High-Performing Leadership Teams

Every executive has a lifetime of experience working in teams, and intuitively we all know that team leadership really matters. Great ideas may come from individuals, but getting significant things accomplished almost always happens with and through teams, and because of effective leadership.

And yet most leaders spend relatively little time explicitly thinking about, directing, and working to improve the core processes of their teams. If we were to take the (admittedly overused) metaphor of a sports team, teams in most organizations are simply playing their game all day every day. They infrequently revisit their core strategy to adapt to new competitive situations; they rarely re-assess their personnel and offensive/defensive plays; and they almost never watch game films to learn from their experiences.

Unfortunately there is no “quick fix” for a broken team, and no easy template for making a decent team better. What we do know is that effective leaders focus on a handful of team qualities or attributes to ensure that their teams are, and remain, high-performing.

Following are the seven attributes we believe are most deserving of your time and energy as a leader:

CLARITY ON OBJECTIVES: Unless a team is clear on its goals it cannot possibly be successful. Every team needs to establish a common understanding of the answers to three fundamental questions: Where are we? Where are we going? How are we going to get there TOGETHER? Those questions may seem so simple as almost to be silly, but it is remarkable how many teams, even smart and experienced ones, cannot easily provide a uniform answer to those questions.

AUTHENTICITY AND TRUST: High-performing teams are rooted in a culture of openness and trust, and that kind of culture starts with the values and behaviors of its leaders. Leaders who are willing to be transparent and genuine, and who are comfortable sharing their own limitations and vulnerabilities, will generate followers who take risks, accept responsibility for mistakes, and demonstrate high levels of commitment. This quality is not about “group hugs”—it’s about courage, confidence, and being fully human.

HONEST COMMUNICATION: Teams cannot be successful if they can’t communicate honestly. Honest communication depends on trust (see above), but it is also about managing through conflict effectively, fostering dialogue, being willing to share bad news as well as good, and challenging unchallenged assumptions. Sins of omission are almost always worse than sins of commission, and big problems eventually result from people being unwilling or unable to speak up, from fear of retaliation or anxiety about sharing a divergent point of view. False harmony is one of the most insidious risks for any team.

A VOICE FOR EVERYONE: Everyone having a voice is not the same as leadership by consensus. As Herbert Baker once wrote, “All of us are smarter than any of us.” Members of a team must have the right to speak up, and they must be encouraged to do so. As countless business school cases point out, too often leaders make decisions without the full benefit of what their organizations know. If people have a voice, they will feel heard; they will stay involved; and they be committed to supporting even those strategies that were not their own first preference.

RESULTS ORIENTATION: High-performing teams have clear, mutually held goals and a strong commitment to drive results. They set goals that are stretches but attainable, and they are disciplined in tracking progress and re-committing resources as necessary. Members of these teams are willing to prioritize team victories over individual egos. They make their goals public; they don’t sandbag or make excuses about why they can’t get there; and they passionately declare “we will” not “we’ll try.” (As that great philosopher Yoda said, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”)

ACCOUNTABILITY: Related to an orientation for results, members of high-performing teams hold each other accountable to getting the right results the right way. They support each other; they are comfortable calling each other out on behaviors that can hurt the team; and they offer positive encouragement if their colleagues lose sight of the enterprise goals and outcomes. Doing any of these things can be uncomfortable, which is why the earlier qualities of authenticity, trust, and honest communication are so critical. Having explicit ground rules as well as agreements on how to give effective feedback can also be helpful. A team following through on its commitments yields results even as it strengthens morale and engagement across the organization. “We are committed to winning together!”

CONTINUOUS LEARNING: The rarest quality for most teams is the ability to learn: to learn about the business, how to improve processes, and what to take away from both successes and failures. The most highly performing teams regularly challenge each other to think differently. They seek to make knowledge portable. They continually raise the bar for success and quality so that they don’t become complacent. And they eagerly seek new insights and new ways of doing things, rather than resisting change or dismissing unconventional ideas out of hand. Continuous learning is a quality for all leaders to watch out for because, paradoxically, the better a team gets at doing what it does, the harder it may be for it to learn how to be better.

Great leaders know that they will achieve their goals, grow their organizations, and develop future great leaders by building high-performing teams. Effective executives clearly set the purpose of their teams, manage processes and communication intently, and make use of healthy conflict to ensure that the organization is tackling the toughest issues. The most productive teams drive results through a combination of clear roles and goals, respectful interpersonal engagement, and honest and collaborative interaction internally as well as with other teams in the organization.

What are your experiences leading teams? Do you agree with the seven attributes above? Send us a note and let us know your thoughts: info@nevinsconsulting.com


"All of us know more than any of us; few of us realize how little most of us really know about the daily business of each of us until we begin to meet the rest of us and talk over among the lot of us." —Herbert L. Baker