With Martin G. Moore

Episode #2

Building a High Performing Team: Weak team = poor results

So many people say that they have built a ‘high performing team’ – but how many high performing teams have you actually seen, or been part of?

In this episode we’ll cover:

  • What is a high performing team, and how can you recognise if you have one?

  • World class wisdom from champion athlete Benita Willis

  • The seven characteristics of high performing teams (you can download this checklist below and rate your own team)

  • How to look at the individuals in your team and work out whether they should be on, or off the bus (a la Jim Collins!)

  • Some of the excuses and rationalisations you may come up with to avoid dealing with individuals who are not up to scratch, that are preventing you from creating a high performing team

  • A cautionary tale about how tough it was to create a high performing team at CS Energy

If this episode strikes a chord with you, download the high performing team checklist below, and rate your team honestly. This will help you see your biggest opportunities for improvement!


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Episode #2 Building a High Performing Team: Weak team = poor results

If you want to be successful as a senior leader, you first have to have the bright people on your team. This doesn’t happen by accident. Here, we’ll focus on how to build capability at the individual level. There’s no doubt that high performing teams start with the individuals that make up that team and if you, as a leader, don’t commit personally to doing what it takes to get the best people on board, by definition, you simply can’t have a high performing team. In Episode #35, we go through how to build the team culture and dynamic so give that episode a listen once you finish this one.

What is a high performing team?

I would love a dollar for every resume I’ve read or every interview I’ve held where a person claims to have build a high performing team. So what is it that defines a high performing team? Well, as soon as you ask to drill it down, people find it really difficult to articulate what a high performing team actually is. Nor can they describe what they did to build it. For most, as a generalisation, it seems to come down to my team are all happy campers and got on well with each other.

So, how would you know if you had a high performing team? And what do the individual performance and behavioural standards look like in a team like that, what’s the team dynamic? I once invited Benita Willis to talk to my leadership team about what it actually takes to be world class. Now, the term world class is bandied around so often that it’s become virtually meaningless. Benita, for those of you who don’t know her, is undoubtedly the finest distance runner ever to represent Australia. She knows what it takes to be world class because she actually was.

And the bottom line she left with us was,

“You don’t just stumble across world class performance, it takes an enormous amount of sacrifice, dedication and courage to get there.”

So why would leadership performance be any different?

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page and all speaking the same language, what I’ve done is to develop what I call the seven characteristics of a high performing team. These are the things that through my observation over the years, I’ve realised set teams apart. High performing teams actually have these characteristics and other teams simply don’t.

Characteristics of a high performing team

#1: They Get Results
The first characteristic of a high performing team is that they get results. And that’s regardless of the obstacles and challenges that are in their way. They find a way to make it all work. These are teams that are driven by value. Not just driven by activity. Now, of course, this is another podcast episode in itself.

#2: They Stand Out From Other Teams
The second characteristic of a high performing team is that it actually stands out from other teams in the organisation. So it’s very, very clear to everyone around that there’s something different about this team. Something different about the way it’s led and something different about the way it functions.

#3: They Are Never Happy With The Status Quo
The third characteristic of a high performing team is that they are never happy with the status quo. They’re continually looking for opportunities to be better and to achieve more and to stretch themselves further.

#4: They Stand Up Well to Scrutiny of External Benchmarking
Number four is that high performing teams stand up really well to the scrutiny of external benchmarking. First and foremost, they actually invite comparison because they want to be the best amongst their peers. Not only that, but they select an ambitious peer group. So for example, if an organisation is a manufacturer of aerosol cans in Western Sydney, they don’t compare themselves to other manufacturers of aerosol cans within their geographical reach but rather, they want to compare themselves to the global benchmarks for manufacturers in related industries. They certainly wouldn’t be comfortable boasting about being the world’s tallest dwarf.

#5: They Challenge Themselves to be Better
The fifth characteristic is that they challenge themselves to be better first and foremost. That challenge is then transferred by osmosis to other teams they interact with. They don’t sit there, bitching and moaning about what other teams aren’t doing, they just get on with it and behind them, as they move forward at pace, they create a vacuum that’s then filled by other teams in the organisation that haven’t been performing as well.

#6: They Exude Confidence
High performing teams exude confidence because they’re on their game, they’re kicking goals and they’re making the scoreboard tick over.

#7: They Don’t Make Excuses or avoid challenges
And finally, number seven, high performing teams don’t make excuses. And they don’t avoid challenges. They actually relish them

Now, you might argue the toss on one or two of those characteristics but really, it’s just so that we get a clear idea in our heads of what a high performing team looks like. I think that really gives us a basis for comparison between those teams that are really delivering and those that aren’t. But once again, we gotta be pretty honest with ourselves about what characteristics are there that we’re observing and whether or not we truly have a high performing team because trust me, there are not that many of them around.

I’ve created a resource that fleshes out these seven characteristics of high performing teams further, and have turned it into a checklist where you can rate your own team. Download it here.

How do you create a high performing team?

Well, the very first thing that you have to do is to get the right individuals in place because high performing teams cannot be high performing, unless each of the individuals in that team is observing and reaching a certain standard.

Jim Collins in his seminal work Good to Great, which I’m sure many of you have read, talks about first getting the right people on the bus. And this is critical in building a high performing team in a high performing organisation that’s gonna deliver results over time.

In his chapter First Who, Then What?, Jim says this, and I quote,

“I don’t really know where we should take this bus but I know this much. If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it some place great.”

As a leader, you really have to embrace this advice. And it’s extremely rare that you’re going to get to build a team from scratch at any point in your career. Even if you did, though, hiring is an imprecise art and so you’ve got to be constantly vigilant to make sure that you have the right people on the bus, in the right seats and that you don’t have any of the wrong people hanging on.

Many leaders actually feel constrained by what’s there when they turn up in a leadership role. And there is some complexities in this, there’s no doubt about it. So for example, if your promotion is the result of your boss being promoted and you still report to her, then that’s the team that she built that you’re now having to lead. So she may not wanna hear from you, but certain team members need to be changed out because they’re not up to the job. This can affect her self-image as a leader and certainly won’t do you any favours in your relationship with your new boss.

But you can never have, nor can you claim to have a high performing team until you’re first 100% satisfied that you’ve actually done this work. So as a leader, if you are serious about building a high performing team, then you’ve gotta commit personally to doing what it takes to get the best people on board. And for some of you, this is really gonna go against your grain. If we just think about Episode 1 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast, we spoke about respect before popularity and the need to be liked. If you don’t get this under control, it’s very, very unlikely that you’re gonna do the hard work of building the right leadership team with the right individuals in it.

Excuses and rationalisations that prevent you from creating a high performing team

As humans, we find a thousand ways to rationalise why we shouldn’t do something that’s hard and we are all human. I know what’s going through your head because I’ve been there myself. So here’s some of the classic rationalisations we use that prevent us from doing this work:

  • “Everyone deserves a chance.” – That’s a great rationalisation because it’s true, everyone does deserve a chance. But only if we put it in the context of very specific standards that are set for both behaviour and performance. These standards have to be met within a reasonable timeframe because in that context, we can actually give someone a chance in a disciplined way that lets them either perform or not perform and it’s their choice. There have been times where I’ve had to say to someone, “If you work really hard on your development, you are two to three years away from the performance that I need, but unfortunately, I can’t wait two to three years. I need that performance right now and the team needs that performance right now.”

  • “Who am I to play God?” – If you’re a good leader, you will have a personal connection with your people, you’ll be friendly but you won’t be friends. This means, you know some things about them personally, you’ll know their kids’ names, you know where they live, you know something about their financial circumstances and then, it becomes really tough. But paradoxically, this thing that makes you a better leader, by knowing something about your people and being personally connected with them, also makes it much more difficult to make decisions that impact their lives. And we’ll have a future episode on whose accountability it is for performance and that should help with this one. But just at the moment know that this is a rationalisation that you probably going to have to get over in your own head.

  • “But they’re a great person” – A common one is rationalising with ‘this person has so many great qualities and they’re such a great person, everyone really likes them, they’re such a good fit for the team.’ Now this may be true, but this has never been a criterion for leadership performance. And so whether this person has great qualities, is a really decent person, is loved by the team doesn’t really matter because at the end of the day, you’ve gotta get results. As Steve Drotter once said to me, “There’s a lot of nice folk in this organisation, but nice folk don’t make a business perform.” And remember, the number one characteristic of a high performing team is that it gets results and it performs, no matter what.

  • “I can make this person better.” – Now, if you think about this, it’s the height of arrogance. When you say you can make someone better, really? Can you? as the leader, it’s your job to set the tone, the pace and the standard for your people and that’s a very, very important role. And you could even motivate and support people to bring out the very very best that they have. But at the end of the day, every individual chooses how they behave and perform. And we shouldn’t be so arrogant as leaders as to think that we have that much impact and that much control over any other individual.

  • “They’re improving.” And this is normally a sign of futility. Improvement is fine and improvement can be expected. It’s a very, very rare individual and a very rare leader that you actually see breakthrough improvements. It’s the exception rather than the rule in my experience. But our tendency, and looking optimistically, is to look for the tiniest little green shoots of improvement we can see and then to declare victory, way too early. What normally happens is an individual will improve a little. And they’ll improve under your direction fairly quickly because they realise that they have to do something different if they wanna keep their jobs. But longer term improvements to get them up to the bar that your setting for performance standards in a higher performing team generally is very very difficult to do. Although I know this is gonna be controversial, it’s always much much easier to buy in someone who already has those characteristics and performance standards than it is to try and grow someone and drag them kicking and screaming from a substandard level of performance to something that you’re gonna be satisfied with and something that’s worthy of the team you’re trying to build.

I think we can all agree that putting the individuals in place that are gonna give you a chance of building a high performing team is not something that’s easy to do.

What you need to remember is that as a leader, you have to eat your own dog food. If you don’t do this, and create a high performing team with the right individuals that meet the right standards of behaviour and performance, no one below you will do it. And sometimes, even when you do do it diligently, some people below you still won’t do it. And to give you a hint, when you see those people, they actually need to be off the bus.

My experience with building a high performing team

It took me five years to build the right team at CS Energy and four of those, was just to get the right people on the bus and in the right seats. Of my five direct reports, nine of them were turned over during that time. So clearly, in some roles, more than one person. Two of those nine were excellent performers who left by their own choice because they wanted to move on and grow into other organisations. But seven left because of my choice. Now some of these seven were simply not up to the job and I had to take the actions I took. But some were actually good people who brought their part of the organisation as far as they could, I just recognised that we needed something different if we were going to improve and to keep moving forward.

The organisation needed to keep moving forward because we certainly weren’t where we needed to be. And if the leader is an okay leader but they can’t take the organisation beyond where it is now, then you have to make a hard choice about it because that is what defines the basis for a high performing team.

I also had a couple of excellent high performing people from the layer below who acted in the executive roles for lengthy period of times. But I realised that as good as they were, they simply weren’t ready to be executive general managers. And they were some tough calls I had to make as well because they were really good people who, one day, are gonna be extremely successful at the executive level. Now it would have been so easy for me to lead the team as it was. Some might say that team was good enough. But, I knew that that wasn’t the case.

What I had to do was the hard work of building a high performing team that gave the most to the organisation the leadership it deserved. Now, it’s easy in most organisations to actually avoid this work because most leaders aren’t focusing on this first and foremost, they’re focusing on the myriad of other things that are coming their way through the wind tunnel. And that’s okay. Don’t do it. It’s your choice as a leader. But if you don’t do the work to build a high performing team with the right individuals, just don’t kid yourself that you built a high performing team and don’t believe your own bullshit. In most cases, if you’re not actively working to achieve this and constantly driving your team performance higher and making sure that you have the right people on the bus and in the right seats, the team will, by definition, be average to mediocre. And you’re just gonna have to accept that.

I’ve put together the Seven Characteristics of a High Performing Team and fleshed that out a little so that you can actually create that checklist for yourself and use it for your own organisation. Download it here.

Want to learn how to build team culture and dynamic? Listen to Episode #35.


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