How to take your team’s performance to the next level

If I were to ask you to list the qualities of an exceptional team then I’d guess you’d say some or all of the following:

  • High levels of customer satisfaction and customer loyalty
  • Highly engaged and motivated employees
  • Regular positive coverage in the media
  • A leader who clearly communicates, with passion and integrity

According to a the results of a survey carried out by the American Management Association (AMA), a high performance organisation has the following characteristics:

  • Leaders who are clear, fair and talent-oriented. They are more likely to promote the best people for the job, make sure performance expectations are clear, and convince employees that their behaviours affect the success of the organization.
  • Employees who are more likely to think the organization is a good place to work. They also emphasize a readiness to meet new challenges and are committed to innovation.
  • Superiority in terms of clarifying performance measures, training people to do their jobs, and enabling employees to work well together.
  • Strict adherence to high ethical standards throughout the organization

But what is an organisation if not a collection of people organised into departments, services and teams? In other words, for an organisation to achieve high performance, it needs teams and individuals to behave in the ways outlined.

Carl Larson and Frank LaFasto carried out what is still, perhaps, one of the most well-known pieces of research into high performing teams. In their 1989 book, ‘Teams: What must go right, what can go wrong’, they outlined the key characteristics of high performing teams. The factors they identified were:

  1. Principled leadership – in other words, it starts and ends with you. It’s about the example you set day in and day out. It’s about being honest and open about what matters to you. It’s about treating others the way you want to be treated. In other words, it’s about showing respect and leading with integrity.
  2. A clear, elevating goal – this is about knowing where you’re heading and clearly communicating this to your team. It’s about developing the map which is going to take your service from where it is to where it needs to be. It’s about setting clear, easy-to-understand annual objectives that work towards longer-term goals. It’s about every single one of your team members feeling sufficiently stretched in their role. (Note:  Just as important as the ‘map’ i.e. the goals which determine what you’re looking to achieve, is the ‘compass’ i.e. the values which determine how you’ll get there!)
  3. Standards of excellence – a high performing team has clearly defined and agreed standards of customer service. They are kept simple and few – in other words you don’t need a lovely, glossy booklet. The standards can be easily remembered. Everyone from yourself to the most junior member of your team understands what ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ look like and what needs to happen to move from one to the other. And when excellence is achieved at an individual or team level, it’s recognised, rewarded in some way and shared as an example. Whilst you should make explicit standards of customer service, you should also make explicit the standards you expect from your managers with their staff, and for your staff in how they are with each other. Remember, your team members are your customers too.
  4. A results-driven structure – if your service is high performing then I’d guess that every one of your team members is absolutely clear on the performance they need to achieve. That your team managers regularly talk to individual staff about performance; and you regularly talk to those that report directly to you about individual and team performance. More than anything, poor performance is not ignored. It’s dealt with quickly and fairly. Get the right balance of support and challenge in place and you create a high-energy culture, dedicated to delivering results.
  5. External support and recognition – a high performing team will regularly look up and step outside as they understand there are valuable lessons from others to be learned. As a leader of high performing team, you’ll actively encourage your team members to go out and learn from others. In fact, you’ll make it an essential part of their performance objectives. In addition, there are clear benchmarks with other similar teams both within your sector but also from others. And the cherry on top of the cake is that your team achieve external recognition for their work. Don’t listen to the naysayers – PR is not a dirty word! It’s a vital component of being able to retain the best talent and attract new talent in to your team.
  6. Competent team members – this is about developing the right skills not only for today but also tomorrow. It’s about both professional and personal development, something a leader of a high performing team absolutely gets. You can spot a high performing team because the team members exude confidence in not only their abilities but that of their colleagues. They will also say that they are given time to learn and develop. That it is not treated as an add-on or an annoyance but an essential part of their work. The leader of a high performing team will protect their training and development budget to the nth degree.
  7. A collaborative climate – this goes back to the first principle, i.e. you. Your team members need to see you as a great collaborator – collegiate, understanding and someone who builds strong, positive relationships. Do that and it gives you an excellent foundation from which to encourage all team members to do the same. In addition, a high performing leader will actively encourage mentoring and coaching including peer-to-peer coaching. A leader of a high performing team will be a coach and/or mentor to others, and they are savvy enough to have their own coach and/or mentor to help them too.
  8. Unified commitment – it’s that old saying, “united we stand, divided we fall”. In a high performing team, every single team member is united in delivering an excellent service. If a team member is struggling, others will step in to help. Whilst there may be some disagreement at times, the team nonetheless all agree with the broad direction of where the service is heading. And again, it comes back to the leader of the team. Typically, leaders of high performing teams inspire loyalty and commitment in their staff by being congruent in what they say and what they do.

Have you worked in or led a high performing team? What things did you see or do that led to high performance? Share your thoughts in the comments section so that others can benefit from your experience.


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