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How To Build High Performing Teams

How to build High Performing Teams

… and what it has to do with Agility

I remember the first time I facilitated a High Performing Team retreat, 15 years ago in Jakarta. It was the BoD of a large local bank, overall 10 directors plus the CEO. We spent 2 days offsite discussing and agreeing about the team’s dynamics, aligned goals, the bank’s strategy and how it links to the overall vision. There have been some frictions in the past, but we were able to facilitate solutions. After a final ‘Mutual Expectations’ session on the second day, the BoD was very satisfied with the outcome and over the next 3 months implemented all their agreed actions.

After the event I was surprised and also motivated to see, how easy it was to get a team of grown-up leaders to discuss, align and agree and I looked forward to the next retreats with other Leadership teams.

But I learned very quickly that not all top-level leadership teams had the same level of maturity. Over the next 15 years I facilitated countless Executive Retreats, and I did not meet many High Performing Teamat the top like the one above. Sometimes it was too much ego, or getting caught in details or silo-mentality. Often it was a mix of all of it, which is not the recipe for a high performing team or culture.

The Idea of High Performing Teams

In the world of team development many refer back to Tuckman’s ‘Stages of Group Development’. Almost everyone has heard of the Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing stages, which, as Tuckman claimed, are inevitable for a team to grow, face challenges, find solutions and to deliver results. While there are a lot of details and submodels to explain the different stages and the transitions, I always found that some key details were often overlooked when I was discussing with executives about how to become a ‘High Performing Team’. And while Tuckman’s concept is alread 55 years old, it is surprising, how up-to-date it is when it comes to Agile Teams and Organizations.

Let’s start with participative leadership. While in the beginning, the Forming phase, the leader of the team has to be more directive, he (or she) needs to step back over time if he/she wants to enable a high performing team. The team does need guidance and direction when they start forming the team, but the more the team evolves and the more responsibility the team-members need to take, the more participative the team leader has to be. Effective decisions come from the team in a high performing culture, not from one person. And it is this ability of a great leader, to know when and how to include the team into the decision-making process more and more.

The team has to develop true interdependence, the ability to rely on each other rather than relying on the team leader. True interdependance also means for example to understand the importance of other departments and to reach out across (internal) boundaries. Many leaders are very protective of their own departments, which often leads to silo-mentality and in-effective interactions between different functions. In order to become a high performing team, each leader needs to let go of his/her ego and build true alliences with all other departments for the better of the company, (which sounds easier than it is). I remember the CEO of the first executive retreat saying: “My job as a CEO is easy, I only have to take care of the bank as a whole. But you (the directors) have to wear two hats – the one of your own directorate and the one of the bank”.

And finally, and in my experience one of the most important qualities a team (or for that matter an organisation) must develop to lay the foundation for a High Performing Team/-Culture) is mutual trust. Trust here does not mean that the whole team has to become close friends. It is for example described as trusting each others’ competencies for the position. If a team member does not have what it takes for the job, and seems unlikely to learn it, his/her collegues will not trust the decicions or input from that person. Trust can also be how we communicate with each other: if we agree that what we discuss should not leave the room, or we talk with one voice in front of others. Trust can be defined as the possibility to give constructive feedback or to approach a potential conflict situation. If both parties can trust that each action is meant for improvement or for the greater better, it is easier to come to an agreement. And a very simple definition of trust is: to say what you do and do what you say.

Over the years I have worked with some high performing executive teams. These three points, participative leadership, interdependence and trust, were always a vital foundation of those teams. The CEO or team leader often played a vital role in enabling the conditions, in which those characteristics can evolve. But likewise, every team member plays a critical role to allow a high performing culture to blossom.

From High Performing Culture to Agile Organisation

In the last couple of years agility became the term for many teams and organization to live by. It took me some time to look beyond the buzzwords and techniques, which of course are important for an agile organisation to be effective. But it struck me when I read an article three years back about the characteristics of effective agile teams. Besides all the important areas like for example collaboration, continuous improvement, adaptability etc., the article was talking about a high level of emotional intelligence and leaders, who inspire through trust instead of control. And when I read that, I remembered that very first executive team I facilitated – everyone in that team, including the CEO was carying those qualities. And I believe that no matter how well trained the agile processes are in an organisation, it always starts at the top to start building a high performing culture.

Michael Weichert, Asian Leadership Centre, ©️ 2020

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