The Pillars of Building a High-Performance Team. Part 2

In my last article on building a high-performance team (HPT)[1], 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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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


Home of High Performance Team

Foundation for Building a High-Performance Team: Respect, Trust, and Loyalty (Part 1)

Respect, trust, and loyalty are some of the most powerful words in the lexicon of leadership and team management. Quite often, these words are thrown around loosely without context or thoughtful consideration for the people involved. As I’ve experienced and will explain, the meanings and implications of these words tend to change with the people, the situation, and the culture in which we operate. As a way to strengthening your leadership skills, being aware of the norms around these words can allow you to build stronger teams.

Donald Rumsfeld once said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” Very often, when a leader takes a new role, the team comes built-in with the job and the leader starts the journey of bringing the team along with a new mission and vision. It would be wonderful if all the team members were loyal to the leader on day one and, of course, were trustworthy and respectful to each other at the same time. Unfortunately, it seldom works that way. The leader needs to start building trust through respect, which ultimately creates loyalty.

In my most recent leadership roles, I was thrust into a situation where I had to lead a highly diverse team spread across many countries – each with unique cultures. It felt challenging in that I started the job without an onboarding process, leading a team that had previously being led by several leaders in a short time frame. With advice from my mentors, I started the journey of building a high-performance team by creating a culture of respect, gaining members’ trust by working along with them, and finally, building followership (loyalty) toward a shared purpose. The result was spectacular as the team achieved and exceeded the commitments made to the business and the local community.

Earning Respect

Although respect looks and feels different for different people, in general, it is about admiring or giving special attention to a person or something. For instance, a person in power may feel disrespected if someone questions his or her ideas, yet, if considering generational differences, a Millennial leader[1] may want that person to challenge her so that she feels engaged and heard. In certain cultures, following orders from a supervisor without pushing back is a form of respect, and anything short of it is considered treason. Being aware of the norm for the organization and its culture becomes an important first step for a new team leader.

The basics always matter and active listening is one basic. Respect people when they speak by allowing them to complete what they are saying, and give weight to their ideas. Acknowledge any differences respectfully but be transparent about where you are coming from. Appreciate the local culture and norms, including that of your organization, because that is important to building a mutually respectful team.

In a blog post in the Wall Street Journal, Jennifer Deal[2] makes the point that when it comes to respect—or disrespect — “what you tolerate, you promote.” As leaders, you set the trend and the boundaries of a respectful culture.

To make that more personal, in meetings with my leadership teams, I would set boundaries by saying, “Within the family, it is okay to throw food at each other occasionally, but you are not allowed to throw knives and forks.” It set expectations and the tone lightened the mood creating a healthy and productive culture that encouraged open debate and welcomed diversity of thoughts whilst still maintaining a professional environment.

Gaining Trust

Trust is an unwavering bond between individuals where one believes in the other without any prejudgment. As Jon Mertz says in one of his articles, “To gain trust, we must be believable so that others will have confidence in our ability to keep our word, do our part, and follow through on expectations set.”

Gaining trust starts with small steps and it is cumulative: the more you do it, the more you make deposits into the trust account. Trust is built on a foundation of honesty and transparent communication. If you lack either one of those, it will start eroding the trust factor in your relationship with others. Finally, trust is about consistently delivering what you say you are going to deliver.

John Blakey (, founder of the Trusted Executive Foundation, is a prolific author and thought leader on this subject. He talks about trustworthiness having three components: ability (coach, deliver, be consistent); integrity (be honest, be open, be humble); and benevolence (be kind, be brave, evangelize). He further makes the point that although people can deliver on promises day in and day out, if they are dishonest or cruel, others are unlikely to trust them.

The fastest way for leaders to build trust within their team is to roll up their sleeves, get into the trenches with their team members, and help them accomplish their goals. Leaders’ actions then get amplified; making promises and acting on them helps significantly improve the trust quotient. However, failing to do so bankrupts their trust account.

Returning Loyalty

Loyalty is a strong feeling of support or allegiance to an individual or an organization. Loyalty is the result of a respectful relationship built on trust over a period of time. As a team leader, avoid encouraging blind loyalty from individuals because it may lead to mediocracy trap, which would be hard to unwind later. It further leads to a bad working environment and does not motivate other team members to give their best.

One cannot buy loyalty, but one can buy a dog that will be loyal. In the political world, loyalty is considered an entry ticket to a job; in the business world, loyalty is earned over time.

Don’t be in haste and question someone’s loyalty without clearly understanding the context of his or her words or actions, because it will take twice as much effort to rebuild the level of trust that was established. Finally, don’t expect true loyalty to occur in the early stages of a relationship; it takes time to build respect and establish trust before seeking loyalty.

How Do You Know It When You See It?

How often do you attend meetings where one person speaks the majority of the time and other people just take notes, make some cursory comments, and leave the meeting without any actions or follow-up? This shows a broken system where respect, trust, and loyalty exist on a superficial plane.

When leaders create an environment where issues are vigorously debated and diverse views are respectfully heard, you see a team atmosphere of mutual respect. When people are not branded for their views or politically castrated for pointing out obvious things, their leaders are building a trusting team. When people complete the process of grinding through the issues in a setting where their views have been given a hearing, the leader makes the final decision and the team follows through on the actions because that leader has earned the loyalty of the team. It is the leader who sets the trend in earning respect and gaining trust, and if it’s done thoughtfully, honestly, and consistently, that person will earn a loyal followership and team members will go to any length to achieve the vision.

The Bottom Line

Respect is earned. Honesty is appreciated. Trust is gained. Loyalty is returned. —Anonymous