Developing a top-performing team – 5 undeniable truths for every leader

Developing a top-performing team – 5 undeniable truths for every leader

“For a human being, nothing comes naturally… We have to learn everything we do.” So said Stanislaus Grumman, the fictional explorer of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. It struck me as being incredibly relevant to developing a top-performing team. I suspect that too many of us (myself included) believe the “interpersonal stuff” in life and work should come instinctively. That we should be able to network, influence and develop teams as a result of our cumulative life experience.

If only.

Who hasn’t suffered at the hands of a newly promoted ‘expert’, ready to gee on their new team to greatness? Or worse still, an expert from another organisation who begins most sentences with the immortal phrase “when I was at…”

No. Developing a top-performing team takes work. Here are five of the undeniable truths that lie behind every effective team.

1. You need to set the direction

As much as star talent helps, it’s the direction that matters when you’re developing a top-performing team.

You’ve probably seen a howler or two at the cinema. I know I have. The all-star line-up promises something wonderful, but the reality is that you either fall asleep or leave before you’ve finished your popcorn.

In this way, a top-performing organisational team is no different. The people in your team need clear and clever direction for success.

It’s up to you to get down and dirty, to add the glue that holds things together and provide a compelling direction. Zoë Schofield, a coach on the Career Matters team talked at length to me about this need to create a sense of cohesion.

“You need to create a real sense of identity to help the team understand who they are. So, for this you need a vision, you need to state your values and be clear on your purpose. To put it another way – do your team even know why they’re doing what they do? Without this it’s difficult to make sure everyone’s heading in the same direction. Most importantly, you have to be authentic, it’s no good spouting all the words, your team need to see and feel that you are what you say.”

It’s simple in sport – you have to win the game. It’s simple in surgery – you have to keep the patient alive. But in business, especially if multiple disciplines are involved, it becomes difficult. That’s part of the reason for the success of methods such as Inbound thinking and the push for a clear purpose. If your team can see where they’re heading and why, everything else becomes a lot easier.

2. You have to focus on the big and the small

“You’ve got to have the interpersonal skills. You have to be conscious of everything that’s going on.”

That’s according to Duncan Greenfield-Turk, a seasoned leader who has built several teams from scratch in the hospitality and events sector. To lead a top-performing team, you need to learn the ‘art of people’. To do that you need to know your team. Really know your team.

Zoë told me about a metaphor she uses where you think of your team as a garden. Every plant in your garden has different needs, and the gardener needs to understand and recognise how each plant is ‘performing’ if their garden is to thrive.

It’s a simple leap to team development. As a leader, you must nurture visible cues such as skills gaps, interpersonal behaviour, and performance against KPIs. You must also nourish the environment in which your individual team members operate. It’s a direct link to the “environmental fit” fundamental to #TheCareerEquation® and crucial to an individual’s success in your team.

Let’s go back to the horticultural theme for a moment.

Most teams have someone akin to a beautiful dahlia. They’re bright and bold but also delicate and need to be sheltered from harsh weather. It’s easy to focus on these team members because everyone notices them.

But what about the stalwarts of your team? Those who are more like cacti or daffodils? They deliver day-to-day, and they don’t need much attention. The danger is that you fail to recognise when things go wrong, because you’re used to assuming these low-maintenance contributors are OK.

And then there are the people (or plants) that aren’t thriving. If, for example, the environment is too fast-paced for them or too corporate, they’ll constantly feel out-of-place.

And that’s going to take its toll. It’s better to work with these individuals, to understand why the environment doesn’t appear to be the right fit.

Can you help tweak things to improve the situation or help them to find a place where the environmental fit would allow them to flourish? That doesn’t always mean leaving the organisation, sometimes it’s as simple as a team move, location move or a change of department.

By consistently noticing and recognising what’s going on in your team you’ll develop a bond of trust. In addition to noticing the “small stuff”, we’ve found that regular career conversations are a powerful force. They give each team member the chance to discuss their aspirations and concerns and for you to talk about something other than performance or deadlines. As that trust develops these career conversations become increasingly useful.

What’s more, these conversations can help you evolve your team. They’ll help you identify when someone’s ready to move on, and to plan for it with minimal disruption. Well-used, career conversations can become a fundamental tool for helping you develop your team.

3. It’s up to you to create a safe place

A fear of failure is a shortcut to failure. You need your team to push themselves and for that, they must know they’re in a safe place. Call it a growth mindset or psychological safety – the premise is the same.

You, the leader, are pivotal in creating this safe place. Firstly, through the direction covered in point one. But you can also do this by recognising when you yourself don’t have all the answers.

It’s powerful stuff, and easy to remember. Duncan said as much, “the most phenomenal examples of leadership I’ve seen are where the leader has said ‘you’re the expert’. Not I know better.”

This is reinforced by an extraordinary TED talk by Amy Edmondson. It’s a must-watch for anyone setting up a team or leading a diverse group of individuals. A problem she terms “professional culture clash” guarantees a poor result. The inability to see eye-to-eye, let alone work to the same deadlines and methods can damage not only your team’s reputation but the end result. Can your organisation afford that?

Easier said than done, is to cultivate a sense of professional humility and curiosity. Instead of setting each other up as competitors, position one another as vital, complementary elements of the same top-performing team. The root of this? Strong psychological safety.

Google are a helpful source of inspiration here. Part of their success comes from a will to understand team dynamics and create top-performing teams. And guess what? They found psychological safety to be the highest need in a top-performing team.

Here is what they say, “Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.” Interested in knowing more? You might find their guide on fostering psychological safety helpful.

4. You have to look after number one

If a successful team needs a strong leader, what do strong leaders need?

They need support too. Give everything you have to your team and you’ll soon have nothing left. Here are three ways you can nurture your own needs:

1. Keep on learning. You need training and coaching as much as your team members do. Take the time to recognise your own gaps; if you’ve completed The Career Equation® before, repeat the exercise. Being a leader isn’t about doing a functional job at a higher level so if you’re new to a leadership role, see it as a change of career and act accordingly. Do you need to develop new skills such as career coaching? How can you feed your environmental preferences whilst delivering against your objectives and your team’s needs?

2. Give yourself a safe space. It’s not just your team who needs somewhere they feel safe. You do too. Identify somewhere or someone you can turn to, where you can be nourished and supported. Mentors and coaches are crucial as a sounding board and pressure release; after all, you can’t do a good job if you’re exhausted or overwhelmed.

3. Set boundaries. An open-door policy helps with trust and communication but can become invasive. Set boundaries your team can respect. It might be that you have a quiet hour to yourself at the start of each day or that you operate a scheduled meeting system. Whatever works; providing boundaries that work for you and support your team will protect your sanity.
Supporting yourself does more than one job. It also sets an example for your team to follow. Healthy work practices, self-development and boundary-setting support the essential elements of a healthy workplace culture. It’s yet another way you can lead by example.

4. Focus on identifying the incredible. It’s a truth almost universally accepted, that when things go badly, we pore over them. Desperate to discover the fatal flaw or the moment the s*** hit the fan, we spend precious time and resources trying to identify our mistakes in the hope we won’t repeat them. And when we do well? We high-five, we go to the pub, we send congratulatory emails.

Well, why wouldn’t we?

Celebration is nearly always a good idea. Still, we need to get better at analysing those highs too. If focusing on what went wrong drains our energy and confidence, imagine what focusing on what went right might do?

Athletes call it visualising the win, yet it works just as well in a boardroom. By focusing on what it takes to win and embedding that into your team you increase your chances of further success.

Zoë’s reasoning is clear; “If we start poring over things when we’ve had a fantastic day or something has gone brilliantly – analysing ‘what were those feelings?’ ‘what skills and strengths were in play?’ – we start to recognise what it feels like to be at our best. The more we understand who we are when we are at our best, the higher our chances of replicating those positive outcomes. It starts to become a much more natural way for us to be”.

There will always be more things to take account of; the list is endless. Yet as Duncan told me,

“You won’t always get it right.” Be strong of heart, because by recognising this most basic of truths and seeking to learn from the bad and the good times, you and your team could well be on the path to greatness.

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