Creating High Performance Teams


Your organization functions as smoothly as a well-crafted watch. As you walk around in the morning with your cup of coffee, everywhere you look are happy, busy people working effortlessly to get done whatever it is that they are doing. But if someone were to come up to you and ask, “How did you do this?” could you really pinpoint why the organization is so high performing?

Even more importantly, if your high performing organization suddenly broke, do you know what needs to be done to get it back on an even keel? Leadership guru Andy Stanley says;

if you don’t know why it’s working when it’s working, you probably won’t know how to fix it when it breaks.

My oldest son is a high-performance car “nut” and I say that as a high form of praise. Because he certainly didn’t get that love of tweaking his Mustang and racing it in amateur sports car races from me. Oh sure, years ago I used to be able to tune a car and bolt on a carburetor or change a timing belt. But by the time he came along, I had turned all that tinkering over to trained mechanics. Somehow, he acquired a passion for getting the best performance out of his car. As a result, when it breaks down, which happens every now and then, he knows exactly what to do to get it back in tip-top shape.

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So how do we create high performance organizations or teams?

Step one is to select performance oriented people and position them for maximum impact. Jim Collins, in “Good to Great,” says, “If you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away.” “The right people,” said Collins, “don’t have to be managed or fired up.”

Step Two – Clarify the “what” and “why.” Every person on the team should know exactly what they are there to do and why. Everyone should have some idea about the problem they’re here to solve. What is the task you’re trying to get done? What’s the opportunity that you’re here to leverage?

And then we have to understand WHY. This is something that non-profits are great at. Businesses, generally speaking, are not good at this. The reason understanding WHY is important is because this is where people find their inspiration. People need to feel that there is a purpose to work beyond just making a profit. Pat McMillan in his book, “The Performance Factor” said a clear, common, compelling task that is important to the individual team member is the biggest single factor in team success. One of the most personally rewarding parts of my former jobs as a leader of teams and organizations was going around to every member of the team making sure that they understood how important even the most mundane task was to getting the mission accomplished.

Step Three – Connecting the dots. It’s not enough to have the right people in the right seats on the bus, but also for each of them to understand to understand how all the dots connect.

It’s a common mistake for leaders to think that because they understand how all the dots connect, everybody understands how all the dots connect. Nothing could be further from the truth.

So part of creating a HPT is creating a real sense of inter-dependence. This is where sports teams have the advantage. On a team everybody knows that the ultimate goal is to outplay and out score their opponent. Everybody knows what their role on the team is and everybody knows what skill set and value-added abilities they bring to the team. So when one person drops the ball, literally or figuratively, everybody feels a personal sense of accountability to get the ball back and working to their collective advantage.[/message]

In a sports team collaboration is absolutely essential. It’s not an add-on or a nice-to-have. In other types of organizations or business this need for collaboration isn’t quite as obvious. That’s why it’s the leader’s role to help people understand the need for collaboration and interdependence.

But unlike a sports team where the game is won within a short amount of time and the results of collaboration or non-collaboration are quickly seen, in the business world, time is measured in months and years. Progress is harder to see and energy is harder to sustain. The game never ends. Measuring wins is harder as well. While one section or division is feeling pride of accomplishment, another division may be struggling to understand the excitement.

The reverse of this is true also.

Anyone who has worked in a poorly performing organization knows that there are people who are hiding. There are people who are making mistakes and covering them up. There are people who are doing just enough to get by.

So all of this comes back to us as leaders to actually connect the dots and understand exactly what’s going on in the organization and why. Leaders who want a high performing organization have to ensure that there is a sense of interdependency and that everyone on the team feels it. Being better than the next department is not enough. Leaders must be focused on ensuring that every department is working together toward the shared goals of the organization or business; not on beating each other.


David McNamee, Ph.D.
David McNamee, Ph.D.
David McNamee, Ph.D. is an author, master educator, and leadership expert with documented success in public, private, domestic, and international sectors. David is a Professor of Leadership at the University of Arkansas Grantham, International Faculty at Jesuit Worldwide Learning, and a member of the Board of Directors at the Rotary Fellowship of Leadership Education and Development. With his son, he is co-author of "Servant Leadership Lessons for Middle School" available on Amazon.

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