listened to. Listen with an open face and body language and interrupt as little as possible. Over-communicate your listening. Overdo your thank-yous. The sense of safety and connection you’ll generate will be contagious.

Share Your Vulnerability—So Staff Can Share Theirs

Another thing that Coyle found great teams had in common was that their leaders encourage vulnerability. And they did that by first being vulnerable themselves.

I have to admit: I struggle with this one. It’s going to be tough not to be the all-knowing boss. But the research is clear; that approach will squash a staff’s initiative. If our teams are going to help us build back post-pandemic, we need them to be comfortable making suggestions and giving feedback. And they won’t do that if they feel that they can’t be vulnerable.

If you share your vulnerability, they will share back. You then create a “vulnerability loop.” This shared vulnerability will build trust. And, according to Coyle’s research, it will create awesome teams.

Build vulnerability into how you present ideas. Ask your staff: “What’s wrong with my plan?” Or do as Steve Jobs did and start with “This is probably a goofy idea…” (It seemed to have worked out for him.) Let your staff know that you need them and that you value their feedback.

Unite Around a Purpose

If your team feels that you are all working together toward a common goal, they will be unbeatable. You need to define and communicate your purpose. (Generation Z staff, in particular, may need this.)

Fortunately, we are in an industry that has a great purpose. Think of how much joy our dancers bring to their audiences when they perform. Think about how happy our dancers are when they head to dance class. About the life lessons they learn there; lessons about self-esteem, about teamwork, about belonging. We are a part of that. Our work makes that possible.

And yet, we don’t always tell that story. We don’t share that with our staff enough. We need to make our workplaces into high-purpose environments. We do that by filling it full of small, vivid signals. Like posting photos of customers who have gone on to professional careers. Or thank-you notes from young dancers. Make clear your store’s connection to the art. And to the good you do in the world.

Connecting to purpose works. A fundraising team for university scholarships had a scholarship recipient speak to them for a few minutes. It connected their work with their purpose and increased their revenues by 171 percent. 

Achieving your purpose is made up of many small steps. Be clear about the things you need to do to get to your goal, and turn these steps into catchphrases. “Find the perfect shoe, every time,” “Turn every customer into a raving fan” are two examples. (I know you’ll do even better!)

These catchphrases may sound corny, but they are used by every team that Coyle studied, from KIPP charter schools to Danny Meyer restaurants. So figure out your catchphrases together with your staff, use them in training, plaster them all over the back room. They will unite your team in a common purpose—to make your dance store thrive post-pandemic.

Gilbert Russell is president of Brio Bodywear, which has two brick-and-mortar dancewear stores in Ottawa, Canada. Through his consulting firm, he also enjoys sharing his experience and knowledge with other independent retailers. Questions or comments? Gilbert would love to hear from you. Email him at Gilbert@NoQualmsRetail.com.