A lot has been written about the core ingredients of what make a team “work.” The following keys were learned, field-tested and performance-proven amongst hundreds of teams. These practical principles and tools help to build and sustain especially strong, highest performing teams. Teams are like fingerprints—no two of them are the same. Their size, scope, structure, mission, products and services, stakeholders, cost, financial metrics, business markets, and industries are as varied as a chef’s spice rack. For units that seek highest performance, it is important to have as many of these following twelve ingredients as possible. Also these twelve characteristics assume that baseline criteria are met—a core of well dedicated professionals in a basically stable company!
Trait #1: Think and Be One Team: Not Us—Them
Division is defeating and self-depleting. True, there is no “I” in teamwork, but also there is no “his.” There is “we” in teamwork, but you have to work to find it. The petty, silo-ed, provincial, parochial, selfish, fiefdom stuff can be rationalized by the uninspired teams to justify and staunchly defend their own mediocrity. They have become numb to the “agony of defeat,” and the “thrill of victory” is for others to experience. The chance of team- and company-wide synergy, of the sum exceeding the parts, becomes a mirage performance oasis—a dream the provincial will never reach.
High performance team aspirations are sabotaged by selfishness of individual members. This bluntness stems from painful recollections of too many of these teams! Being one company, acting as one unit is not some altruistic fluff. Being one team has a price, but it is the entry ticket to high performance!
Trait #2: One and the Same—One Vision; Same Playbook
It makes sense: For the human body to walk, all of the body’s parts must work in total, spontaneous coordination, governed by the unifying cognitive signal under the same vision: “Walk!” So there cannot be blurred vision, double vision, or no vision—just one controlling vision! Accordingly, the playbook is written according to that vision. And at any given moment, every team member must be on that same page! Hence, “One and the Same!”
Trait #3: Alignment: Vision/Roles/Responsibilities/Accountability
Having the same vision, alignment must follow, cascading like a spinal cord from brain stem connecting the entire skeletal framework together. Each person’s roles and responsibilities must be crystal clear under this vision, and each and all must embrace it. Team members then should wholeheartedly dispatch their best efforts accordingly, and be accountable to both themselves and their colleagues for results. It is so simple and clear when done in good faith consistently; it is commensurately murky and untenable without clarity and ownership of distinct roles and responsibilities.
Trait #4: Compelling Culture: Open/Honest/Respectful/Proactive
You know it when you see it: teams that have championship cultures! They are open and honest, welcome constructive criticism, with individuals freely admitting mistakes, and they are naturally motivated and hard working. Morale and energy is high. They perform smoothly under pressure, look out for how to help each other and recover from a setback together. It is “we are graded, succeed or fail as a team,” not as individuals. No member should feel great about being “league MVP” if he or she is on a poor performing team, even if that star player scores 40 points in a team loss!
Trait #5: Flexible: Easy to Do Business With
In a high-performance team each individual is flexible, and the group culture is open and adaptable in attitude, style, and function. A client colleague of mine is a retired US Army Colonel, who said that complex, intricate, cross-functional, preparation and scenario planning is done before battle, but immediately after the battle begins, they immediately shift into rapid-fire a change-and-adjust mode according to what is happening on the field of battle in real time. Why? The actual battle never happens exactly according to plan.
Good leaders know they cannot afford to hold onto their preconceptions concerning how things should turn out. Unfolding reality trumps planned preferences. A premium is placed on adaptability and adjustment. This is not a lack of discipline, but an understanding that strong plans still may need prompt, pinpoint calibrations. High-performance teams utilize that same ability to adapt well!
Trait #6: Relationships Work: No Internal One-on-One Dysfunctions
That verity about the chain being only as strong as its weakest link is significant in its relevance to highest performing teams. Each team member is linked one-to-one with every other team member. If one of those links is broken, it affects the performance of the team. For example, if a basketball point guard, responsible for setting plays and making passes, feels hidden resentment toward the highest percentage, brilliant scoring capability of his or her power forward, and makes three or four non-optimal passes to other players because of that imperceptible jealousy, those one or two misses instead of made baskets could be a hinging point in an eventual two-point loss.
The highest performing teams have members who manage themselves on a plane higher than their individual, private, selfish motives, for the greater work and result. Their individual “stat sheet” is secondary. This all-in teamwork advantage may often be an imperceptible X-factor, which of course makes it no less real and powerful as a real difference maker!
Trait #7: Team Leader Criticality
A poor leader undoes surrounding team potential and greatness. Ineffective leadership can and does grab defeat out of the jaws of team victory. Strong leadership has the opposite effect of coalescing the team at particularly tenuous or dangerous moments to overcome serious threats that inevitably surface during major team campaigns. There are few things more de-motivating than a leader who is not up to the quality of their team. He or she may be jealous, insecure, a politician, a mediocre performer, weakly skilled technically, or lacking those necessary project and people skills that are critical in building and sustaining peak performance.
Executives, pick your team leaders wisely! Or even better, do what Israeli military soldiers have done at key points in history—elect their own leaders—the one they will follow into high-stakes battle. That Israeli officer selection model suggests a high-performance team mind-set and cultural practice. My friend Moshe said that is how he came to be Captain of his Israeli unit. It resonated with me—he is one you would pick first to be in your bunker, or lead on a mission.
Trait #8: Up-Line Executives Give Team Support and Backing
I have seen quite a few times where senior management really messes up an otherwise highly performing team! I have some painful memories of communicating to senior leadership that according to my observation they were a big factor why their project teams were not doing well.
This is not something they want to hear. They “kill messengers” or fire consultants for doing that kind of thing. (My personal philosophy is that I need to practice having the guts to place my “fire-ability index” in the “red zone” if it is in the best interests of the company, which hired me for forthcoming advice and counsel. Otherwise it is a cop-out— I am not doing my job. Who else is in a safe position to tell the king he is without apparel?) The higher one’s leadership position in a company, the more he or she needs to check with their people: “How am I doing? How can I or we support you better? Where are your frustrations? How can I help you and your team achieve and maintain peak performance?”
You may think this is an unlikely senior management mode. Statistically, that may be true. Actually, I have witnessed a healthy number of good and great leaders, and leaders of team leaders, who lead this way. No wonder their teams win a lot more than they lose, and some win championships!
Trait #9: No Runaway Teammates
This is about the “gun-slinging cowboy or cowgirl” who, with the stylistic bull they ride, tear up the war room and wreak damage by their lack of discipline, being oblivious, independent, immature, or having an out-of-control ego. That kind of person needs to be coached from the get-go, on a team “measured mile” of clear behavioral expectation, and taken off the team if they will not be a complete, contributing, compatible, play-well professional.
There are the reckless firebrands who have native strengths but cause net greater damage by wanton disregard for others. Or there may at times be the over-hardened veterans whose advanced cynicism (psycho-sclerosis—hardening of the attitudes) of “been there, done that, and it doesn’t work” is so set in stone that they sink the team in negativity – even three feet forward in great experience and knowledge, but four feet backward in the battery-acid effect their ever dripping, corrosive attitude has, leaking down into the performance engine of the team. These types would be better by themselves on their own, behind the mental moat surrounding their fortified castle on No Way Island. It is such a shame when talented, knowledgeable, people cannot or will not play effective team ball.
Forget about winning, much less achieving championships. What has been said about “the bad apple” may be harder to spot amongst today’s more subtle professionals, but is no less true.
Trait #10: Best Practices: the Team Seeks and Uses Them
People talk about finding and using the best approaches, but the key is proactively and aggressively practicing them! They don’t have to be bleeding edge, which can be fad flu, but select great practices. Vital teams have a collective mind-set for perpetual improvement, one little step each day, a determination to look throughout the company, the industry, and across the world—to see, learn, select, and apply. What practice improvements meet a need or shore up a lack on a timely basis? This matter is much about an aggressive learning attitude—a consciousness and habit to continually look, learn, and improve.
This may involve formal training, to sharpen a specific skill in project management, people skills training, or technical requirements. This need may be filled via informal training. There is no need to reinvent the wheel—there are best practices galore available in many free/fee stand-alone and web-based programs, where even a small, content rich five-minute modules inserted in every team meeting can, in a gradual, accretive way, improve team communications, coordination, and esprit de corps. Often there are great resources within the company. With a little beating of the bushes, you will find experts from whom you can learn and apply their best practices in high-need, pinpoint team areas.
Trait #11: Tight Communications
The high-performing team needs to establish regular daily, weekly, monthly, and as-needed communications via optimal channels (e-mail, teleconferences, voicemail, physical meeting, report, text message, etc.) to achieve truly effective communications. Focus on consistent execution.
Communication is the lifeblood of the team: if it flows well, the team and its performance can excel. If there is poor circulation of timely information and knowledge, performance is directly affected. Always ask yourselves, “How can we communicate better?” Be specific, responsible and accountable, both individually and as a unit!
Trait #12: Ultra-Execution: Consistently Implement Higher/Faster/Better
Observation and experience have caused me to conclude that 5% of the final grade is planning; 95% of the final grade is execution! Without execution, the great “DNA” and preparations of the team go unrealized and unrewarded. With crisp, timely, accountable, measurable implementation, plans are “hard-wired” to actions to drive timely results! Give me a pretty good plan executed brilliantly over a great plan executed in a mediocre way! Championship teams consistently master and mobilize the game plan. They execute the basic methods and procedures—blocking and tackling—better than others!
The team results from effectuating these twelve best practices are rock solid and exhilarating!