One of my CEO clients, let’s call him Richard, challenged me recently: “You’re the leadership expert—what does a senior executive really need to do to create a high-performing team? What is most essential?”
I held off responding, not because I didn’t have an answer but because (and I told him this) my answer to his question shouldn’t matter so much to him. What is more important, actually the only thing that's important, is how he would answer his own question.
Because while there are many models and frameworks for what a high-performing team looks like (I know, because my profession requires that I study them), there is no guaranteed recipe for how to create a high-performing team. Creating a successful team can be like capturing lightning in a bottle. A great deal depends on variables that are unique to the situation and can’t easily be controlled: the styles, talents, and psychological makeup of the individuals on the team; their frame of mind and personal objectives at that time; their openness to trusting and collaborating; where they are in their lives and what their fears and aspirations are; the conditions and dynamics in the organization; the conditions and dynamics in the industry, the market, the broader culture.
As Jon Katzenbach taught us, “not all groups are teams.” Nor should they be. Creating a team requires investing a great deal of energy, most of all on the part of the leader. The first question any leader should ask is, “Does this situation warrant investing in building a team, or do I just need a collection of skilled individuals who can divvy up the tasks and get down to it?” Building a team is hard work and it takes time, and the real reason many teams fail is not process or talent but rather because the leader didn’t put in the effort. As John Hillen and I describe in our book What Happens Now?, a great team leader has to work on herself before she can work on her team.
Like many things in business—disruption, “big bets,” great leaders—excellent teams are most easily assessed in hindsight. Even then, while we can usually recognize a high-performing team, it’s not always easy to ascertain objectively what actually contributed to that team’s success. Does a great team win, or does winning mean that the team was great? Can a poor team still get good results? Why do some apparently high-performing teams fail to achieve their goals—and if so, does that mean they weren’t really high-performing?
All of which brings us back to Richard’s initial question: “What does a leader really need to do to create a high-performing team? What is most essential?” The answer (obviously) is: it depends. There’s no easy formula, and what works for you may not work for me. For that matter, what worked for you yesterday may not work for you today.
So rather than looking for a one-size-fits-all answer, any leader who wants to create a high-performing team must sit down and do the hard work of answering that question for herself. Don’t look to some book or HBR article: look at your organization, your goals, your players, and yourself. Recognize that effective teams don’t form themselves, even if all the players are highly experienced and capable.
It would be unfair of me to conclude this article without offering some sort of response to Richard’s original question. But I will present my answer in the form of questions—questions that you yourself can apply to your situation to help you develop the best team you can. Based on my experience working with many dozens of teams over the last twenty years, almost every high-performing team will have answered the following questions for itself, with the help and guidance of its leader:
- What are our collective goals, and are they clear and well-understood?
- How will we measure whether we have achieved those goals?
- Are we committed to honestly measuring our progress against those goals, and course-correcting if/when necessary?
- How will we assess and make trade-offs when we inevitably have to do so? And can we have the difficult conversations that doing so will require?
- Are we extremely accountable to each other—such that the “we” subsumes the “I”?
- Do we have the kind of trust and confidence in each other that will lead to a sense of psychological safety?
- Do we collectively have a modicum of the right skills and knowledge? (I.e., not everyone needs to be a superstar.)
- Are we all strong leaders, or committed to becoming strong leaders? (Paradoxically, having just a single strong leader can often impede the effectiveness of a team.)
And finally, following are a few thoughts on what a team can work on together to become more high-performing:
- Explicitly define the purpose of the team—why do we exist?
- “Spend lavishly,” as Ray Dalio put it, on getting in sync as a team.
- Insist on (and achieve) clarity of goals and objectives.
- Be honest about how progress/success is measured.
- Constantly revisit how the work is being done, and how to make it better.
- Foster strong internal relationships based on trust, not just likability or similarity.
- Actively manage external relationships to help achieve goals.
- Be clear about team values/norms and how to minimize the inevitable conflicts of individual values.
- Commit to getting better and learning more, individually and collectively.
- Hold each other to standards of “extreme accountability.”
- Act with generosity, selflessness, and even love for each other.
- Learn together how to make good decisions and (perhaps even more important) how to resolve conflict and disagreement.
- Truly enjoy and be gratified by seeing each other succeed—as long as individual success is not at the expense of the collective goals.
Remember, building a great team demands solving a multi-variable equation (see paragraph three above), so the question “how do I create a strong team” may well have a different answer each time you ask it. The situation will have changed; the players will have changed; the context will have changed; and you will have changed. So it’s not about the answer—rather, it’s about how you and your team do the work to get the answer.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on creating high-performing teams and anything I may have missed. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark D. Nevins, Ph.D.
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