Leading energising, peak performing teams: Leadership Essentials (Part 10)

Although many organisations are still structured along functional lines, this is changing fast in recognition of the fact that exceptional delivery in every type of organisation now requires strong teamwork. This is more important today than ever, as undertaking complex knowledge work requires drawing on specialized skills from across the organisation, regardless of function, geography or level. Rapid globalization, the accelerating pace of change and disruptive technological innovation requires highly agile and collaborative teams to gain competitive advantage and high levels of growth. Teamwork can also help attract, retain and develop talent as they provide team members with far more enjoyment, support and learning than their individual roles can offer.
So how can leaders ensure they build energising and strong teams that deliver exceptional results time and time again? Based on research and years of experience, we have identified a 5-stage Peak Performing Team Pathway™, see diagram below.

In order to achieve excellence, teams need to understand and optimise the strengths and energy of all team members. However, this is insufficient for great team performance. The best teams also develop and practice productive team habits in five areas to transform strengths into effective teamwork and business results at each stage of their development, from aspirations to achievement. Let’s consider the leader’s role at each stage of the process.

Ensuring clarity by setting compelling aspirations

In order to succeed, teams need clarity on team goals and how these are aligned with the organisation’s overall purpose and goals. There should be a sense of urgency and excitement about the purpose of the team to ensure people are energised to work hard to achieve collective outcomes. Leaders of peak performing teams set direction rather than issuing directives. They create clarity and early momentum by:

  • Highlighting why the team’s work is important to the company, customers and other stakeholders. They also take initiative to bring in senior executives and other stakeholders to reinforce why the team’s work is important and how it will help create value for customers.
  • Helping people talk through their collective “picture of success” by asking questions like: How will things be different and better if they are successful? What will it look like? What will others be saying?
  • Ensuring team members consider what success will mean to them and how it will help them achieve their personal needs and aspirations.
  • Ensuring individuals’ roles are clear and well understood to avoid time and energy wasting behaviours including ‘turf wars’ and duplication of effort.

Specific measures of success for collective outcomes should be agreed and overall plans discussed and decided to ensure goals are achievable. One challenge we often see is that team members are only measured for their individual outcomes and as a result, don’t take responsibility for collective efforts.

Raising team awareness to build trust

Exceptional teams get to know one another well beyond their jobs. Members build high levels of trust and respect which forms the bedrock for productive relationships and enables the team to navigate through inevitable periods of stress, frustration and tension. They understand one another’s strengths, weaknesses, motivations, frustrations and aspirations. This awareness comes through spending a lot of time together and can be accelerated by the team leader in a number of ways:

  • Picking the right people in the first instance. The right people are those who bring the necessary skills, strengths and perspectives to the team and believe strongly in the team’s purpose and values. Try to hire for complementary and diverse strengths and skills to avoid building a lopsided team.
  • Regular team building and social events, especially during the formative stages of the team’s development. Social events should be arranged in consultation with the team and should be as inclusive as possible so avoid activities that are overly strenuous or exclude members.
  • Using well-researched and accurate profiling tools such as StrengthscopeTeam™ to help raise the team’s awareness of each members’ strengths, performance risks (including weaknesses and overdone strengths) and communication preferences.
  • Encouraging feedback at the end of each critical meeting to provide space for team members to give and receive feedback to one another. A simple technique is to have each person share with one another feedback in response to the questions: “What I most value about xxx is…” and “One action xxx can take to improve his/her team contribution is…”
  • Creating an environment where diverse strengths, skills and perspectives are encouraged, optimised and appreciated.
  • Ensuring the work layout is conductive to frequent and energising interactions, including socializing and down time. An open plan area with chill out zones and recreational space (table tennis, foosball, etc.) is the ideal space in which teams will be most productive.

Acting with accountability

Peak performing teams accept responsibility for delivering outputs needed to achieve team goals.
Members are clear on each other’s roles and hold one another accountable for delivering what they commit to. In addition to ensuring roles are clear, effective leaders take the following steps to drive skilful execution:

  • Encouraging team members to focus on finding their own solutions and ideas to problems and challenges by using their strengths and those of their co-workers. This will improve their self-management, self-belief and emotional intelligence, all of which are crucial to enable them to perform at their best.
  • Delegating work to team members based on their skills and strengths, ensuring they don’t end up carrying all the team’s problems or “monkeys”.
  • Accentuating positive behaviours and progress at every opportunity to boost momentum and energise people to work hard to achieve team goals.
  • Encouraging surfacing of interpersonal disagreements in the team. The most effective teams often have a ground rule that constructive challenge and criticism is not just ok, but need to be encouraged. Effective leaders invite the team to ‘red’ and ‘yellow card’ themselves as well as other team members if ground rules and organisational values are broken.
  • Providing support, regular feedback and good coaching, including ‘air cover’ for team members when they need to take tough decisions, make mistakes or the team faces unfair criticism.
  • Holding people to account and ensuing there are consequences if team members fail to deliver effectively.

A common area we see many team leaders struggle with is managing underperforming team members. The leader needs to quickly identify and deal with any ‘weak links’ in the team in a firm, supportive and effective manner. If negative attitudes or poor performance are tolerated, both team performance and morale will inevitably decline. This can quickly lead to a breakdown of trust and credibility in the leader among team members and the leader’s superiors.

Developing agility and change readiness

Developing agility involves ensuring the team is ready for change when internal or external circumstances change. This is crucial given the unprecedented pace of change organisations now face as well as the unpredictable nature of this change.

The leader can develop agility in the team in a number of ways. Firstly, it is important for leaders to help team members focus more on strengths and solutions rather than on weaknesses and problems when faced with challenges and uncertainty. By helping people maintain a positive mindset and ensuring the team understands the importance of continuous learning and adaptation, team members will become more alert to changes in their operating environment and how they can best deal with these.

Leaders of agile teams don’t just prepare teams for constant change. They work hard to understand and engage team members who are resisting change, supporting them to get on board so they don’t get left behind. This requires a high degree of emotional intelligence including good empathy, emotional control and social skills.

Research has shown that the most productive and innovative teams are led by people who can adapt their style to be both relationship and task oriented as the situation demands. Most leaders have a preference for one or the other approach, however, the most effective leaders know when and how to adapt their style to meet the specific demands of the people and/or situation.

Recognizing achievement and ensuring continuous stretch

Just like winning sports teams, great business teams take time together to recognise and share successes and milestones. As a team leader, it is important to ensure time and space for celebration and reflection is not overlooked. This time is crucial to boost the team’s confidence and morale and enable them to reflect on how they’ve done. By putting into practice the following key principles, leaders can accelerate the team’s morale and confidence:

  • Invite ideas from the team on how they wish to celebrate success, but use the ‘surprise factor’ on occasion.
  • Be creative in the use of no or low cost ways to recognise effort and results (e.g., going out for drinks after work or allowing the team to go home a few hours early on Friday). Remember that there are loads of alternatives to paying people for their contribution.
  • Call out outstanding contributions of individuals as well as collective efforts and outcomes to reinforce positive behaviours.
  • Ensure the team’s success is made visible to senior executives within the organisation to boost feelings of pride and purpose in the team.
  • Be inclusive in your recognition and don’t forget those working remotely or stakeholders outside the team who have contributed to success.

To ensure the team continues to achieve success, the leader should look for ways to continuously stretch people beyond their comfort zones to increase their flexibility, but also to keep them motivated and enthused. The trick is to stretch, but take care not to stretch too far, so you need to know your team well and then to recognise and reward people when they meet the stretch targets.

A culture of open feedback and learning should also be cultivated. Teams rarely have all the skills they need when they are formed and the skills and behaviours required for success will change over time so building a culture open to learning and feedback is not optional, but should be expected. Feedback doesn’t have to take the form of a structured and time-consuming 360-degree feedback process. It can be as simple as providing time for team members to share one strength they value in each other and one idea for improvement. The leader should ensure that learning and feedback is not simply an internally-directed exercise; feedback should also be sought from the team’s most important customers/stakeholders to help the team learn and grow. This can be invited and shared directly by the leader or by team members themselves.

James Brook

Recommended Reading

Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (1993). The wisdom of teams: Creating the high-performance organisation. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press.
Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.