Leading a High-Performing Team

By Terry Whitaker , Associate Partner

In today’s increasingly flatter organizational structures, teams are taking a greater role than ever in driving organizational progress. Yet, building and leading a high-performance team can be a complex challenge. When we think of high-performing teams, we often conjure up the idea that they just magically “click.” The right blend of talent and personalities come together, and voilà, a great team emerges. While that can be true once in a great while, crossing your fingers and hoping your team gets sprinkled with pixie dust isn’t an ideal strategy to building a high-performing team. What does work is to intentionally integrate actions and behaviors that will build positive team attributes.


When working with leaders on this topic, I often ask them to “ground themselves” by thinking of a specific team they were on that was either the best team or the worst team they can remember. The team doesn’t need to be work related; it could be little league or high school tennis teams, debate teams, PTA teams—any kind of a team as long as it’s a specific one. Therefore, in preparing for this article, I gave myself the same task.


I settled on one of my best teams: a theatre group. (We don’t call them teams in theatre—we like more dramatic monikers like “troupes.”) Although it’s been many years since I’ve been on stage (karaoke doesn’t count!), it stuck with me as a peak experience. When I think back on what made it exceptional, the characteristics and elements line up directly with the distinctions that our building high-performance teams content advocates.


In short, these factors are:


Building Trust: Trust is a fundamental element to a cohesive team. When you’re trying to learn to act, no amount of posted ground rules, stated values, or forced participation can get you to be vulnerable and to try new things in front of others. In the theatre troupe I remember, the first act the leader/teacher took was to tell us the date and time of our performance—and that we were in charge. We were in charge of scene selection, the rehearsal schedule, who was going to perform when, etc. We looked at one another with concern. This was not what we thought we’d signed up for. After all, we were “creatives,” not project managers. While that initial act demonstrated that the director had faith in us, she didn’t allow us to merely sink or swim on our own. Within the first week, she built trust with each of us individually by meeting with us one on one, asking great questions to illicit knowledge of our “whole selves” rather than merely sticking to what she had seen in early auditions. She demonstrated candor when giving feedback on each of our performances—and showed consistency in what she demanded from each of us. I didn’t know how she did it at the time; however, I now understand that all of these intentions—demonstrating skill, reliability, and authenticity—are crucial aspects of building trust on well-functioning teams.


Seeking Alignment: Teams are most effective when people are purpose driven and feel they share a common mission. Whether you are trying to galvanize a cast of 3 or 300, ensuring that everyone involved has an understanding of the key objectives (and in what priority) is crucial to any high-performing team’s success. It helps if you’re able to get everyone’s input on one another’s goals and on prioritizing these goals up front. When everyone knows what overrules what, and which goals matter most of all, it becomes far easier to “manage in the moment” when conflicts arise. A lack of alignment can be the single biggest detriment to a team getting where it needs to go efficiently. It’s easy to get caught up in the importance of our own role and our own “deliverable” on the team. But if you look at a three-act play, the whole shebang rests on nailing act two—that’s where at least half of the entire story unfolds—it’s where we need to showcase the struggle to achieve the solution to the problem—and where further complications often ensue. Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? One common method that business leaders use to gain alignment is to have a weekly team huddle where members determine their three priorities for the week. That way, it’s easy to course-correct without losing much time.


Creating Connection: Team members don’t need to be best friends with one another, but they do need to feel positively connected with their coworkers and know what is expected of themselves and what’s expected of one another. While we have ever more ways of connecting—via Skype, Slack, WebEx, phone, Zoom, Twitter, etc.—we oddly also live in a strangely disconnected time. With all our technology, we’ve lost a bit of our humanity.


At BlessingWhite, we know from our research that employees who feel connected at work find it far more satisfying personally AND give discretionary effort (they work harder and smarter) for the company. In addition, those who feel a connection within their work team are far more likely to support someone who is struggling, pitch in whenever needed, mentor new members, and bring up issues or concerns before they become real problems. As a leader, if you want your team to outperform others, it’s important for you to both create connections with your team members and instill a sense of connection among them.


The theatre troupe leader did it in many ways—one of which was to bring in breakfast once a month and have a 30-minute “feast” where we were encouraged to talk about anything EXCEPT for the current production we were doing. While we were creating connections by understanding more about one another offstage, the director also pushed us out of our comfort zones onstage by encouraging us to try new techniques and then support one another as we tried (and failed) and tried again to improve. What I remember most is that she created an exceptionally safe space, which then allowed us to begin to cheer each other on rather than compete with each other. What a gift.


Driving Results: The teams that truly drive results are those that continually focus on what’s important versus what’s urgent. There will always be urgent issues that arise in our day-to-day work lives; it can be extremely difficult to recognize the difference between an emotional reaction and the objective importance of a specific situation. The leader of a high-performing team must take the time necessary to ferret out the difference—and then help others to do the same. By holding team members accountable to important milestones and leveraging the talents and strengths of each team member uniquely, team leaders can both increase engagement from each team member AND increase their contribution to driving results.


The business world and theatre world are similar in that daily urgent issues arise—and many cast members thrive on “drama.” I distinctly remember one time when the costume designer determined she needed everyone’s measurements THAT DAY or she was going to miss her deadline. The troupe leader calmly brought us all together to determine where each of us stood with our other critical scenes before making a decision. We were then able to collaborate with the costume designer to set a workable schedule over the next few days. In taking that extra step, our leader protected the time we needed to proactively continue working on our high-leverage activities instead of spending time reacting to someone else’s crisis.


Finally, it’s important to understand that none of these elements will stick without the team leader and team members choosing specific actions and behaviors that will increase the outlined characteristics. Whether it’s to add an alignment checklist to team meetings or to create more connection by asking (and listening) to what others care about, the team leader must intentionally choose actions that increase trust, alignment, connection, and results. When done skillfully, doing so will build a high performance team that’s a well-oiled machine—or as fine as the Broadway cast of Hamilton.