Updated: Aug 23, 2022
This is the fourth in a series of blogs in which we will look at some of the common issues faced by modern leaders and how they can be addressed. Today, we will consider how to develop high-performance boards and teams.
It all started so well: you chose the people who you liked and who impressed you at interview. They had good track records and excellent technical skills (or sales figures) and you were excited by what could be achieved as the board/team took shape.
But that was some time ago. If you are being honest, it hasn’t worked out as well as you thought it would. It may not be a disaster, but you are all too aware that your team is simply not achieving the results it should. Some of them are not as happy as they were at first and you are worried they may not stay. Political behaviours are coming to the fore and there are some items that are too sensitive to put on the agenda. Just as frustrating, some items have to be revisited again and again.
Individually your colleagues are competent and probably mean well, but the bottom line is that your team is under-performing. It would be difficult and costly to replace most of them, so what do you do?
Although it will be small comfort, you are not alone. This is a very common situation, but it is one that can be addressed by following these steps:
1. Develop your own leadership skills.
Effective leadership is a must and is the foundation on which all else is built. Start with an honest appraisal of your current levels of competency in the 6-8 key areas that are essential for your success as a leader and clearly identify and prioritise your development needs. A commonly lacking skill is the ability to chair meetings effectively. Poorly run meetings are wasted opportunities. As well as sucking up precious time, they are a serious demotivator for attendees.
2. Select and promote in accordance with your mission, vision, values, strategy and culture.
Failure to do so is one of the most common mistakes I have come across when evaluating underperforming teams. Typically, the interviewer/s focused on track records and technical skills or sales figures and paid insufficient attention to the candidates’ cultural fit. Whilst there must of course be a baseline for technical competence, there is a lot of evidence to show that it is those who are strong cultural fits and who do not excel at the technical requirements that tend to be the high-performers and long-stayers.
Avoid the common temptation of creating a very long role description with pages of ‘must have’ attributes. Focus on the truly key current and future requirements, including cultural attributes, and interview against those. Incidentally, time spent learning and sharpening interview techniques is rarely wasted: this is a skill that can be developed but too many think they can just do it by gut feeling alone.
Take care to guard against building a homogenous team: choose those who could complement your skills and cover your weaker areas. Note that is ‘complement’, not ‘compliment’. Too many leaders lean towards the latter type of candidate!
3. Understand each individual’s motivations, stressors, preferred behaviours, overdone strengths (weaknesses) and reactions to conflict.
Psychometric and behavioural assessments can be very helpful here. We tend to see the world in a certain way and have a natural bias toward that way of speaking and behaving. Even the compliments we give can be phrased in ways that we would like to receive them ourselves. Understanding how each one in the team is different and being prepared to modify behaviours and language accordingly is a powerful force for good on a team. Whilst some of this can be discerned intuitively, using these tools gives greater robustness and granularity and saves time by quickly surfacing the desired information in a common format. They also save time and prevent misunderstanding because they promote the use of a common language to describe oneself and others (including clients).
Aspire MCL is certified to facilitate DiSC, SDI2.0 and Belbin Team Roles to provide this information. More information on each of these, and on ‘The 5 Behaviours’ (below), can be seen in these short video clips: https://www.aspiremcl.co.uk/tools. We also facilitate ‘The Ideal Team Player’ which gauges how people fare in 3 key attributes which are necessary to be an effective team member: humble, hungry and smart (with people).
It is important to remember that these assessments do not measure competence, only preference. They should not, therefore, be used as the sole measure for assessing role suitability.
4. Understand and grow the desired behaviours of effective teams.
In his excellent book, ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team', consultant Patrick Lencioni identifies the 5 behaviours all high-performing teams have in common. They are:
i. Vulnerability-based trust (willingness to admit mistakes, etc.)
ii. Healthy conflict (about the issues)
iii. Commitment (through clarity and buy-in, even if consensus is not possible)
iv. Accountability (for delivery AND behaviours (including peer-to-peer))
v. Focus on results (the greater good, not individual or departmental results)
Each of these behaviours builds on each other as the pyramid shows. Again, effective leadership is the critical success factor which must provide the drive, discipline and focus to make it happen, and the balm to bring calmness and order during the more difficult times of the process.
Imagine how much more productive and engaging meetings would be for the kind of team that has truly mastered these behaviours?
5. Ensure redundancy.
People, including the leader, will eventually leave a team for good reasons or bad. Be ready for it. Whilst it may not be feasible to cover each position as thoroughly as the current incumbents do, ensure there is a robust continuity plan so that if the worst should happen you will not be caught flat-footed.
6. Reward the behaviours you want to see.
If you want to achieve more collaboration across the team, ensure any rewards factor in a significant allowance for those who make the effort to do so. I have spoken with countless leaders who have identified better collaboration as essential for success and have proceeded to award bonuses and other rewards purely on revenue generated.
Another common mismatch occurs when leaders say they want their people and teams to be more innovative and then proceed to over-govern and pounce on any mistakes.
Reward good behaviour even if it does not yield the desired results. If you have identified the right behaviours success will surely follow.
7. Understand that it is a process.
It is helpful to take benchmark scores at the start of your development programme and reassess them after 6-12 months. A common mistake is to try to rush the development. Tucker’s simple but powerful ‘Stages of Team Formation’ model is helpful here: he notes that teams go through 4 stages as they develop:
i. Forming (a new team comes together and there are needs around clarity of mission and establishing working relationships and practices)
ii. Storming (a phase marked by conflict as ways of working and relationships are worked out)
iii. Norming (team order and processes are more settled and results start to flow)
iv. Performing (the team has clarity and healthy relationships and members have achieved skilful proficiency)
Note the need for a different leadership style for each stage: one size does not fit all! For example, during the ‘storming’ stage, you will need to be adept at managing conflict in a firm but understanding and clear manner, whereas in the ‘performing’ stage, you will adopt less of a hands-on approach.
Another common mistake is to over-score the initial benchmarks. For this reason, it is helpful to ask members to submit their scores confidentially (this also highlights any widely spread scores). Also, take care not to rush through the stages to get to the Results/Performing stage quickly. This will not work in the long term: pushing conflict under the surface only guarantees that issues are not dealt with and will arise again, stronger, in the future.
Whilst each team is obviously different, to give an idea of the rate of improvement that is typical, I ran a team development programme for directors in a multi-national company and they achieved an average of 44% improvement in the 5 Behaviours (see ‘iv’ above) in about 7 months.
The above list is not exhaustive, but I trust it will give you valuable guidance for your team development plans. High-performance teams do not just happen, they are made. Good leadership and a willingness to be disciplined and committed to an informed plan are fundamental to success.
In addition to the obvious business benefits of having consistently high-performing, highly engaged and well-led teams, work is much more rewarding and much more fun when people have the satisfaction of doing what they enjoy with others who are similarly motivated. It is hard not to succeed when that is the case!
As noted above, this is the fourth blog in a series addressing leadership issues. If there is a topic you would like Aspire to cover in subsequent releases, please comment or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We will not spam you!
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