Having led teams both at Google and more traditional companies like CBS, I have been exposed to many leadership styles, from the front lines of management to boardroom dynamics. While it may seem hard to define, there are predictable patterns that emerge in studying the traits of high performing teams and their leaders. Let's look into how you can successfully build and manage a high performing team.
“Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” - Simon Sinek
Assess Your Own Performance. In order to build and lead a high performing team you need to be high performing yourself. If you are burnt out, stressed, or disconnected from your work, your team will be able to sense this--especially if they are high performers! When was the last time you asked yourself the question “How am I really?”. Just like they advise on an airplane, you need to put your oxygen mask on first.
Determine where you’re primarily placing your focus and attention. What you put your focus and attention on is what expands. If you focus on looking for opportunities, that is what you will find. Next, determine how you’ve been managing your boundaries. Finally, start with a vision. Take time to intentionally think about the impact you want to have on others and be honest with yourself as to if that is how you are showing up on a daily basis.
Get Feedback. There can be a wide delta between how people actually see you and how you want to be seen as a leader. If you are unsure about this, below are a few tried-and-true ways of gathering feedback effectively from your team:
When you look around the room (or across all the video squares in a Zoom), how much diversity of life experience, skill, and mindset do you see? As a leader, it is important to know what you can uniquely do and what you do well. Then, hire to fill out the skills you need. Just as your team’s mission evolves, so will the skills gaps. You must constantly be evaluating your talent for not only their fit, but their ability to stretch and grow alongside the needs of the team and company.
Kim Scott, in her book “Radical Candor” discusses two distinct but important types of team players, "Superstars and Rockstars". Superstars are "change agents, ambitious at work and want new opportunities" and Rockstars are "a force for stability, are ambitious outside of work, or simply content in life and are happy in their current role".
A high performing team needs both of these types of contributors and it's your job as a leader to know your players, what motivates them, and what they want out of their career. Here is a process for evaluating that talent and finding possible talent gaps.
The Annual Review. Just as there are seasons to your life, a person’s career can often have seasons as well. For instance, early in someone’s career they may be more focused on fiscal growth than job security. After buying a home, financial stability may become more important. Once kids go off to college, a person may be craving a bigger project or increased travel. Ask your team some questions around what their definition of success or progression may be. This process will help you determine which of your players is a Rockstar vs. a Superstar and when they may be moving from one category to another.
Map Your Talent. Complete this exercise each quarter, or at the very least two times a year. Determine how people fall within the following categories: High performers with high potential, High performers with limited potential, Low performers with high potential and Low performers with limited potential. Evaluate the projects on your team’s horizon and see if you have the right team to accomplish your goals and if each member is allocated to the right projects.
Keep in mind that it takes all types of talent to build a high performing team. By knowing your team, their strengths, limitations and their goals, you will have a much better idea of what to look for when hiring to round out the group or filling for a skills gap. On the flipside, it will also expedite clarity as to if there is a person who is no longer a good fit for your team. When that is the case, the recommended course of action is to act quickly and compassionately.
Does your team operate in the optimal environment to do their best work? Your tech stack (the technology you use to do work - i.e,Gmail, Slack, Salesforce, text etc…) serves as the backbone of your team’s operations. While it may feel draining at times, leading a high performing team means cultivating the optimal symphony of tools and dynamics to enable them to achieve their best work.
Hybrid work has made this point more important, and challenging, than ever. When your team is distributed across multiple offices, you must take care to create efficiencies and purpose in your async and synchronous work.
Any ambiguity in how your team uses technology creates room for error and assumption. If you do not have clear, documented answers to the questions above, dedicate a half day to write down your tech stack, how you use it, and who has access. Then, create standard operating procedures for how your team (and, if applicable, your stakeholders) accesses, manages and transfers knowledge. Your job as the leader of the team is to constantly be evaluating your operating stack and implementing change when necessary to ensure productivity and innovation.
According to the Harvard Business Review, high performers deliver 400% more productivity than average performers. If you lead a team of high performers, it is imperative that you take action to create a strong foundation for their success both personally and professionally.
Create a transparent path and then stay far enough away so as to not clog the works, but close enough to be called upon when necessary.
Establish the foundation and help your team connect to its purpose.
If you haven’t already, hold a workshop to establish the team values and mission. Team values and mission serve as the compass for your team, keeping them grounded and giving themselves a foundation for team accountability.
Each individual should have a purpose that fits into the mission. This is especially important if you work within a large, matrixed corporation. Consider this legend from President John F. Kennedy's trip to Nasa in the early 1960s. Upon encountering a man in the hallway holding a broom, President Kennedy apparently asked him, "What do you do for Nasa?". The janitor responded, "I'm putting a man on the moon". By allowing your team to see and embrace its larger purpose, you help give their tasks, no matter how small, greater meaning.
Create clear goals at the team and individual level and check in on them constantly.
Set a time at the beginning of the year or review cycle and jointly create a list of 3-5 goals with each member of your team. These goals should excite your individual contributor and map to their personal mission, the team mission, and the company’s mission.
In your weekly or biweekly 1:1s, take time to check in on their progress and support them in moving any roadblocks, or determine how to pivot when necessary. Speaking of 1:1s, this is an opportune time to let your high performer lead. Have them create the agenda and lead the session, finishing each by asking them how you can help support them.
Keep communication flowing smoothly.
We’ve already discussed your tech stack above, but giving each of your team members access to important information when they need it is critical. Look for bottlenecks. It is likely that you have access to information at your level of leadership that much of the team is not privy to, but might be helpful to do their jobs. Building your filter for how and when to communicate important information from above is a constantly evolving task, but one your team needs you to fulfill in order to produce results.
Promote radical transparency. By encouraging your team to share their thoughts, embrace failure and celebrate successes, you are building a safe psychological space for team communication.
Be an advocate for your team.
Being at a higher level of management gives you access to stakeholders who could be critical to achieving your goals and mission. Your team needs you to be clearing the path, having the critical conversations that will bring their work into focus (or sometimes, maybe taking focus away) and enabling other managers to notice the team’s work.
Recognize when you need to be an advocate for yourself. If you are not getting the leadership or transparency you need to lead well, ask for it. By using your voice you are empowering others to do so, which can result in a more positive work environment.
The emergence of COVID-19 created a corporate leadership challenge unlike any other we have experienced in our lifetimes. In the span of weeks, the constructs of our platforms of work were pulled out from under us and we were forced to evolve to a new way of work. While the shift from office first to remote work was both welcome and jarring for many, some companies produced their best results ever during the pandemic, and employees are now attempting to emerge into a new way of work.
The challenge this emergence creates for leaders is multi-faceted. Recent surveys conducted by Gallup, Microsoft, and Adobe have found that between a third and a half of workers are looking to quit or change jobs. 37% of global respondents to a survey released by Microsoft's Work Trend Index said their bosses expected too much of them during the pandemic. Not only are we facing the “Great Resignation” as organizational psychologist Anthony Klotz called it, but the pandemic has shown us that burnout has no location.
The four key tenets for managing high performing teams that I outline above are universal solutions to these challenges. If your team members managed to maintain or grow their performance in the face of COVID 19, encourage them to continue to take personal responsibility for their work by asking them the following questions:
When a team is operating at its peak the results can feel like listening to a symphony. By ensuring your own high performance, hiring and cultivating the right team, equipping your team with the right tools and clearing a path for their success, you are creating something larger than yourself.
As we’ve seen from some of the most innovative companies in the world, under the right circumstances, anything is possible. Managing a high performing team gives you the opportunity to create something that goes beyond yourself, each individual contributor and the company itself.
Bring the team together to create alchemy. Give them time off. Celebrate their wins. Give them the opportunity to step up and when it’s time, the opportunity to move on.
“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” - Henry Ford.
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