7 Steps to Building and Sustaining High Performing Teams

High-Performance Team“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:

  1. Begin with the goal in mind
  2. Find the right people
  3. Create a shared sense of purpose
  4. Empower the team
  5. Make feedback an inherent part of the process
  6. Invest in development
  7. 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.

Learning How to Lead

leader in me

Leadership is critical to global economies — the evidence is all around us. Leaders of nations impact economic growth through the executive actions they take. Leaders of global, multinational companies impact employment, investment, and consumer spending through their decisions. Cultural and religious leaders bring about changes in entire societies through the ideologies they promote, and the initiatives they spearhead. Yet, MBA programs notwithstanding, leadership is not something that is easily taught. Colleges and universities teach students the arts, the sciences, medicine, engineering, accounting, law or any number of other disciplines, but it is rare to see a degree program focused exclusively on leadership.

Perhaps this is because leadership is not something that can be addressed in a vacuum — it requires context. Who is being led, and for what purpose? Is leadership an activity, a set of skills, or both? In fact, even defining leadership succinctly is a challenge — one that influential management gurus have struggled with. Warren Bennis, an early pioneer in “leadership studies,” defined leadership as the capacity to translate vision into reality. Bill Gates, who presumably knows a thing or two about leadership, described it in terms of empowering others. Yet others define leadership in terms of the behaviors and attributes of exceptional leaders. Peter Drucker, for example, famously said that the only definition of a leader is someone who has followers. I have to assume he was being facetious, since his definition tells us very little.

My own view is admittedly rather simplistic — I believe that leadership is an acquired skill, no different from learning how to work effectively with others, or how to communicate better, or how to deal with conflict. And as with those other soft skills, some are more naturally gifted at leadership than others — but that doesn’t have to stop the rest of us from learning by doing, by watching great leaders in action, or by being taught by coaches and mentors. I’ve been fortunate in this respect — at various points in my career, I’ve had role models who taught me through their own example. In turn, I did my part — I internalized those lessons, tried them out, honed my skills, and whenever I had a chance, tried to impart those lessons to the people I had the privilege to coach and mentor. Here are three of those leadership lessons, and the role models I learned them from.

Do whatever it takes to get the job done

Years ago, in my first month in graduate school, I went to talk to the Chair of the Engineering Graphics department regarding a graduate teaching assistantship. On getting there, I saw a distinguished gentleman in a coat and tie, sitting at the administrative assistant’s desk near a row of faculty offices. Seeing my look of surprise, he pointed to the sign on the desk, which had his name, with a handwritten note below it: “Chair, Professor, Administrative Assistant, Whatever is Needed Today.” He went on to explain that the department’s administrative assistant had quit unexpectedly due to personal reasons, and he was filling in until he could get a replacement. The message was clear — as Chair, he wanted to ensure the continued smooth functioning of the department and was willing to do whatever was needed to make that happen. No job was “beneath” him if it helped further the department’s goals. The footnote to the story is that I got the teaching assistant job — which gave me the opportunity to watch my role model in action for another couple of years.

Value the people who work for you

My second story is one that I have written about before, but in a different context. Straight out of graduate school, I went to work for a manager who was as accomplished and driven as they come. She had a Ph.D. from Berkeley, had done ground-breaking research in her field, and at a fairly young age, was one of the top technologists in the R&D division of one of the largest companies in the world. One day, in a quiet moment over lunch, I asked her what her most outstanding career achievement was up until that point. There were any number of things she could have said, but I was not prepared for her answer. It was simple and powerful, and I have never forgotten it: “My greatest career accomplishment is the success of the people I have managed, coached and mentored.” I knew she meant every word of it because she was always direct and forthright. Not only that, but thinking back about her managerial traits in hindsight, I realized that she had indeed demonstrated that principle through her actions. Although she was a demanding manager, always impatient for results, and one who did not suffer fools gladly, she never passed up an opportunity to let her team shine. She didn’t hesitate to let us try and fail. And she always listened thoughtfully to our ideas even if she didn’t always agree with them.

Inspire, motivate, and challenge

My third leadership lesson came a bit later in my career — and I have previously written about this as well. At the time, I was the head of the supply chain for the specialty care product portfolio at a large pharmaceutical company. The specialty care operating unit was facing some significant challenges at the time — technical, operational and financial. At our quarterly leadership team meeting, one of our operating unit leaders gave an inspiring talk on how our response to the challenges would define our character as a team, and how that shared sense of purpose could empower us to overcome those challenges. This wasn’t a pep talk to a high school soccer team before an important game — it was addressed to a room filled with people with specialized skills and years of experience in a whole range of areas. But the message was powerful — it reinforced the importance of our mission and our confidence in ourselves, and it issued a challenge that we needed to rise to. Sometimes, all we need it that little reminder of what we can accomplish if we believe, together. There is a happy ending to the story — we solved the immediate operational issues by securing capacity elsewhere, which gave us the time to fix the technical issues, while another part of the team managed to find the cost savings to keep us going financially.

We can all learn how to lead. Like other fields of human endeavor, the keys are in the desire to do it, the willingness to try and fail, and the drive to get better at it. Leadership lessons are often right within our grasp — in the actions of role models, in the words of coaches and mentors, and in our own self-awareness of what behaviors and actions work well or not.