A high performing team is fundamental to the success of every start-up.
Many leaders have high IQs, some (of the very good ones!) also have high EQs (Emotional Intelligence) but only the minority have high WeQs (Collaborative Intelligence).
Too often, you come across teams with individual IQs of 120 or more where the team functions at a WeQ of 70 or less, meaning they’re performing at less than the sum of their parts.
All of us will have unfortunately spent time in dysfunctional teams where, for example, winning a discussion is more important than getting the best outcome, individual goals are prioritised over team goals, interpersonal attacks are happening behind people’s backs and where people are too fearful to say what they really think.
Hopefully, you have also spent time in a high performing team where there is clarity about goals and roles, no elephants are left in the room, there is open conflict and debate which is both challenging and supportive and where you keep each other honest and accountable.
Most CEOs understand why teams are important (e.g. teams usually outperform individuals or groups of individuals) but very few Founder CEOs are skilled at creating a really high performing senior leadership team.
Creating a real team involves everyone in the team taking risks involving conflict, hard work, interdependence and trust. It can be a messy and challenging process transitioning an ordinary team to an extraordinary one but ultimately hugely rewarding.
The ‘best practices’ I talk about in this essay are not meant to be exhaustive (although twelve is quite a lot!) or prescriptive but more of a guide to help your team find its unique way of achieving high performance.
What is a high performing team?
Before I get into the 12 ways, I want to start with a definition of a team not because I want to get too theoretical but because it’s really useful to understand what a team is and what it isn’t.
I like Jon Katzenbach’s definition:
“A small number of people with complementary skills, who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach, for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”
A team is not too big (ideally less than 10), they have a range of skills which are sufficient to solve the problem, there is a shared sense of direction or common purpose, there is a commitment to the same goals, there are common ways of getting things done and there is mutual accountability.
And to add to this. An effective team has productive meetings and internal communication, represents all stakeholders (e.g. customers, investors), continually learns and develops and acts as an emotional container managing conflict and supporting each other.
Why create a high performing team?
- More likely to succeed. The world is fast-moving, complex and uncertain. It’s not realistic to expect one person, the CEO, to possess all the skills necessary to lead a company through the rollercoaster ride of scaling up. Teamwork is almost always lacking in companies which fail and is present within companies that succeed.
- It’s a myth to believe that leadership has always resided in the CEO. Successful companies have distributed leadership across the business. If you are a sports fan, you will have regularly heard how important it is to have a team of leaders on the pitch, not just rely on one.
- High performing teams have more fun! Fun includes celebrations but also fun sustains and is sustained by team performance. The most rewarding source of enjoyment comes from “having been part of something larger than yourself”.
Why are high performing teams so rare?
- It’s hard! If you have 6 people in the room there are 15 different relationships to maintain. Working in a team is not the same as working as a team. If you want your senior leadership team to work as a team you have to pay a lot more attention to many different areas e.g. communication, listening, supporting, collaborating etc.
- It’s got harder!! Remote work, hybrid, and distributed teams have made working together more difficult in the eyes of most Founder CEOs.
- Systemic not linear. You need to think systemically. Teams are part of a complex adaptive system i.e. teams are systems made of systems within even wider systems. Let me explain. Most of us think about improving team performance in a linear way. For instance, we might blame team failure on one or two difficult people in the team, we then conclude that we should replace those tricky people with others. They may well be part of the problem but what proof do you have of cause and effect? You bring new team members in and within a few months nothing has really changed – the team is still underperforming. If you are going to solve the problem properly you have to consider all of the multiple elements interacting with each other. The problem may be due to lack of resources, lack of common purpose, poor internal communications etc or a mix of all of them. Poor performance is more complex and nuanced than we like to think.
- It’s not in our DNA. There is a bias towards individualism, particularly in the West where it is ingrained. Many of us have grown up with a focus on individual accomplishments.
12 ways to build a high performing team
Don’t get me wrong, teams are not the answer to all problems. Moreover a dysfunctional team can destroy value and a business. But teams usually do outperform individuals or groups of individuals and here are 12 ways to guide you to create a high performance team.
1. Do you need to be a team?
A team requires real investment and it won’t always be necessary to create a team. Sometimes a group of individuals does not need to be a team, like a group of Founder CEOs coming together (which by the way is something I always recommend to CEOs) to share their concerns, their knowledge and where there is minimal interdependency.
Here are three questions to ask to find out if you really need to be a team.
- In order to be successful, do we need to work with high levels of interdependence and mutual accountability i.e. do we need each other to get work done?
- Do members act like part of a team even when they are not together?
- Are we task, process and learning-focused?
If you answer a strong yes to these questions then it is worth investing in becoming a highly effective team.
2. High performing teams understand stakeholders’ expectations
A stakeholder is anyone who has a legitimate interest in what the team is doing and the outcome of its activities.
Stakeholders for a senior leadership team are both internal and external. Internal stakeholders include other teams or board members. External stakeholders are customers, suppliers, and partners.
Leadership teams in particular need to think beyond the obvious stakeholders and bring ‘into the room’ external stakeholders. An effective team has a good balance between internal and external focus.
If you assume a team is part of a complex system (which I encourage you to do), then thinking about what your different stakeholders need from you is fundamental.
Why? Because each stakeholder will influence your team in some way. Your team and the stakeholders do not work in isolation.
Let me give you an example of why it’s important for your team to actively engage with them and to reflect on their needs on a regular basis…
Let’s say one of your company’s values is to treat people fairly. However, when you sign up suppliers you don’t bother to find out how they treat their employees, choosing to focus on the financial terms only. Then one of your team members further down the organisation finds out that this supplier uses child labour. This then puts in doubt the legitimacy of the leadership team and whether they can be trusted. And this has all kinds of knock on effects.
If, for instance, the team had actually or metaphorically brought in a customer into the room when deciding about which suppliers to use, do you think they would have been happy with the team’s focus on the financials only?
So figure out who your stakeholders are and reflect on how they may influence the team, each other and the wider system.
3. High performing teams have a common purpose
Nearly all team research shows that the number one requirement for successful teams is to have a team purpose that everyone understands. A purpose is why your team exists, the greater good you want to achieve.
The senior team tends to see their team’s purpose as synonymous with the company’s purpose. Yes at one level the top team is responsible for the company’s purpose but then again so is every other team in the company.
My advice is that even the senior team should set its own distinctive purpose so that it can set its own performance goals to measure itself against.
The characteristics of a strong collective purpose are:
- It connects with each team member’s personal purpose
- It is supported and illustrated by stories
- It connects up to the company’s overall purpose
Often senior team members will say they are all aligned on the team’s purpose but when you ask them independently to write it down you get several different responses.
Finding your team’s purpose requires more work than many are prepared to put in – don’t make that mistake. Purpose influences all the other high performance pillars of success. Shared purpose leads to shared learning, gives confidence to listen to others’ views and enhances the relationships as everyone feels they are in unison.
Once you are clear on why you are here, you can set the strategy and the goals.
4. High performing teams contain the right people
The right conversation about who is right should start with a reflection on your team’s purpose, values, goals, and what success will look like for your team. Then figure out what knowledge, experiences and skills are required to get you there. Against this backdrop, you carefully compose your team.
It is understandable to choose team members who are a good ‘fit’ but you may find you create a homogenous team which has a good time but doesn’t achieve much.
So yes, get comfortable with the fact you can work eight hours a day with this person for a few years (scary thought!), but also ask yourself, “What unique and valuable contribution can this new team member bring?”
Technical and specialist skills will depend on what you need them to do. You want enough compatibility and rapport – i.e. similarity – but you need complementarity too – i.e. difference.
This really gets to the point of diversity. Diversity of thought, perspective, culture, experiences and expertise. Diverse teams perform better than homogeneous ones.
And remember as you scale the business you will need different skills to keep pushing forward. So you need to be tough-minded about bringing people in and letting others go. Act fast but fair.
My number one metric for a company is – percentage of key seats on the bus filled with the right people for those seats. Stop and reflect: What percentage of your key seats are occupied by the right people? If it’s less than 90%, then this is now your number one priority!
5. High performing teams play to team members’ strengths
Ideally you want to make sure your team members are doing what they are good at but also have real enthusiasm for it.
Granted it is unlikely you can spend 100% of your day every day on what you love doing but, to be the most impactful team member you can, it should be the majority.
When people are playing to their strengths, they are more likely to be in the zone, working harder and more effectively, and more comfortable being uncomfortable with stretch goals.
Using your strengths – dialling them up or down depending on the context – is a skill you can learn to get better at.
A high performing team knows what energises and de-energises each other and allocates roles and responsibilities accordingly. This requires you as the leader to be honest with your team members about your strengths and weaknesses. This will encourage your team members to do the same.
6. High performing teams have set operating guidelines
“We all know how to act when we’re together, right?”
Don’t be so sure!
We each bring different expectations and assumptions to our teams, companies and relationships. When you discuss your team’s guidelines for how you are going to work together, you may be surprised at the different assumptions people hold.
An operating guideline is a principle for working effectively together and agreed upon by all members of the team, and used by all members to hold each other accountable.
Ideally you want to have between six and ten operating guidelines. Focus on behaviours you do want, not behaviours you don’t want i.e. honour the team commitments and build the reputation rather than don’t miss deadlines!
For example if you are a distributed team, you should consider guidelines which address the ‘remote’ challenges. A guideline might be set around more frequent communication and check-ins. Or how the team is going to manage communication and collaboration synchronously and asynchronously.
As well as setting the guidelines themselves, you need to measure how your team is currently performing against the guidelines and discuss how you will respond when these guidelines are not maintained.
7. High performing teams continually work on their relationships
Relationships within a team are a critical component of team effectiveness. No real surprise there but too often there is not enough focus on nurturing the team relationships.
I am not talking about becoming best friends with everyone but you do need respect, trust and openness.
In many good teams there is a focus on high-standards but in great teams there is also a closeness. The team members understand each other at a deeper level.
I sometimes ask as an ice-breaker in a team coaching session, “Tell the group something surprising about you that no one in the room knows.” The answers are usually very interesting, and create genuine surprise and some smiles. I used to be a ball-room dancing champion, said the CTO, followed by I used to be a kick-boxing champion from the CMO. Really? You!?
The point is that people want to be understood and through attentiveness, observations and questions you can come to understand the layers of who people are. When people feel team members have invested in understanding them, they move toward them relationally.
Sharing the critical experiences that have made you who you are – the challenging moments in your life, your passions, who is important to you, what bothers you, your psychological assessments – may feel vulnerable to do but is what strengthens relationships.
Respect and trust amongst team members are key to a successful team. If it is not there, it is frequently because there is only a very shallow understanding of each other.
Team results are more likely to be achieved when the team has high expectations and standards but also when there is relational closeness. You don’t need high EQ to show that you care about someone. Do it through understanding who people are.
Have you got to know your team members at a deep level?
8. High performing teams have psychological safety at their core
Psychological safety is a key criteria of success for a team working effectively together. It is so important but rare to see!
So what is it?
It’s about feeling safe to take a personal risk in front of your team members. A risk that you might be perceived as ignorant, incompetent or a trouble maker.
A team with high psychological safety feels confident that no one will punish or embarrass them for offering a new idea, admitting an error, challenging a point of view or asking a question.
A conversation where team members are willing to share their honest views and argue about what they believe is so much more productive and healthy than when team members are afraid of taking risks. Psychological safe teams also are more willing and able to handle conflict and to back each other up when mistakes have been made.
Often it requires an outsider like a coach to assess how psychologically safe a team is. One way to do that is to observe a team meeting. You can learn so much from doing this. It’s also interesting to observe a senior leadership team without the CEO in the room to see how similar or different the conversation is. A good sign is that it is not too different!
Great Founder CEOs emphasise “you’re only as good as you’re willing to be bad.”
Amy Edmondson, the author of the Fearless Organisation, and one of the world’s experts on psychological safety found when studying over 50 work teams that the more open colleagues are with each other, the greater the learning and as a result the more effective the team is.
You want to encourage people to make mistakes and to learn from them.
So one tip might be to celebrate a mistake of the week in your weekly meeting and the learning derived from it – thereby getting into the habit of safely bringing up mistakes.
9. High performing teams hold each other accountable
Are you individually and mutually accountable for the team’s purpose, goals and guidelines?
This is a key question to ask all your team members. You are not a team and definitely not an effective one unless team members can hold themselves accountable.
Individual accountability is necessary but not sufficient. There needs to be team or mutual accountability. It can be uncomfortable putting your fate in the hands of others but you need to, to become a real team.
Mutual accountability at its core is about making a commitment to the team’s purpose, goals and approach. Mutual accountability arises from having clarity of purpose, goals and approach. And clarity of purpose, goals and approach in turn fosters accountability.
When this mutual accountability is in place, team members hold themselves and each other accountable for the team’s performance and results.
Mutual accountability is about making promises to ourselves and others – it is a commitment to follow through on those promises which ultimately builds trust. Commitment and trust are critical aspects of an effective team.
Is there a sense in your team that only the team can fail?
10. High performing teams manage conflict effectively
It’s less about getting rid of conflict or helping teams resolve conflict and more about generating more positive conflict.
Positive conflict results in honest, open and sometimes passionate dialogue about topics important to the team. The right kind of conflict results in better decisions as all the different perspectives are aired, greater creativity and the avoidance of groupthink.
But it is a difficult balance to maintain. You want just enough conflict to give the dialogue energy but not too much where it descends into conflict getting personal.
David Clutterbuck, in his book Coaching The Team At Work, talks about three different types of conflict.
- Relationship conflict – we’re talking personality clashes, personal attacks. So much energy can get wasted on this type of conflict – all too common and potentially very destructive.
- Task conflict. This has both positive and negative consequences. Few of us like to be criticised but without some constructive feedback performance will suffer
- Process conflict – relates to decisions about allocating roles and responsibilities. This can be healthy when deciding how to tackle a project but on the whole you want to keep this type of conflict to a minimum. The importance of role clarity is often underestimated.
The reality is that the team will at some stage step into the wrong kind of or too much conflict but, if you are committed to working through it, you will recover and develop more closeness and greater confidence in the relationships.
In my experience different teams manage conflict in different ways – some perform well with high levels of healthy conflict whereas others with very little. A team conflict profile will be determined by various factors – personality, cultural background – and a high performing team will establish a conflict culture that everyone understands and commits to.
11. High performing teams keep reflecting and learning together
The senior leadership team in a scale up has its hand full just on the day-to-day operational matters. Finding time to step back, reflect and learn seems like a luxury.
I would argue that the rate of learning (“ROL”) is a better predictor of future growth than current return on investment (“ROI”). And that learning is likely to be one of your most sustainable competitive advantages in this fast-moving world.
The Founder CEO and the senior leadership need to get ahead of the growth of the business and the best way to do that is to continually and relentlessly learn and apply that learning.
David Clutterback, the author of Coaching The Team At Work, defines a learning team as “a group of people with a common purpose who take active responsibility for developing each other and themselves.”
Team effectiveness does not necessarily come from team learning. A lot depends on what it learns, how it learns and whether and how the learnings are applied.
Here are some key principles to help you become a more effective learning team.
- Taking time to reflect is critical to effective learning. It is rare to see a team properly reflect partly because deep reflection is hard work as it often means challenging convention and long-held assumptions
- We are learning all the time unconsciously but your best learning is done consciously with purpose, directed to the accomplishment of the team purpose
- Find a process where individual knowledge and learning is passed onto the collective. Too often people keep tightly hold of their knowledge
- Connect up individual learning goals to team learning goals and develop team development plan
- Exploit the power of feedback to accelerate each other’s learning as well as get feedback from your stakeholders on how the team is performing
- Create the environment for team learning – help people accept / understand that mistakes are an opportunity to learn, everyone’s ideas are valued, everyone has a right and a responsibility to question and that curiosity is a virtue
- Ensure there is a clear link between effort and recognition for learning
12. Founder CEOs that lead high performing teams transition from team leader to team coach
Successful scale up CEOs are realising the importance of moving away from a leadership style where everything goes through them, where team members bring their problems to them and expect them to provide solutions.
They move towards a style where the team members take more responsibility and the leadership is distributed amongst the team e.g. when the challenge the team is facing is related to a team member’s area of expertise then that team member leads the discussion.
Founder CEOs are often very good at solving problems – their own and others. This skill has got them a long way. The problem is that as the business scales the number and scale of challenges increase. If your team members become too reliant on you to solve the issues and you can’t resist (thanks to your ego!) diving in to rescue the situation, you will get overwhelmed.
The transition from doing everything to letting go and creating a team of leaders is usually a messy one but ultimately rewarding.
How will you know you have made the transition to team coach?
- Team members will sort out their own interpersonal and interfunctional issues directly with each other
- Team members take collective responsibility of or developing relationships with external stakeholders e.g. other teams, customers, suppliers, investors, board members
- Team goals are set and connected up with individual goals
- Team members push each other to perform and hold each other accountable
- Team members share their learnings so that everyone and the team gets better
Creating high performing teams is hard work, but reaps significant rewards
I have set out in this essay 12 ways to create a high-performing team. There are many other areas I could have included such as enhancing team communication, running effective team meetings, clarifying team roles and managing change.
The bottom line is that creating an effective team is hard work and a neverending process.
Team members will come and go, and requirements and expectations will change.
Teams are part of a complex, adaptive system which means you are unlikely to solve any problems with linear solutions. Each of the 12 areas I have mentioned will be inter-connected. They will influence each other.
Although having a high-performing leadership team is critical for the success of your scale up, you need to have highly effective teams across the whole of your organisation. Team leaders should be sharing ‘best practices’ for all to benefit from rather than just focus on their team becoming the best.
Arguably there is nothing better than when you are part of a high-performing team.
As I finish this essay I reflect on one of the best teams I have recently witnessed.
They had a clear purpose, they understood each other’s strengths and weaknesses, they pushed each other hard, they supported each other, they cared about one another, they were all leaders in their own way, they felt able to express their unique talents, they came through adversity to get stronger, they had a great team coach and they celebrated their victories … I’m referring to my son’s unbeaten under thirteen rugby team!! Proud Dad.
Founder and CEO Coach, Entrepreneur, Business Builder and Angel Investor
Mark is known for his scale up expertise having been part of multiple successful exits over the last 25 years as a founder, business builder, coach, mentor and investor.
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