“Can you walk us through how you would create and sustain a high-performance team?” The question caught me off-guard. I was interviewing for a middle-management role at a pharmaceutical manufacturing site. Since the position was accountable for the site’s supply chain function, I fully expected to be grilled on leadership skills and experience. But the nature and specificity of the interview question threw me off. I stumbled my way through the answer, talking about vision, teamwork and development, but not really addressing the question coherently. Part of my difficulty in giving a crisp answer was that I had never built a team from the ground up. I had only led the one I had inherited. So it wasn’t clear to me, in that moment, how to talk about my experience to address what the interviewer was seeking.
Fortunately, I’m in a much better position to answer that question now, with the benefit of hindsight and more experience. Since that interview episode, I have had the privilege and opportunity to build new teams from scratch. But I have also (to the point that the interviewer was trying to get at) worked with existing groups to mold them into sustainable, high-performing teams. Side by side with my own experiences, I also watched exceptional leaders in large and small organizations unleash the potential of their people. And here’s what I learned.
Begin with the goal in mind
In the ultimate analysis, leadership is simply a set of beliefs, behaviors and actions that help an organization achieve its desired purpose. Whether you inherit a team, or have to build one from the ground up, it’s important to have a clear sense of the purpose of the team in the context of what the organization intends to achieve. Take the time to articulate the mission in your own mind. As you will see next, everything flows from this.
Find the right people
On the face of it, this step looks simple enough: we start by defining roles in terms of the competencies needed to meet our organizational goals, and then we find the right people to fit those roles. It’s no different from recruiting for team sports, except that in football or baseball, the positions are well-defined from long history. It can be a little trickier in a business environment where the skill sets needed may change often, but the principles are similar. You still need the right mix of people who can be pitchers, hitters, short stops and outfielders, who can play well with each other, and have each others’ backs. Equally, the future potential of the individuals and the team needs as much consideration as past experience and track record.
In fact, what often defines good leaders is the subjective judgement and intuition that they bring to this critical step. The key is to make the call as well as possible in the given circumstances, and be fully prepared to change the composition of the team if things don’t work out as planned.
Create a shared sense of purpose
This is a fundamental part of the leadership imperative. For the team to work in alignment with the organization’s purpose, the members need to be vested in it. Imagine that you’re trying to get the team to embark upon a journey with you. To make a compelling case, you need to coherently explain why the journey is necessary (the burning platform), what’s in it for everyone (the value proposition), what it will look like when you get to the destination (the vision of the future), give a sense of how you can collectively make that happen (the strategy), and be clear about what everyone should expect from each other (the mutual commitment). That sounds like a lot, but if someone wanted you to tag along with them, wouldn’t you want to know the answers before signing up? The visual image I have of this step is Sean Penn in the movie Milk, standing in front of his constituents with a megaphone in his hand, saying, “My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.” Except that you have to say a lot more than that, with credibility, passion, and authenticity.
Empower the team
If you have heard more about the empowerment buzzword than you can take, you’re not alone. So let me say this differently, to avoid any baggage that may come along with that term. If you have the right team, and they are clear about their shared purpose, your job as a leader is to give them the resources and the tools they need, and a clear line of sight from their individual goals to organizational objectives. Good teams need coaches and enablers, not micro-managers. Invest people with a sense of ownership, hold them accountable, and help them achieve their full potential. At the same time, don’t forget you’re part of the team too, so do whatever you can to help the team succeed — as a coach, mentor, role model, and blocker-and-tackler-in-chief.
Make feedback an inherent part of the process
There’s a simple reason why feedback is so important. Nothing ever goes exactly according to plan, even if you have a great team and the right set of resources. While some members of the team are hacking through the jungle with their machetes, others have to shimmy up the trees and see what’s coming up ahead. The scouts have to be on the lookout for danger, while the rearguard has to secure the path. A safe and successful journey is all about continuously getting feedback from the environment, processing it, and adjusting course accordingly. It works much the same in organizations. Don’t wait for annual performance reviews or project milestones – that’s like waiting till journey’s end – instead, provide guidance and course correction on an on-going basis. Appreciate good performance, but also show that poor performance and toxic behaviors are not tolerated. And just as importantly, collect feedback fearlessly and enthusiastically. You too need guidance and course correction – from your supervisors, peers, direct reports, customers, and suppliers – to become a better leader.
Invest in talent development
Let’s go back to a key word in the title of this article for a moment: sustaining. Your job as a leader doesn’t stop once you have a high-performing team that works collaboratively in the pursuit of a common purpose. You cannot declare success unless what you have helped create can live and thrive on its own. That means investing in the development of the entire team — the people you lead, as well as yourself. Talent development is a broad enough topic that one could devote an entire series of posts to just that. Here’s the Cliff Notes version: first, development needs to be owned by the colleague, with support from supervisors, mentors and HR (not the other way around). It’s up to each one of us to figure out what our development goals are, what experiences, knowledge and resources we need to get there, and a realistic set of expectations about where it’s going to take us. Second, we should think about development in terms of the two orthogonal axes of performance and potential, in order to monitor and guide the development process. If we don’t make a clear distinction between performance and potential, it’s very difficult to identify, develop, and retain talent. And third, succession planning should be an essential component of the development activity. The guiding principle for all of this is to make individual, team, and organizational performance sustainable.
Don’t be afraid to let go
I have seen many successful leaders do a fabulous job of the first six steps, but stumble at this last one. Having picked the right people, motivated them, and helped develop their capabilities, I can understand a strong desire to hold on to what you feel you have created and nourished with care. Letting go is never easy. But if you’re sincere about development, both you and your team members need to be thinking about what’s next. Remember, your role as a leader is to help fulfill the organization’s purpose. And what the organization may critically need at a particular point in time may be precisely that rising star that you have nurtured. What’s more, when that person moves on to the next stage in their development, that in turn creates an opportunity for someone else to spread their wings.
Sometimes, however, letting go may involve losing a high-performer to the outside world. This can be even tougher to handle. You may feel like someone else, maybe even your competitor, is “unfairly” benefiting from your investment in the colleague’s development. But think of the alternative: if you don’t invest in people’s development, not only do they have less of a reason to stay, but while they are with you, they are less than what they could be.
So, in hindsight, this is how I should have answered the question I was asked in my interview many years ago. To create and sustain a high-performance team:
- Begin with the goal in mind
- Find the right people
- Create a shared sense of purpose
- Empower the team
- Make feedback an inherent part of the process
- Invest in development
- Don’t be afraid to let go
Taken together, these 7 steps provide a logical, actionable path to creating and sustaining high-performance teams. This is not just based on my own experience as a manager over 20 some years in large and small companies. More than anything, it’s a distillation of what I have internalized and learned from the great leaders I have had the privilege to work for and observe during my many years in the workplace. So I know from their teachings and my own experiences that this 7 step approach works in practice. You just need the right mindset, and the leader’s commitment to do whatever is necessary to help the organization fulfill its purpose.