I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a few great teams, but I’ve also been fortunate enough to be part of a few poorly led and unhealthy teams. Yes, you read that right…fortunate enough to be on some pretty bad teams. While we often learn a lot from good examples set by great leaders, that’s only half the story. Knowing what good looks like is essential but being able to recognize bad behavior, and poor team leadership, is just as critical to developing as a leader to be able to identify what needs fixing to take the right action.

What I learned from the leaders of those great teams is building a good team is not about cherry-picking an All-Star line up and expecting them to run with it. It is about leadership and guidance of the team members to create the guidelines and expectations, the behavioral examples, and organizational infrastructure to enable the team to set free the genius of its members to create the extraordinary together.

One of the best teams I was ever on took about 2 years to gel. I didn’t realize what my boss and mentor was doing at the time. It was only in retrospect did I appreciate his vision, actions, and the sense of urgency to his execution. He had a very clear vision of the impact he wanted his team to have on both our broader organization and the marketplace, and he knew how to communicate and translate that to bring it to life for his team.

Valuing skills and performance

One of his first actions was to weed out under performers and put the most qualified, talented, and motivated leaders in place as his direct reports. This communicated his trust in us, and the value he placed on our skills and abilities to deliver. The impact was, despite very different personalities and backgrounds, we developed tremendous respect and trust for each other….and trust for our team leader because it was very clear to all that performance and talent would be rewarded and mediocrity would not.

Matching individual strengths and roles to boost the team

Once my boss knew our strengths and passions better, he used this knowledge to shuffle responsibilities across his directs to align us better to our strengths. I gave several of my functions to two other peers and got several in return that I was more suited to and, frankly, enjoyed more. In one instance, he asked me if I would be willing to trade some very technical and quantitative functional responsibilities in exchange for the editorial and publication responsibilities of 2 magazines we published monthly on sales and sales management. The content of those two publications was much more suited to my and my team’s skills and desires. The impact was better results across our extended team because the most qualified people were running projects for which they were best suited and enjoyed more.

Setting the bar high and wide

As Bill Parcells, the Super Bowl winning NFL coach, said in his book: “find talented people and apply pressure.” My boss lived this philosophy and he set our goals so broad and big we couldn’t do them alone. For every one of my performance objectives I needed at least one of my peers and their team’s help to succeed. The impact was the that the team organically broke down silos because to reach our individual objectives we had to work with each other and depend on our partners.

Understanding from the outside in

A guiding principle my boss instilled in us was to ask ourselves, “Who cares what I think?” What he was communicating very succinctly was that in order to break down silos within our team to achieve the big goals, we had to get out of our own heads and live in our partners’ and customers’ minds, and to understand and empathize with their concerns and needs. Only then could we expect to solve their problems…and reach our goals. At Bates, we often say that effective communication and execution begins, and ends, with a compelling and empathetic audience perspective. We use the Audience Agenda tool to teach that skill to leaders and I still use the “Who cares what I think?” guiding principle to help stay focused on my audience’s needs in the moment. We also see this reflected as Enterprise Thinking in our team performance model, where the team that thinks beyond its own borders to include the enterprise perspective increases their opportunity to deliver on their goals.

Creating clarity around expectations and rewards

As a team we also relentlessly managed performance. My boss taught us not to leave this to chance or ambiguity. We documented, communicated, and reviewed Performance and Personal Development plans several times per year. Twice a year we also calibrated performance across the extended team and discussed and evaluated everyone’s performance as a team. The result was a high-performance culture that was very transparent, achieved results, and rewarded and retained its best performers.

Relentlessly managing performance might sound like straightforward table stakes but in my personal experience and as a consultant, it is one of the hardest challenges leaders face. Too few have the courage and discipline to have the tough conversations. I routinely see examples of teams who seldom have one-on-ones with their managers and have never had a performance review. This is a recipe for dysfunction and poor performance.

Establishing a team culture of openness and collaboration

For my boss, establishing an interactive, open culture was critical to allowing the team to perform well together. In the Bates ExPITM model we refer to the facet of Interactivity as a “Gateway” facet because as a leader, in ensuring high quality two way communication, it enables others to experience everything you bring to the table and for them to have a voice with you. In our LTPITM model, we talk about a culture of Curiosity and the willingness to seek input from others on the team. The extended team engaged both in formal weekly on-on-one meetings with direct reports and in less formal and unstructured venues. Those unstructured all-team conference calls were regular Friday 1:00 PM events and had no set agenda. They provided a scheduled opportunity to share, collaborate, ask for help and, perhaps most importantly, not have all the answers, but ask questions and learn. The result was a team environment that made it safe and easy to share ideas, and we felt heard by our boss and each other. This enabled us to up our game and deliver on those big goals more readily.

Planning for the team and the company’s future

We learned that if we wanted to continue to move up in the organization, we had to be able replace ourselves first. My boss was very explicit about that. It is why he hired me and my peers; to create a succession plan for himself and overall capacity in the organization. Succession planning was a leadership responsibility and became part and parcel of how we hired and built our teams. We didn’t necessarily have to replace ourselves with one person, and usually didn’t, but we had to be sure we developed people who could independently run the operation when we left. The impact was sustained team and organizational performance long after we moved on.

In my experience the vast majority of leaders do not proactively pursue succession planning. They only think about it when someone leaves or is about to retire, which tend to result in hastily made, sub optimal decisions. My boss made me see this differently and understand why it’s critical.

Another cumulative impact of all these initiatives was enormous and sustained team engagement. The language the team used in their self-assessments and engagement surveys included things like “never been happier here,” “I feel like I belong,” ”what we do really matters.” As a leader you can’t put a price on that kind of feedback.

So what can you do to build a high performing and engaged team? Here are the 6 things as a leader you have to do:

  1. Clear Vision – establish and communicate a strong vision of what you want the team to achieve so the path is clear
  1. Big Hairy Goals – build team objectives big and audacious enough to require that people and teams work together cross functionally to succeed
  1. Right People, Right Place, Right Time – tap into individual strengths and don’t be afraid to move people around to make sure that the right people are doing the right things
  1. Collaboration-Ready Culture – create an environment where it is ok to take risks, not have all the answers, and where it is safe to share different views (read this post for more ideas on how to do that)
  1. Manage Performance Now – find talented people, define and make your expectations clear, and rigorously manage to those expectations through a formal process.
  1. Continuously Prepare for the Future – start planning for your own succession now and guide your team to do the same.

Much of what I learned from this boss about being a leader of a great team may seem obvious, straightforward, or even easy. In my experience, however, as both a leader and a consultant, it is extremely rare for leaders to take this on. It is work taking stock to make sure you are doing the right things to build a great team.




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