Cultivating Peak Performance

The art and science of team building. Teams have become the latest management obsession. They’re the corporate equivalent of a Visa card: they’re everywhere you want to be.

Trouble is that despite their vast presence, teams rarely achieve breakthrough results. Instead, they sink to the level of the weakest performer and keep digging. The fault lies not with the team or its members, but with those who took a group of individuals, charged them with improbable goals, staffed them with uninspired leadership and expected them to function as a team. Such companies succeed only in putting the ‘fun’ back into dysfunctional.

Contrast that to a well-oiled and disciplined team, one in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Such groups allow members to achieve results far beyond their individual abilities. The irony is that when the needs of the group take priority, the needs of the individual actually are enhanced.

High performance teams do not result from spontaneous combustion. They are grown, nurtured and exercised. It takes a lot of hard work and skill to blend the different personalities, abilities and agendas into a cohesive unit willing to work for a common goal. Behind every great team is a strong and visionary leader. A leader whose job is not to control, but to teach, encourage and organize when necessary. You are that leader. Following are some tips to get the most out of your team:

  • Define the need. As the leader, you must establish the broad, compelling purpose for the team. What is the large, desired outcome? What do you want to improve? Eliminate? Change? Don’t be afraid to dream big. But resist the temptation to handcuff the team by writing a detailed prescription in advance of the diagnosis. Your vision, properly articulated, will be the engine that drives and inspires your team. It will determine who should be on the team, what resources are needed, how quickly a conclusion must be reached, what falls within the scope of the team and how success will be measured and rewarded.
  • Recruit the right people. Now you have to find the talent that is willing to commit to your vision with missionary-like zeal. Choose members who represent a wide range of backgrounds, skills and abilities. Try to limit participation to three to seven members. Any more and each individual’s contribution will be compromised. Also, look to imbue your team with a wide mix of cultural and professional viewpoints. Such diversity should give life to ideas and opinions that might not otherwise have been aired. Think of a symphony. No matter how talented your cellist, you wouldn’t want an orchestra made up of all cellos. Beautiful music is the result of a diverse blend of instruments working together. Your team can make beautiful music as well. The one common, unifying element to insist upon in a team is that members embody The Three Musketeers rallying cry: All for one and one for all.
  • Shared values. Not only must team members embrace your mission, they must share your values. Effective teams demand close collaboration, trust, honesty, passion and genuine appreciation for each member’s contributions. You don’t want somebody sharing your foxhole that has a different work ethic, moral compass or commitment than you do. To develop that value system, challenge the team to read books, pepper them with magazine articles, watch movies — anything that might challenge their conventional thinking.
  • Develop common goals. Winning teams thrive in an environment where they can unite behind a common and compelling purpose — a cause everyone can understand, identify with and commit to. Ideally, these goals should be developed by the team members themselves; this tends to create ownership, buy-in and commitment. Goals should be formalized through a written charter – an agreement that clearly states what the team wants to accomplish, why its goals are important and how the team will work together to achieve the desired outcome. Consider an off-site retreat, free from the routine pressures of the office, to set the goals. Such an event has the added benefit of injecting a spirit of camaraderie among the team members.
  • Set ground rules. Make sure team members understand why the team exists and know the roles each member plays. They need to know how decisions will be made, how to deal with conflict, how to communicate and how results will be measured. The success of the team depends upon creating an environment in which team members openly contribute ideas while recognizing and respecting the differences in others. Above all, they need to understand how long their commitment will last.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. If a statement of purpose is the engine that drives the team, communication is the oil that keeps the engine well lubricated. Fail to lubricate the engine and it will lock up. So, too, will the team fail without effective communication. Your job is to ensure that team members communicate openly and honestly, refrain from personal assaults and stay focused on the task. Communication is more than talking; it’s about listening intently, and asking questions to get clarification. As Stephen Covey relates in his bestseller Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Face-to-face meetings work best in a team environment, supplemented by telephone, e-mail and faxes. It’s a good idea to circulate meeting minutes to track progress and keep others in the company informed of the team’s progress.
  • Promote curiosity. It may have killed the cat, but curiosity and the search for new solutions, fuels every great group. Members don’t just solve problems. They are engaged in a process of discovery that serves as its own reward. But they also have another quality that allows them both to identify significant problems and to find creative, boundary-busting solutions rather than simplistic ones: they have hungry, eager minds.
  • Establish urgency. Virtually every great group defines itself in terms of an enemy. Sometimes the enemy is real, such as a budget cut or a hostile takeover. Often the threat is more arbitrary, such as self-imposed deadlines. Tell the group it is up against tremendous odds and watch the wily resourcefulness kick into high gear.
  • Keep score. A team can’t perform if it doesn’t know what it’s doing. But that’s not enough. There must be a commitment to constant improvement. To accomplish that, you have to measure performance. Don’t wait until the end of the season to address performance. Feedback should be immediate. Practice open book management and make sure team members have those numbers that are important to them in tracking their success.
  • Reward. Even though their contributions may not be exactly equal, it’s important to recognize the team’s efforts. Acknowledge individual achievement during group meetings and compliment the team as a whole on working well together. Highlight interim successes with a team lunch or food brought into a meeting. Such mini-celebrations are a great morale booster. People repeat performance that garners reward and recognition. When you focus on the positive, you develop the habit of doing things right.
  • Back off. If you’ve implemented the above steps correctly, then get out of the way. As the leader, your role will change over the life of the team. In the beginning, you may have spent a lot of time developing the mission, identifying what the team was setting out to accomplish, and, more importantly, helping develop interpersonal and group skills such as conflict resolution and meeting management. Now comes the time to let go and let the team become performers and the leaders. Trust the team process, even if you think you know better. Nothing undermines a team faster than for their moves to be trumped. Teams must be empowered to achieve the results, without fear of being overridden by the top floor. Want to see how fast you can suck the air out of a team? Set the objectives by executive fiat.

Follow these guidelines and you’re well on your way to creating a high performance team. Develop the basic skills and a game plan, and stick to it. Work as a team and you can beat some of the best individuals out there — if the best don’t work as a team.

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