business people teamHigh-Performance Teams…and Their Leaders

I have worked a long time.  I have had an interest in leadership since high school.  I’ve been part of some very good teams, not all high-performance.  I have been part of some teams that you would have thought would be good teams that weren’t.  I have been part of teams that were, to put it nicely, not good.

To be clear, a high-performance team is a group of people who share a common vision, goals, metrics and who collaborate, challenge and hold each other accountable to achieve outstanding results. You know a high performance team because the members: Have a clear vision of where they are headed and what they want to accomplish.

My interest in leadership, and my competitive spirit to be part of winning teams, lands me on our topic for this month – high performance teams.  I am blessed to be finishing my full-time career on a high-performance team.  I will explore not only my experience, but what one study shows about the leaders of high-performance teams.

Personally, my Spring season of renewal has contained some significant loss (chronicled here).  While the renewal of Spring, and death (loss), may appear to be in juxtaposition to one another, I find them to ‘sit’ well together in the cycle of life.  In fact, during a time of loss, it is nice to see that which is new – the new growth of Spring and my grandchildren – as a reminder that all is not bleak and sad.  Woven in life are the presence of many opposites – beginnings/endings; happiness/sadness; health/sickness; light/dark…the forest is often the darkest before you come out into the light.

Thanks to those of you that commented on my post on aging.  Always nice to know when I’ve struck a cord.

Now, let’s explore high performance teams!

Do your best work and be well.


High-Performance Teams…and Their Leaders 

For the first half of my career I believe it was more important for me to ‘get along’ with the teams that I worked on and with.  I wanted them to be high performing, but not if we didn’t get along.  It wasn’t until I grew to understand that it was more important to hold people accountable, and to have higher accountability to each other and our clients, than it was to be liked and get along.  I also began to understand that the two were not mutually exclusive.

Today, I consider my ultimate ‘fun’ at work to be collaborating with people who are highly dedicated to excellence, the mission of the organization, share a common vision, often have common values, and are good at what they do.  That means I can trust them to not only do their job, but to also have my back.

Are these the earmarks of a high-performance team? Let’s see what one study shows.  A little over one year ago, Joe Folkman published a piece in Forbes magazine titled, “5 Ways to Build a High-Performance Team.”  What caught my eye was it was primarily about the leaders of those teams, not just the teams themselves.

They looked at the data from 66,000 respondents, looking for a measure that evaluated the extent to which the team environment was a place where people would go ‘above and beyond’ to get things done.  Their study led them to 15 behaviors that highly correlated to going above and beyond.  From that, they arrived at the five key dimensions that were most important to those high-performance teams.

Their conclusion – those leaders who ranked the lowest on the 15 behaviors had about 13% of their teams highly committed.  Those in the top 10% had 71% of their team highly committed (35% of those leaders had 100% of their team committed).

What were those five dimensions?

  1. Team leaders inspire more than they drive.  High-performance teams are more ‘pull’ than ‘push’. Leaders of high-performance teams know how to create energy and enthusiasm in the team. Team members feel inspired, they are on a mission.  I was surprised and pleased to see this dimension present.  Most of my experiences with “teams from hell” were always led by ‘drivers.’  They believed that they could ‘make’ people perform, often through threatening, cajoling, or nagging.  They most often got compliance, but not commitment.
  2. Team leaders resolve conflicts and increase cooperation.  Conflicts can often tear teams apart.  When they are addressed quickly, people increase their trust and understand that disputes can, and will be resolved.  My experience is that even ‘low level’ conflict festers and impedes the energy of the team.
  3. Team leaders set stretch goals.  People who want to achieve want to work on the ‘extraordinary’.  These are the things that can make a difference in how they work, what they produce, and most of all, how they serve their client’s needs.  Setting stretch goals is not just about formulating a target that is bigger.  They understand that which is meaningful and that which is achievable – if they work hard.  Doing the extraordinary gives people a much higher level of satisfaction and commitment.  This drives the engagement of the team, which will drive up the level of productivity.  Profitability is not far behind.
  4. Team leaders communicate, communicate, communicate the vision and direction.  High-performance team leaders are always reinforcing the message and keeping people in touch with the mission and vision.  At every turn, whether it is a project with multiple steps and a lot of complexity lasting over a long time, or it is of short duration, the highest rated leaders keep reinforcing how what they are doing is connected with the bigger picture of what we are doing and why.
  5. Team leaders are trusted. Trust is a foundational piece.  Without it, people simply don’t perform as well.  Without it, leaders are not able to do well the things that were presented in the first four.  The first part of every leader’s mission is to build relationships.  Relationships build trust and create influence to drive all of the other pieces.  We all know that part of that trust comes from competency.  We need the knowledge and the skill to help others solve problems that will raise our stature within the team.  Finally, we must be consistent.  One of the things that drives that consistency is that you do what you say you are going to do.  I sometimes talk about people/leaders of ‘good intention’.  They ‘mean’ to do something, they just don’t.  That lack of reliability damages trust, and hurts the leader’s ability to get commitment and performance.

I notice two things quickly about the team I’m part of now.  One is that we’re highly competent within our areas of contribution.  This leads to a high degree of trust and confidence that we will each do what we were hired to do.  That competency must be present in a high-performance team.

The second is the communication.  The communication is transparent, direct, and without agenda.  If there are issues, or possible issues, we don’t make assumptions.  We will check out our understanding.  These traits foster good relationship and insure that there isn’t a lot of wasted energy figuring out what the other person is trying to say.  We are very focused on what needs to be done.

While the owner of the company is our official leader, this group is more of a self-directed work team; knowing each of our responsibilities we go to work, utilizing one another when necessary, working out where we need to compromise, and continuing to move forward to get things done on time.  This has led to a high degree of accountability to this point (some of us haven’t worked a long time with one another).

One last subtlety that is present in this team.  As successful, seasoned professionals there is not the same need to ‘prove’ ourselves that there might have been earlier in our careers.  As such, the ego among us remains in check.  Our focus is about getting the work done, not who needs the credit.  That also fosters more authentic communication in the group.

My observation is that high-performance teams are made up of competent, motivated, focused people who want to succeed (win).  They view teams as one of the ways they can achieve greater success.  While starting with great people certainly increases your chances of having a high-performance team, there are a few key ingredients that will help their formation and development.

To a better you…


Of Interest:

Another view of high-performance teams; this article is about the group dynamics.