“A leader is best when people hardly know he exists, when his job is done, his goal achieved, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu
As a college athlete, I thought I understood what it takes to build and lead high performance teams. But I had no idea what it really entailed until I joined Navy SEAL teams in 2001. At TakingPoint Leadership (TPL), we rely on many of the same principles of leadership, mindfulness, spirit, behavior and culture of the world of special operations to help committed leadership teams foster high performance, growth and sustainability. But leadership teams must harness many key attributes to develop a culture of performance and continuous improvement. Effective leadership, however, can only take an organization this far without solid processes and standard operating procedures. A healthy sense of urgency and an appropriate degree of adaptability must always rest on a foundation of stability.
So what is a high performing team?
A “high performing work team” refers to a group of goal-oriented individuals with specialized expertise and complementary skills who collaborate, innovate and produce consistently superior results. The group relentlessly pursues performance excellence through shared goals, shared leadership, collaboration, open communication, clear role expectations and group operating rules, early conflict resolution, and strong sense of responsibility and trust among its members.
One of TPL’s long-standing strategic partners, Avion Consulting, has developed an excellent framework for high-performing teams. The model begins with two dimensions: (1) Relationships – because all successful teams are made up of what? PEOPLE! And (2) Results – because ultimately high performance is about driving results and desired results.
the Relationships dimension is supported by the three Ts:
- Transparency – the cornerstone of our culture of accountability on SEAL teams begins with our ability to engage in peer-to-peer learning, candid feedback, and have critical conversations grounded in respectful truth rather than artificial harmony.
- Trust – aside from accountability, trust is the other most important cultural pillar for successful teams and must be nurtured by creating environments of psychological safety and a deep sense of belonging.
- Your – Leaders get the behaviors they tolerate and therefore must set and reward standards of behavior that support the mission, values, and desired results the team is to achieve.
the Results dimension is supported by the three A’s:
- Alignment – this is a key factor that many well-meaning leaders and teams struggle to maintain as the business evolves and competing internal and external priorities plague their battlefield. Believe me, I’ve been there. Alignment at all levels of the organization is not a one-time initiative – it must be pursued continuously. Mission alignment. On roles and responsibilities. On responsibility, goals and objectives.
- Agility – In SEAL Teams, we are action-oriented and learning-oriented. Our battlefield demands that the individual operator and the team be agile and thirsty for knowledge. We spend ninety percent of our time on professional development. This allows the team to have the skills necessary for adaptability in chaotic environments.
- Responsibility – and finally (and most importantly) is accountability, also known as “extreme ownership” in SEAL teams – a moniker captured in Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s phenomenal bestselling book titled Extreme property. In successful teams, everyone owns the wins and losses. Each member of the team always wonders what else they can do to ensure the success of the mission.
So what are the threats and blockages to creating and sustaining this level of performance thinking and behavior?
Common obstacles faced by successful teams
Given the importance of teamwork in today’s modern “workplace”, we have focused over the years on using evidence-based organizational research and leadership feedback to identify the defining attributes of successful teams. Despite varying approaches to describing high performing teams, some common characteristics seem to be strong indicators of a team that is NOT performing at its peak, or in need of some level of intervention:
Non-participating management. An obvious but common factor in teams that fail to achieve goals involves inadequate leadership involvement. This fuels confusion about belief in the mission and leads to disengagement and lack of participation at all levels.
Absence of process and procedure. Standard operating procedures and tools for even the most mundane or seemingly simple tasks are imperative to streamlining efficiency. Here is a simple example. Like Markus Mikola, founder and CEO of ContractZenrecently explained to me in an email conversation: “Online connectivity means that your operations team, your management team and your customers should never have a disconnect in any business process. The pandemic has accelerated the digitalization and the abandonment of “on paper” contracts and meetings.With new online collaboration tools, paperless meetings and electronic signature, you can draft, finalize and electronically sign any document almost instantly so that you can that it is available when needed, on any device. This means huge time savings, reduced costs and faster processes. Process improvement through even the most basic digital transformation , is essential to gain more time on priority initiatives.
Diversity is not valued. When diversity of thought, experience, cultural background, and everything in between is not valued in an organization, leaders reap what they have sown. Mediocrity. Two great ways to help diversity thrive beyond simple talent acquisition strategies are to build cross-functional work teams and invest in the organization’s ongoing personal and professional development. This allows the organization to benefit from the full wealth of its talent pool.
Inability to manage conflict. This is a common obstacle for many well-meaning leaders and teams. Generally, we don’t like to engage in conflict. But navigating conflict on any team — especially high performance teams — isn’t just inevitable, it’s crucial for survival.
Lack of clarity of objectives. What? How is it possible ? ! Lack of clarity – and alignment – about the WHAT, WHY, and HOW is another common barrier to achieving optimal levels of team performance. Fortunately, this is a relatively simple piece of fruit, but one that often requires a bit of outside facilitation from an unbiased party to achieve maximum clarity.
Unclear roles and responsibilities. Clarity of roles and a strong RACI model (defining who is responsible, accountable, consulted and informed) from the strategic macro level down to the project execution level is imperative. Successful leaders understand this and make it a priority. Sometimes simple, but not easy.
Relationship problems. Our research shows that the number one problem affecting organizational (and personal) performance and resilience at work is the difficulty of interpersonal relationships. These should be resolved by fostering mutual respect among team members.
Broken culture. I have written extensively on this subject in my first bestseller, TakingPoint: A Navy SEAL’s 10 Security Principles for Leading Change. Team culture encompasses everything we’ve looked at so far. Essentially, it can be defined as how team members collectively think, act, and behave. A high performing team culture is well designed, managed and structured to achieve specific results.
There isn’t necessarily a perfect recipe for any particular organization, but when leaders and managers make these attributes behavioral and structural imperatives for the team, high performance and desired results are sure to follow.