Part 1: How to Create and Sustain High Performing Teams: A Blueprint for Success

“I believe ability can get you to the top,” says coach John Wooden, “but it takes character to keep you there.… It’s so easy to … begin thinking you can just ‘turn it on’ automatically, without proper preparation. It takes real character to keep working as hard or even harder once you’re there. When you read about an athlete or team that wins over and over and over, remind yourself, ‘More than ability, they have character.’ ”  Coach Wooden

Well-integrated, high-performing teams – those that ‘click’ – never lose sight of their goals and are largely self-sustaining. In fact, they seem to take on a life of their own. Support for team purpose, operating with agreed to team values, setting challenging goals, facilitating interaction and providing effective and direct feedback are the critical building blocks for high performance teams.

In every case that has been studied at the Europe-based Centre for Organizational Research, teams that ‘click’ always have a leader who creates the environment and establishes the operating principles and values that are conducive to high performance. The evidence for this is clearly seen in organizations where a manager who creates high performance moves to another part of the organization, or a different organization, and within 18 months they once again establish a high performing team.

We believe these leaders operate in an organized, systematic way to build successful teams, and that the formula not only involves what leaders should say and do, but also what they should not say and do. It also involves working backwards – leaders should envision the future before dealing with the present.

The four most significant behaviors consistently demonstrated by high-impact team leaders are:

  • defining clear goals or a vision of the future in accordance with overall organizational values and aims (the ‘big picture’)
  • creating blueprints and operating principles for action and feedback to achieve those goals
  • using language to build trust, encourage forward thinking and create energy within the team (‘open and powerful conversations’)
  • getting the right people involved (‘passionate champions’).

Imparting a clear vision of where the team should be headed, and inspiring its members to make it a reality, is fundamental to team success. The great American tennis player Arthur Ashe had a wonderful phrase: “I never worried about winning or losing. I just went for it every time.” Leaders who get teams to click consistently have their members tied together and “going for it” every time.

This takes considerable effort on the part of a leader, so it’s useful to reflect on why it’s worthwhile. As an IBM manager in a large software divisionexplained to me, “It’s a lot of work to get a team to click. It’s a lot more work to live with a team that isn’t clicking.” It’s as if successful team leaders calculate the up-front investment and then adopt a process to get the team to pull together and collaborate to maximize the return on that investment.

Here is what high-impact leaders do. They create a clear vision and describe it in simple language. They take the time to get people to subscribe, or buy in, to that vision. Next, they assess the current situation, work through the courses of action which are likely to yield results and set milestones and feedback to keep the team on target. It is the up-front work in getting to a clear end state in mind that makes the process work.

This foundation-laying aspect of leadership is a determining factor in why some teams seem to grasp and then do their utmost to achieve organizational goals even at the expense of individual recognition. It’s all about how the leader continually visualizes a positive end result. So, when things get tough for the team (as they always do), these extraordinary leaders reintroduce the big picture with phrases like: “Remember our vision for success and our goals  and “Let’s keep our eye on the ball”. This consistent single strategy of starting with the future and then moving back to the present allows leaders to make the tough decisions which enable the team to recognize and articulate interpersonal communication problems (“What’s really up?” or, “What’s really so?” “How do we communicate better?” ), sort through possible solutions, and then take constructive action.

Teams that consistently don’t ‘get it together’ over a long period of time can put up tough opposition for leaders who wants to move forward. We like to say that such teams get ‘caught in the swamp’. Unfortunately, what they also do is pull others into the swamp with them.

From extensive research, we conclude that extraordinary leaders employ distinctive forms of verbal communication. It is what these leaders say and what they don’t say that gives them an advantage in getting teams to high-performance levels. These leaders truly mean what they say. They don’t mix their messages, fudge meanings or use ambiguous words. Their conversations are always candid, clear, and followed by committed action.

We call them ‘powerful conversations’, because they make blueprints come alive and create positive attitudes and energy on the part of team members. They also encourage mutual understanding between team members and the leader; use language to make a vision seem real and worth attaining. A ‘powerful conversation’ typically progresses in four stages.

Stage 1: Before getting into the specific details of goals and objectives, high-impact leaders spend all the time that’s needed on forming a clear vision (e.g., the general shape of a desired outcome or future state) which makes possible complete, undisputed acceptance of its attainability.

Stage 2: This entails a very candid and clear discussion of what people are thinking and feeling. The high-impact leader makes sure that everyone’s agenda is heard and explored. He or she carefully asks questions to make sure there is a genuine expression of beliefs, expectations and even fears, while also patiently ensuring that the conversation remains relevant to the big picture. This keeps all those involved out of the swamp, and enables them to set up a useful and realistic agenda. Once this is done, the high-impact leader assesses the agenda.

Stage 3: The high-impact leader now skillfully discusses with team members the issues enmeshed in their proposed agenda. In this way, the leader can deepen his or her understanding of the team’s goals and bring to the surface any hidden agendas. The high-impact leader describes scenarios linking future outcomes with the current situation, then proceeds to refine them. He or she continues to keep the process focused on the target future state, and helps the team to see how far it has moved and what progress it has made.

Stage 4: The leader makes sure participants know exactly what steps need to be taken next, and that they are open about what they will do to turn their commitments into reality – making the team ‘alive’. The closing of a powerful conversation is also the time when a leader makes sure there is absolute buy-in, or belief in what the team is setting out to do, that team members’ commitments are clear and accepted, that all action steps are well-defined and understood. In this way, the high-impact leader ensures that the powerful conversation will produce results.

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