Our perspective on high-performing teams...
The core determinant of commercial success, we see amidst our clients, is not having “the idea”. It is not about the actual product, service proposition or, even, the corporate strategy (important as these aspects all are). The difference between companies that succeed and those that fail is whether a high-performing team is in place to execute the plan they have been set.
Let’s linger here for a moment: as it is the core theme of this white paper. Success in business, and many other aspects of life, is all about execution, execution, execution. Yes, you need a sound product and a robust strategy but what takes you from commercial mediocrity to real-world success is the ability to execute. And, the ability to execute is all about high-performing teams.
This is the powerful and universal message. You can see it in macro examples: with, say, Apple’s dominance of the personal technology space, Nike’s domination of the sports apparel market and with the US Navy Seals’ hard won reputation as a world leading counter-terrorism unit. It is as grounded a truth in your working domain also: whatever market you seek to gain, whatever competitors you seek to dominate, this is the nexus of the challenge. Indeed, it goes all the way down to the micro, or personal, reality. Develop a self-aware focus on execution and you will unlock your leadership talents to, in turn, unlock the extraordinary potential of the team around you.
In this context, we have a privileged role. As a function of placing senior talent into leading companies we are often gifted unique access into the dynamics and cultures that make such firms tick. We are also often asked to provide perspectives not just on the individual hire but also with respect to the recipient team. How will this new placement fit in, how will they affect the whole team; fundamentally, will their introduction make the boat move faster?
Naturally, this got us hugely engaged in the topic of high performance teams. To become true leaders in the field of strategic talent advisory services, we knew we had to not only facilitate great hires but also support our clients in the continuous development of high performing teams. This professional curiosity was coincident with the growth of our own business. To maintain our own success and professional enhancement, we needed to ensure that we ‘perpetually’ developed as a team also.
This fixation led eventually to the development of a new service offering in the Pi Group’s portfolio: the skilled facilitation of high performing team programs. We call it our Team-to-Tribe (T3) service. Before we unpack what we mean by this: a word of caution. There is a myriad of service providers in this space: ranging from manifest experts to charlatans (who peddle the latest strained metaphor – often with no experience of having ever piloted a high-performing team themselves). If you seek strategic partners in this area, ask first what experience the facilitators actually have with respect to building and leading successful teams (cf. facilitation and training experience alone). That test passed, ask what methodology sits at the heart of their services. You will, no doubt, receive some pretty slides, and long lists of platitude team attributes. The acid test, however, should be whether their core viewpoint or methodology has thoughtful structure and logic. Has your partner got to the core of what makes great companies hum, are they going to be able to support you as you traverse all the levels of this journey? Or, more likely, are they a proponent of the high-energy, low-content workshop that fires everyone up for a week-or-so but with no discernible long-term change to behaviors and processes?
This white paper demonstrates that Pi Executive’s services are founded on proprietary intellectual content. We call it our Team-to-Tribe (T3) methodology and we endorse it to you as a structured way to examine how your organization is performing currently.
What does a high performing team look like?
In order to describe a high-performing team model we must, firstly, explore what a high performing team actually looks like, or more aptly, how it behaves. This needs, necessarily, to be done before we can progress to an explanation of how such teams are built.
Most literature on the topic will, at this point of inquiry, resort to an arbitrary list of features. It is our contention that such lists are not particularly instructive. Rather, and especially so as it sits at the core of the Team-to-Tribe (T3) model, we need to describe the logical hierarchy of attributes that, in structured totality, equate to a high-performing team. Under invest in the development of one attribute and you remove the foundation of all attributes that derive from it. This will make more sense when we finish describing the model.
So, let’s start by describing the six essential attributes of a high performing team from the ground up.
1. Talent (with Attitude)
First, and foremost, a high-performing team requires talented individuals within it. Simply put, that means members of the team ‘can do’ what is expected of them.
This is, hopefully, an uncontentious point. Regardless of your operating domain, there is little point talking about any collective team-build aspiration if the unit members lack the de minimis functional ability necessary to individually compete in this arena. If a quarterback can’t pass an accurate ball, or if a Marine is unable to maintain his weapon or a Brand Manager doesn’t know how to identify her target consumer – then all high-performing team bets are off. As an absolute minimum, a high-performing team needs members capable of dispensing in the trade you seek to excel in.
Please note, this is not saying that high performing teams have all this talent mustered on day one, or, that talent development is a static affair. Far from it; leading organizations fixate on the continuous nurturing and professional development of their members. Rather, it is saying that before you even start to move along the Team-to-Tribe journey, as a minimal, basic foundation, you will need a group of individuals with the knowledge, experience and inherent ability to deliver their expected, isolated role within the team.
Higher attributes of the model will soon require a lot more of each member than mere competence in the discipline for which they are hired; but, for now, we make the simple point that, without such collective competence, the potential for overall team performance is seriously fettered.
Even more important than raw aptitude and competence is the respective ‘attitude’ of each individual team member; indeed, we extol the virtue of ‘hiring for attitude and training for talent’. So, more accurately, the starting point on this journey is having team members that ‘can do’ with a ‘can do’ attitude! Competence of the highest levels is for naught if the attitude is misaligned or self-absorbed. If you have ever suffered a colleague with a large, humorless ego you will know how quickly such an individual can vacuum all collective energy from the building. There is no point progressing any further on the topic of team-high-performance until you have your (carefully selected for ‘can do, can do!’) core membership in place.
Beyond ‘mere’ talented individuals, high performance requires next – clarity. Clarity in the vision, mission and objectives of the team and clarity in how such objectives cascade down to each and every member within it. Simply put, that means members of the team ‘know what to do’.
It is one thing to have skilled operatives within your group but without such clarity you are really just that – a group! High-performing teams will always have very clear and simple (i.e. easily understood) statements of future intent – and a logical nesting of such statements from the whole-team, to sub-teams, right down to each individual. We call this Dream-to-Task mapping.
Next, comes the attribute of empowerment. There are countless examples of organizations that possess very talented individuals, and have clear statements of intent, but are not high-performing. This is often due to the structural disempowerment of the members within it; they know what to do, and have the individual ability to contribute to such plans, but the team-dynamic is one that results in barriers to them effectively discharging such talents. This can often be seen in organizations with traditional, or non-egalitarian, hierarchies where the organizational design creates such barriers; every decision needs to be passed up the chain for sign-off or, at worst, subject to the slow, consensual agreement of multiple committees. Such disempowerment can also, however, be found in relatively flat organizations where there is just a simple lack of trust and room for individual flair and maneuver. Small businesses with very strong, ego-bound founders can be an example of this variant.
By contrast, the third quality of a high-performing team is that of empowerment. As well as being able to do, and knowing what to do, members of such teams are ‘allowed and enabled to do’.
This attribute can best be described as a state in which the members of the team are most efficiently and effectively able to pair their talents with the team’s objectives. Contingent on the environment in which the team operates, there will always be some level of managerial control and coordinated restraint required; for example, a successful military operation must say more to its members than simply ‘go defeat the enemy’ as a lack of coordinated force can be disastrously self-destructive. That said, any such constraints on movement (the term used in its widest sense here) need to be the bare protective minimum – set only as required to intelligently de-risk against any likely negative outcomes of complete free-wheeling. This requires deft, case-by-case consideration. By example, some organizations have onerous legal and regulatory compliance issues (with the need for strict balances and checks), military teams require detailed orders to minimize ‘blue-on-blue’ disaster and successful sports teams require some coordinating shape and stratagem; indeed, even the most free-spirited enterprise will have some process for coordinating and channeling action.
The summary point is that any such control parameters need to be the bare minimum as required to mitigate against unacceptable negative outcomes; it is curious to note that (especially if the team has been in place for some time) such team ‘rules’ invariably surpass such protective considerations and often tend towards a serious encroachment on general team effectiveness. By contrast, high performing teams are operating close to 100% efficiency and effectiveness in this regard; where there is any constraining structural, or process, element it is only for the sensible purposes of orderly coordination, and truly unacceptable-risk avoidance. High-performing teams constantly challenge the need for such structural and process barriers (“do we really need so many people in this sign-off step?”) and are constantly on their guard for any growing bureaucracy. High performing teams are invariably part function of a well-designed operation – where individual members can unleash their talents unconstrained by any energy-depleting, near-pointless process.
As importantly, high-performing teams will have cultural settings that empower all members – especially the most junior. The vibe will be one of “here I can take some risks and be recognized and rewarded for personal flair and effort”; as importantly, it will also have members saying “whilst the job may be hard (premier standards to meet) this is an easy place to work”.
We are now moving into the territory of the real differentiator qualities – attributes that distinguish truly great teams from their well-performing competitors.
Attribute number four is alignment. Members of a high performing team, well along the Team-to-Tribe journey, are talented, have clarity of intent and are also fully-enabled to get on and deliver their role; further, however, they undertake what is expected of them because they ‘believe it is right to do so’.
This attribute is such, is all about value compatibility between the team’s values, the team leader’s values (which can often shape the former) and those of each member. It is an unfortunate reality that many people, even those within teams that have a first appearance of high functionality, are not fully subscribed to the collective values of the team. That is, their personal values are at odds with the team’s values or, even, the team’s fundamental reason for being. Individuals can become adept at building a coping mechanism to self-manage this disjunction; for example, the tobacco company manager’s sense of providing for family, or their simple, professional work ethic, may override any internal anxiety they have about the company’s ultimate contribution to society. Such gaps, however, between personal values and the team’s stated, or actual, ethical reality are seriously erosive of genuine high performance – especially so when most members feel similar.
Conversely, high performing teams have members who fundamentally believe the team to which they belong is positively contributing to outcomes they feel important – be that sporting victory, the defense of freedoms (military) or the provision of a product or service that benefits others (commercial or social). Further, they believe that the team goes about its business of delivering such outcomes in a way that is aligned to their personal values; that is, the team ‘behaves’ in a way that they are personally proud to be associated with.
We should make an important point here. Statements of organizational values are now common place. They are never contentious; there are, not least, expected norms of behavior in modern, egalitarian societies. At worst, however, such statements are “motherhood and apple pie” shopping-lists which despite sitting above every photocopier in the office, bear little relation to the everyday values and behaviors of the team’s leaders and influencers. Alignment, in this context, pertains to the proximity of your team members’ principles and values with those of the actual principles and values of your collective team – as opposed to any espoused rhetoric.
In high performing teams, there is no sunlight between the espoused team values, the actual team values and the collective (often private) values of its constituent members. This is a huge topic; for more on it see our white paper on values >
Next up, in this progression to truly extraordinary team behaviors is the ethereal, but very real, attribute of passion.
Simply put (and you are probably getting the gist of this logic now!), members of a high performing team can do, know what to do, are allowed/enabled to do, believe it is right to do and, further, ‘would love to do’.
For now, we just want to focus on this quality as an evidential attribute and not get too distracted as to how you might go about reaching this heightened state of team performance (that is one for a long chat with a Pi consultant). Suffice to say, passion comes about as an extension of attribute four (alignment) coupled with a team environment that really harnesses this inherent team inclination and energy. The role of the team leader(s) is of critical import in this regard.
When team members move to this level of engagement, then any contractual obligation is largely irrelevant as the emotional, psychological contract forged will far outweigh this in terms of their commitment to the cause. ‘Love’ may not be the best descriptor here (it is such a relative term) but the key point is that teams at this level of performance have members who derive a self-fulfilling, and self-sustaining, energy from their emotional connection to the team’s purpose, their role within it and the connection they have with fellow colleagues.
When you see teams with this quality, you see members prepared to make their contribution to the team effort not out of any coercive fear of failure but, rather, because they are infected by the collective energy and pride. Their own efforts are fueled to extraordinary levels by a deep sense of being part of something special and bigger than them; an association they cherish and are manifestly proud of. Such team members are often imbued with a drive to deliver the team’s objectives or “to die trying” – because not only do they think this is, fundamentally, the right thing to do – they also love being part of a team that has such audacious ambition.
Finally, at the zenith of this paradigmatic description, is the concluding and most-elusive attribute. That of togetherness. This is getting to the ‘Holy Grail’ end of the Team-to-Tribe (T3) journey; the point at which you can claim you have arrived at Tribal status.
In such teams, not only do you have exemplar engagement and behaviors from all constituent members but that final piece of ‘social glue’ – individuals motivated also by the very company of their team colleagues. This is the zone where intra-relationships are defined by shared levels of high professional respect and, indeed, deep friendships. Team members bearing this attribute scale even greater heights (sometimes literally!) because not only are they passionate about what they do (as built on all the preceding qualities) but it is this comradeship that sits at the very nexus of this passion. There is no place they would rather be than with the companionship of their comrades and, with this fellowship, a sense of collective invincibility.
Team members at this lofty place not only ‘would love to do’ but this passion is driven to new levels because of this very togetherness. For such teams, there is a mindset of “anything together”; that is, “together, anything is possible”.
The attributes of a high performing team
What we have just described serves now as the logical foundation of a framework for high performing teams; our Team-to-Tribe (T3) model. As per the description, the model is layered; that is, there is a definite sense in which these attributes build on each other. The lower the attribute, the more fundamental. It doesn’t matter how aligned, passionate and together the orchestra is, if the individual musicians can’t play their respective instruments; or can, but don’t know what piece to play: then they are unlikely to be winning musical awards. Conversely, there are many collectives that have talent and clarity and, thus, good levels of performance but still a long way to travel to be the top in their game, capable of true high-performance, a ‘Tribe’ amongst ‘mere’ teams.
You can see from Figure 1 that our viewpoint on high-performing teams is meshed with an accompanying perspective on leadership. Practiced, deft leadership always sits at the heart of the T3 journey. Put another way, as high-performing team experts, our primary role is really to support the development of leaders … in the development of their teams.
Our approach to helping clients along the T3 journey…
Hopefully, we have assuaged you that our work in this area is built on a considered, structured viewpoint as to what actually makes up a high performing team.
Let us now turn to what we believe is the optimal approach for supporting colleagues along this path.
Firstly, we must reinforce a fundamental point. Skilled partners in this endeavor can be essential catalysts but you should never ‘outsource’ ownership of this (most critical) activity to an outsider. Meaningful progression along the T3 path comes when clients unequivocally own, design and drive the flow of activity – with our engaged advice and support on their shoulder.
With that axiomatic point made, the most successful engagements we have experience of – ones that leave organizations in a materially positively-altered state – follow an approach as described in Figure 2.
Let’s linger on box 1 as there is little point moving forward until the senior leadership team has a shared understanding of the journey ahead and the collective will to prosecute it. T3 initiatives that are not manifestly ‘led from the top’ (with behaviors matching espoused rhetoric) are doomed to fail. Indeed, such a mismatch can take organizations backwards so it is imperative that this step is undertaken carefully and honestly.
From our experience, no two organizations are ever the same: different leadership team sizes, dynamics, corporate cultures and change-imperatives necessitate a wholly flexible approach to how this stage best works. Rather, we have developed a series of modular workshop sessions that can be configured, in close preparatory conversation with clients, to achieve this desired ‘shared understanding, collective will’ outcome (with respect to moving to stage 2).
A summary of these modules can be seen in Figure 3.
If any of this has caught your attention we would love to share with you the detail behind these modules and further describe how this initial dialogue can powerfully build towards successful T3 company-wide roll-outs.
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Published: 13th April 2016