Building High Performance Teams – 6 Lessons Inspired By Successful Leaders

If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” Henry Ford

What makes great teams tick? How do leaders align individuals and build motivational environments that create successful teams? What are the ingredients in the ‘secret sauce’ that makes these high-performance organizations greater than the sum of their parts?

Here are 6 lessons inspired by leaders who know a thing or two about teams that outperform expectations:

1. Get the team mix right

There are superb designers working today, but the basic idea, the working out of that idea, the construction of the machine, the finishing of a new idea, is always the work of a team. It is a compendium. A collaborative effort.” Enzo Ferrari

Rugby has always been a game for all shapes and sizes. You have the superstars and the fast guys who score the tries, but you also need the workhorses and the people who play all the other roles. Unless they all work together as a team then it’s really going to affect the performance. Everyone’s got to rely on everyone else.” Warren Gatland

You may not have the luxury of being able to pick and choose exactly who is on your team, but take inspiration from the words of Jim Collins in his book ‘Good to Great’: “Start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats”.

You need your team members to have the appropriate skills and experience, but you also need collaborators and communicators in the right roles. By definition, a team is a social unit and the personality mix in the group is important. You want to include A Players, but you must be careful that they can be controlled to prevent them wanting to do everything and hijacking the team.

The leader should take time to understand people’s strengths and what they are passionate about, if you can harness this energy the team will quickly acquire momentum. You must ensure that your multi-disciplined team operates cohesively and doesn’t split into factions, you don’t want cliques forming nor do you want individuals to feel isolated.

2. Create a shared vision and align your objectives

Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” Andrew Carnegie

Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” Vince Lombardi

As the leader, you need to focus the team and then keep it focused so you need to clarify your vision, objectives and targets. You may find a high-level vision statement useful for this purpose as a reminder of what success looks like for the team.

Define the goals and objectives together, by working collaboratively the group will buy-in to the process and be more committed to achieving results. Stretch expectations, the team will be more motivated by targets that are challenging rather than those seen as readily attainable.

Ensure that objectives are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) and detailed as key performance indicators (KPIs) for each team member. These will feed into your scorecard to track progress towards the shared goals. If business conditions change, goals may need to adapt also, so be prepared for flexibility to modify your targets together as a team.

3. Assign responsibilities and empower your team

I believe that you control change by accepting it. That also means having confidence in the people you hire. The minute staff members are employed, you have to trust that they are doing their jobs. If you micromanage and tell people what to do, there is no point in hiring them.” Sir Alex Ferguson

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Steve Jobs

In a high-performance team, everyone is working together in alignment towards a shared goal. This doesn’t happen by accident, roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined by the leader from the outset to prevent conflicts and inefficiencies developing. Empowering individuals with responsibility gives them a sense of ownership and accountability which is an effective motivator when the outcome has a shared effect on the team’s performance.

The temptation is to allow people to work on their strengths, but a team environment also provides the opportunity to build new skills and expertise with support from colleagues. By understanding each team member’s career development aspirations, the leader can align their roles accordingly and thus build a powerful motivational environment.

Pushing people beyond their comfort zone can yield great results, however not everyone will respond positively to this approach. The leader needs to be mindful of signs of stress and be prepared to provide guidance, support and mentoring where it is required.

4. Create an open and collaborative communication environment

Some people have better ideas than others; some are smarter or more experienced or more creative. But everyone should be heard and respected” Jack Welch

You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” Lee Iacocca

One of the biggest challenges for any team leader is to maintain the group dynamics to ensure everyone is motivated and collaborating positively. Even if roles and responsibilities are well defined and the objectives are clear, disruptive individuals can upset team spirit and cooperation.

The leader must be alert to any negativity arising in the group dynamics, and it is critical to deal with problems and resolve conflicts quickly. Open lines of communication are vital and technology can help with this, but it should not replace traditional direct human interaction. Online collaboration software and instant messaging can assist in promoting team interaction with a free flow of information and ideas.

Try to get the team together for face-to-face meetings as often as possible, non-verbal signals and body language are an important part of how we communicate and interpret other people’s behavior. Team building exercises and events are also useful to break down any communication barriers while strengthening relationships and trust.

5. Build a culture of shared learning

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing” Henry Ford

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” Bill Gates

Despite all the well-meaning encouragement about mistakes being an opportunity to learn, our instinct is to be defensive and hide our errors. Mistakes can be financially costly and we seek to avoid the implications that go with shouldering the blame. However, unchecked errors can multiply and even lead to wider impacts for the organization from potential reputation damage.

While not encouraging mistakes, leaders should allow them to be made and create a culture of trust and shared responsibility among the team, continuously seeking to improve best practices. There can be no blame culture, only dialogue on lessons learned.

Building this trust may take time but the leader needs to be the first to open up and admit to any mistakes or lapses. It is good practice to allocate time before each team meeting for the team to share their errors, the causes, the effects and the corrective actions.

6. Celebrate success

Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” Sam Walton

Never think that success is down to your own performance alone. If you start listening only to yourself you take the first step back towards the bottom. The flowers of victory belong in many vases.” Michael Schumacher

By making the effort to recognize individual and group achievements, leaders are not only developing a motivational environment, they are also strengthening the team spirit and cohesion. Of course, financial compensation is usually awarded for achieving objectives, but equally inspiring can be the act of giving visibility among peers and managers to acknowledge outstanding performances.

You want to nurture winners, and winners want to be on winning teams, so leaders need to find opportunities to regularly praise achievements. No one wants to fail, but even just putting in the sheer effort without succeeding can be worth celebrating.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the value of sharing success and team-building outside the work environment – teams that work hard should play hard!

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