In my last article on building a high-performance team (HPT), published on LinkedIn on October 23, 2017, I explored the subject from the foundational elements of respect, trust, and loyalty. In this article, I continue to explore other elements of building an HPT and, more importantly, nurturing it on a sustainable level.
The classic definition of a high-performance team is an organization or a team that is highly focused on its goals and achieves superior results - against all odds.
Most leaders would agree that it is easy to motivate, engage, and drive a team to spectacular performance for a short period. The real challenge is to do it day-in and day-out while maintaining high energy levels and focus.
In a quick online review of the subject, it appears that the concept of an HPT has become such a cliché that sometimes people take it for granted and don’t fully appreciate all the basic elements needed to build and sustain a performance culture. To achieve superior results, the accountability rests with the team leader who needs to have energy, passion, and drive.
Developing one’s own leadership qualities is a journey. Personally, I continue to explore and experiment with leadership concepts that build strong team spirit and deliver superior performance.
The four pillars of an HPT that I describe below are concepts that I have implemented in the past with great success. Although they might look very basic on the surface, the key to success is to implement them on a consistent basis for a long period. The question becomes whether you have the energy and passion to build and sustain them.
Here are my 4 pillars of building a high-performance team:
- Alignment on Goals, Objectives, and Roles
Whether you are leading a complex business or a functional team, as a leader, it is crucial that you put some thought into your team’s vision, strategy, and operating rhythm. One can’t expect different results by doing things the same way.
What makes great leaders is their uncanny ability to convert vision and strategy into tangible goals and objectives and communicate them to their teams in a meaningful and measurable way. Put differently, even the best strategy will not jump out of the PowerPoint slides and implement itself. By articulating goals at the beginning of the fiscal year, when they align with the budgeting process, it is easier to match the initiatives against both short and long-term goals.
Be mindful of the number of goals you pick and how you allocate capital, both human and financial, as it will determine the team’s overall success. One thing I have found particularly helpful is maintaining a transparent operating rhythm and holding the entire team responsible for delivering the results.
Finally, the leader has to clearly define and agree on the team purpose and the role of each individual on the team. That may sound simple, but often people look at each other when discussion of an action comes up in a meeting, unsure who is responsible for implementing next steps. Clearly defined roles and a decision-making matrix are paramount to building an HPT. When conflicts arise, which they invariably do, it is the job of the leader to take a proactive role in resolving them.
- Communication and Engagement
When it comes to building a cohesive team, the advice I have is to communicate more than you think you need to, and use modern technology to your advantage. More importantly, the content, frequency, transparency, and media with which you deliver helps bridge communication links between senior leadership and the working team.
In one of my previous role, I had the opportunity to spend several hours with just six employees in one of the world’s fastest-growing countries. In this meeting, I presented and discussed the corporate and regional strategy and how the team could make a difference. This one session energized the team so much that we started seeing new growth ideas that had not been captured before.
Mathew Syed, in his book Black Box Thinking, says openness is not an optional extra but a useful cultural add-on to create an environment of learning from mistakes – including your own. Be open and talk about issues, challenges, and values that matter to you as a leader. And because an engaged and informed team is a productive team, remember to reiterate your strategy and the progress the team is making on key initiatives.
Employee engagement is a broad topic and I have had great success hosting activities ranging from holding a company picnics to doing a community-based activities. These events were planned around company values and done purposefully, which helped build a solid and cohesive team. The events created an opportunity for me and other leaders to interact informally with the employees and feel the pulse of the organization.
Finally, consider conducting skip-level meetings with key individuals two or three levels below you to seek feedback on how they are being supported in achieving both personal and company goals. As a leader, your goal should be to continue to influence and build new leaders at both the top and working levels.
- Performance Discussions and Feedback Loops
If you have more than six people reporting to you and some of them are matrixed into other functions, doing a formal performance review becomes a mini-project in itself. But that is not an excuse for not doing it.
Some progressive companies are moving toward dialogue-based performance reviews and away from the forced ranking system. I’m a strong advocate of this practice. In fact, one that comes to my mind happened in an airport lounge where my supervisor gave me feedback and openly discussed successes and failures with an eye toward making me a better leader. It takes maturity and the foundational elements I discussed before to have such a crucial conversations.
Finally, during these sessions, I have asked my team members how I can be a better leader. Speaking from experience, you’ll be surprised at how much valuable feedback you can gather from your team.
- Celebrating Success
This one may seem less relevant, but remember all work and no play also makes a dull team. Great leaders celebrate small wins that culminate in a big win. Irrespective of an employee’s level within the organization, a well-deserved thank-you note from the team leader goes a long way.
Consider if it is possible to include your customers in your success story, as it is even more powerful. Last year my team hosted a customer celebration day as part of a trade show. We thanked our customers for the trust they placed in us, acknowledged their accomplishments, and built strong relationships in the process.
Goodness of Leadership
What brings this all together is the goodness of leadership. My definition of the goodness of leadership is being authentic, inspiring, empathetic, and having the courage to take personal responsibility. Finally, the leader acts and manages the team with integrity. Great leaders bring out the best in their team while acknowledging and supporting the personal and professional aspirations of their team members.
What I’m suggesting is akin to combining the leadership qualities of Mahatma Gandhi, Steve Jobs (throw in Bezos and/or Musk, if you like), and Mother Teresa - all in one individual. That may sound daunting, but who said leadership is easy? If you can take one or two good leadership qualities and internalize them, it will have a positive effect on your team.
How Do You Know It When You See It?
Building an HPT starts with the leader. A good leader comes with a plan, converts the plan into effective, tangible, and measurable projects, and communicates the plan to the entire team.
The leader has mental maps of the various steps required to implement the strategy and holds the entire team accountable for delivering the results, including him or herself. The leader is not afraid of reallocating resources in the middle of a project or even admitting mistakes and completely shutting down a nonperforming initiative.
These leaders don’t shy away from team conflicts, and they go above and beyond to make sure the team is fully aligned and engaged with the plan.
The team is aligned on the goals and aware of the role each member plays within the team. Team members have developed and agreed to a mechanism to sort out issues with a clear decision matrix. The team functions as a single fighting unit and is aligned to such a great degree that it doesn’t need much of the leader’s attention on a day-to-day basis.
The Bottom Line
Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success. —Henry Ford