Building a High Performing Team: weak team = poor results

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Welcome to episode two of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast, building a high performing team a.k.a weak team equals poor results. If you want to be successful as a senior leader, you first have to have the bright people on your team. This doesn't happen by accident. In this episode, we focus on building capability at the individual level and we'll save how to build the team culture and dynamic for another episode.

We'll cover off on what actually is a high performing team and I'm gonna talk about what I believe are the seven characteristics of a high performing team. There's no doubt that high performing teams start with the individuals that make up that team and if you, as a leader, don't commit personally to doing what it takes to get the best people on board, by definition, you simply can't have a high performing team. So let's get into it.

I would love a dollar for every resume I've read or every interview I've held where a person claims to have build a high performing team. So what is it that defines a high performing team? Well, as soon as you ask to drill it down, people find it really difficult to articulate what a high performing team actually is. Nor can they describe what they did to build it. For most, as a generalization, it seems to come down to my team are all happy campers and got on well with each other. 

So, how would you know if you had a high performing team? And what do the individual performance and behavioural standards look like in a team like that, what's the team dynamic? I once invited Benita Willis to talk to my leadership team about what it actually takes to be world class. Now, the term world class is bandied around so often that it's become virtually meaningless. Benita, for those of you who don't know her, is undoubtedly the finest distance runner ever to represent Australia. She knows what it takes to be world class because she actually was. 

And the bottom line she left with us was, "You don't just stumble across world class performance, it takes an enormous amount of sacrifice, dedication and courage to get there." So why would leadership performance be any different? Just to make sure we're all on the same page and all speaking the same language, what I've done is to develop what I call the seven characteristics of a high performing team. These are the things that through my observation over the years, I've realized set teams apart. So the high performing teams actually have these characteristics and other teams simply don't.

The first characteristic of a high performing team is that they get results. And that's regardless of the obstacles and challenges that are in their way. They find a way to make it all work. These are teams that are driven by value. Not just driven by activity. Now, of course, this is another podcast episode in itself. 

The second characteristic of a high performing team is that it actually stands out from other teams in the organization. So it's very, very clear to everyone around that there's something different about this team. Something different about the way it's led and something different about the way it functions. 

The third characteristic of a high performing team is that they are never happy with the status quo. They're continually looking for opportunities to be better and to achieve more and to stretch themselves further. 

Number four is that high performing teams stand up really well to the scrutiny of external benchmarking. First and foremost, they actually invite comparison because they wanna be the best amongst their peers. Not only that, but they select an ambitious peer group. So for example, if an organization is a manufacturer of aerosol cans in Western Sydney, they don't compare themselves to other manufacturers of aerosol cans within their geographical reach but rather, they wanna compare themselves to the global benchmarks for manufacturers in related industries. They certainly wouldn't be comfortable boasting about being the world's tallest dwarf. 

The fifth characteristic is that they challenge themselves to be better first and foremost. That challenge is then transferred by osmosis to other teams they interact with. They don't sit there, bitching and moaning about what other teams aren't doing, they just get on with it and behind them, as they move forward at pace, they create a vacuum that's then filled by other teams in the organization that haven't been performing as well.

Characteristic number six. High performing teams exude confidence because they're on their game, they're kicking goals and they're making the scoreboard tick over. And finally, number seven, high performing teams don't make excuses. And they don't avoid challenges. They actually relish them.

Now, you might argue the toss on one or two of those characteristics but really, it's just so that we get a clear idea in our heads of what a high performing team looks like. And I think that really gives us a basis for comparison between those teams that are really delivering and those that aren't. But once again, we gotta be pretty honest with ourselves about what characteristics are there that we're observing and whether or not we truly have a high performing team because trust me, there are not that many of them around.

So how would you actually create a high performing team? Well, the very first thing that you have to do is to get the right individuals in place because high performing teams cannot be high performing, unless each of the individuals in that team is observing and reaching a certain standard. Jim Collins in his seminal work Good to Great which I'm sure many of you have read talks about first getting the right people on the bus. And this is critical in building a high performing team in a high performing organization that's gonna deliver results over time.

In his chapter First Who, Then What?, Jim says this, and I quote, "I don't really know where we should take this bus but I know this much. If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats and the wrong people off the bus, then we'll figure out how to take it some place great." As a leader, you really have to embrace this advice. And it's extremely rare that you're gonna get to build a team from scratch at any point in your career. Even if you did, though, hiring is an imprecise art and so you've gotta be constantly vigilant to make sure that you have the right people on the bus, in the right seats and that you don't have any of the wrong people hanging on.

Many leaders actually feel constrained by what's there when they turn up in a leadership role. And there is some complexities in this, there's no doubt about it. So for example, if your promotion is the result of your boss being promoted and you still report to her, then that's the team that she built that you're now having to lead. So she may not wanna hear from you, but certain team members need to be changed out because they're not up to the job. This can affect her self-image as a leader and certainly won't do you any favours in your relationship with your new boss.

But you can never have, nor can you claim to have a high performing team until you're first 100% satisfied that you've actually done this work. So as a leader, if you are serious about building a high performing team, then you've gotta commit personally to doing what it takes to get the best people on board. And for some of you, this is really gonna go against your grain. If we just think about episode one of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast, we spoke about respect before popularity and the need to be liked. And if you don't get this under control, it's very, very unlikely that you're gonna do the hard work of building the right leadership team with the right individuals in it.

But as humans, we can find a thousand ways to rationalize why we shouldn't do something that's hard and we are all human. And I know what's going through your head because I've been there myself. So here's some of the classic rationalizations we use that prevent us from doing this work. How about, everyone deserves a chance? That's a great rationalization because it's true, everyone does deserve a chance. But only if we put it in the context of very specific standards that are set for both behavior and performance. And these standards have to be met within a reasonable timeframe because in that context, we can actually give someone a chance in a disciplined way that let's them either perform or not perform and it's their choice. There have been times where I've had to say to someone, "If you work really hard on your development, you are two to three years away from the performance that I need, but unfortunately, I can't wait two to three years. I need that performance right now and the team needs that performance right now."

Here's another common rationalization that leaders have. Who am I to play God? Who am I to play God? If you're a good leader, you will have a personal connection with your people, you'll be friendly but you won't be friends. This means, you know some things about them personally, you'll know their kids' names, you know where they live, you know something about their financial circumstances and then, it becomes really tough. But paradoxically, this thing that makes you a better leader, by knowing something about your people and being personally connected with them, also makes it much more difficult to make decisions that impact their lives. And we'll have a future episode on whose accountability it is for performance and that should help with this one. But just at the moment know that this is a rationalization that you probably gonna have to get over in your own head.

Here's another one. This person has so many great qualities and they're such a great person, everyone really likes them, they're such a good fit for the team. Now this may be true, but this has never been a criterion for leadership performance. And so whether this person has great qualities, is a really decent person, is loved by the team doesn't really matter because at the end of the day, you've gotta get results. As Steve Drotter once said to me, "There's a lot of nice folk in this organization, but nice folk don't make a business perform." And remember, the number one characteristic of a high performing team is that it gets results and it performs, no matter what. 

Here's another rationalization that's pretty common. I can make this person better. Now, if you think about this, it's the height of arrogance. When you say you can make someone better, really? Can you? as the leader, it's your job to set the tone, the pace and the standard for your people and that's a very, very important role. And you could even motivate and support people to bring out the very very best that they have. But at the end of the day, every individual chooses how they behave and perform. And we shouldn't be so arrogant as leaders as to think that we have that much impact and that much control over any other individual. 

And finally, the last common rationalization I wanna cover is the concept that they're improving. And this is normally a sign of futility. Improvement is fine and improvement can be expected. It's a very, very rare individual and a very rare leader that you actually see breakthrough improvements. It's the exception rather than the rule in my experience. But our tendency, and looking optimistically, is to look for the tiniest little green shoots of improvement we can see and then to declare victory, way too early.

What normally happens is an individual will improve a little. And they'll improve under your direction fairly quickly because they realize that they have to do something different if they wanna keep their jobs. But longer term improvements to get them up to the bar that you're setting for performance standards in a higher performing team generally is very very difficult to do. And although I know this is gonna be controversial, it's always much much easier to buy in someone who already has those characteristics and performance standards than it is to try and grow someone and drag them kicking and screaming from a substandard level of performance to something that you're gonna be satisfied with and something that's worthy of the team you're trying to build.

So, I think we can all agree that putting the individuals in place that are gonna give you a chance of building a high performing team is not something that's easy to do. What you need to remember is that as a leader, you have to eat your own dog food. If you don't do this, and create a high performing team with the right individuals that meet the right standards of behavior and performance, no one below you will do it. And sometimes, even when you do do it diligently, some people below you still won't do it. And to give you a hint, when you see those people, they actually need to be off the bus.

It took me five years to build the right team at CS Energy and four of those, was just to get the right people on the bus and in the right seats. Of my five direct reports, nine of them were turned over during that time. So clearly, in some roles, more than one person. Two of those nine were excellent performers who left by their own choice because they wanted to move on and grow into other organizations. But seven left because of my choice. Now some of these seven were simply not up to the job and I had to take the actions I took. But some were actually good people who brought their part of the organization as far as they could, I just recognized that we needed something different if we were going to improve and to keep moving forward.

And the organization needed to keep moving forward because we certainly weren't where we needed to be. And if the leader is an okay leader but they can't take the organization beyond where it is now, then you have to make a hard choice about it because that is what defines the basis for a high performing team.

I also had a couple of excellent high performing people from the layer below who acted in the executive roles for lengthy period of times. But I realized that as good as they were, they simply weren't ready to be executive general managers. And they were some tough calls I had to make as well because they were really good people who, one day, are gonna be extremely successful at the executive level. Now it would have been so easy for me to lead the team as it was. And some might say that team was good enough. But, I knew that that wasn't the case.

What I had to do was the hard work of building a high performing team that gave the most to the organization the leadership it deserved. Now, it's easy in most organizations to actually avoid this work because most leaders aren't focusing on this first and foremost, they're focusing on the myriad of other things that are coming their way through the windtunnel. And that's okay. Don't do it. It's your choice as a leader. But if you don't do the work to build a high performing team with the right individuals, just don't kid yourself that you built a high performing team and don't believe your own bullshit. In most cases, if you're not actively working to achieve this and constantly driving your team performance higher and making sure that you have the right people on the bus and in the right seats, the team will, by definition, be average to mediocre. And you're just gonna have to accept that.

All right, so that's the end of episode two. There's a free downloadable from this episode, I've put together the seven characteristics of a high performing team and just fleshed that out a little so that you can actually create that checklist for yourself and use it for your own organization. If you want to download that, you can get it at  

Thanks very much for joining us and remember, at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So if you liked this episode, please share it with another leader who you think might benefit from it. I look forward to next week's episode where we're gonna talk about excellence over perfection aka setting the ground work for successful execution. Until then, I know you'll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.