07/15/2010 04:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Blueprint for Overcoming a Lack of Reinforcements

A measly 9 percent.

That's the scant number of business executives who plan on increasing headcount in professional occupations in the third quarter of 2010, according to the latest Robert Half Professional Employment Report.

The implications of this finding couldn't be more personal for managers: you're not likely to get much in the way of reinforcements anytime soon. That means getting by with the employees you have now--assuming they don't leave. That's not a sure thing, either, given that the number of employees who quit their jobs jumped to nearly 2 million in April--an increase of almost 12 percent since the beginning of 2010.

After three years of budget cutbacks and staff reductions, many workers have simply had it with the status quo. Told to keep their heads down and focus on the most immediate tasks at hand, many no longer understand the long-term vision of their organization or the competitive challenges that lie ahead. No wonder the Conference Board recently reported that job satisfaction in the United States dropped to its lowest level in more than two decades.

To millions of managers in the corporate world, this is no doubt sobering news. But there's more: If you thought doing more with less was difficult during the worst of the economic downturn, try doing it in the months ahead as business activity increases. Though the hiring forecast looks bleak, the economy is now growing at an estimated 3 percent annually.

Has there even been a moment in your career when the pressure to increase productivity is greater than it is now? Doubtful.

Now that you've done all the best-tightening you can, it's time to do things differently. Specifically, I believe that you need to do two things simultaneously: Build cross-functional teams, and unleash your individual superstars. This is particularly important in the current economic environment, when grueling hours and ever-increasing lists of action items cease to be scalable or sustainable

Let's start with teams. Chances are your employees have been too busy to consider innovative practices that might address high-level objectives. Encourage them to reach across internal silos to collaborate with peers from different parts of your company. Cross-functional collaboration will help your employees and leaders alike develop a more holistic approach to problem solving and opportunity identification.

In addition, allow your brightest employees to pursue their big ideas. These may be challenges that they have a passion for, or opportunities that they stumbled across. Chances are these pursuits were put on hold during the recession if they didn't address short-term concerns or produce immediate benefits. But now is the time to free your best and brightest to pursue ideas that could lead to new products, services, acquisitions, alliances, and more.

When you foster an environment in which individual superstars and winning teams thrive, you gain plenty from each. But you can get even more when your superstars and teams work together harmoniously. Teamwork can scale the achievements of one person, while individual contributors can provide inspiration to sustain teams.

To create this multiplier effect, incent your employees to excel at both individual responsibilities and team collaboration. As a first step, take a look at your performance metrics and incentive structures. Are these aligned to inspire individual achievement and encourage greater teamwork?
One way to tell if you are inspiring individual creativity is by looking at the disparity in earnings between your top performers and your average workers. If there is no reward for achieving greatness, then don't expect people to strive for it.

Similarly, you might be thwarted from increasing cross-functional collaboration if your performance metrics are only designed to measure individual contributions. To increase team accountability, make sure your teams have their own goals and measurements.

But it doesn't stop there. Organizational culture plays a major role. Your employees need to believe that they can succeed only by pursuing their own ideas and by working closely with a team.

But how--and when--do you use each? It depends on the situation. Some initiatives require the combined inputs and creative energies that can only come from winning teams. Others need the creativity and spirited devotion that spring from a superstar performer. As projects evolve over time, these requirements may sway one way or the other. By perfecting both, you can adjust accordingly and adapt to our ever-changing environment.

Though your hiring outlook may look grim, your productivity growth could be strong if you increase teamwork and cultivate superstars. This could not only help your organization, but it could also save your sanity.

Inder Sidhu is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Planning for Worldwide Operations at Cisco, and the author of Doing Both: How Cisco Captures Today's Profits and Drives Tomorrow's Growth. Follow Inder on Twitter at @indersidhu.