Over the past 14 years I have been coaching teams on how to be high performing. This has mainly been in competitive industries where high performance is critical for survival and growth.

As part of this 14 years of coaching, I have spent years researching, observing and reflecting on how you build high performance. I am a big advocate of trying to simplify the complex, and recently when I was reflecting and journalling, I was able to provide clarity of thought around the ingredients that make up high performance teams.

To explain this, I will use the concept of a sporting team that wants to win a premiership title.  What I have learnt is that the approach to improve a team from tenth place on the ladder to second place is different from the approach required to go from second to sustainable/ consistent first place.

This is problematic as most industries are not in a competitive environment and they don’t know if they are in sustainable first place or fifth place.  They don’t have self-awareness around what their full potential could be and often measure success by perfectionism.  That is, by getting this perfect rather than continuing to progress and improve.

Teams between 2nd and 10th place measure success by perfectionism.  Leaders who thrive in these organisations are the ones who are good at driving higher levels of perfectionism.

By contrast, organisations which are sustainable first place have a deeper understanding of the human spirit and how you truly deliver high performance.  These organisations measure success in terms of relationships (customers, staff, suppliers, shareholders, governments), learning (continuous improvement, agility, people development), impact (environmental, social, cultural) and outcomes (performance, profitability, sustainability).

Leaders who thrive in these organisations are the ones to embrace and believe in the human spirit.  They see the potential in people and what can be achieved together.  They have the right balance between care and performance.

The teams who sit in first place have a number of attributes:

  • People are not judged nor criticised by peers, staff or leaders but rather celebrated (arguably the most important attribute)
  • The customer is at the forefront of everything the team does
  • There is a sense of connection and belonging within the team – people feel part of something great
  • The focus is on what is good not what is bad – attitude of gratitude
  • There is a greater sense of perspective and a world view – we are grateful for what we have
  • Change is seen as a messy and organic process where people develop shared meaning (sensemaking). Change is not linear, perfect or comfortable
  • People get joy from what they do and encouraged by team mates to be themselves – there are high fives and smiles all around
  • Constructive conflict is normal – people are passionate and constructively challenge
  • There are clear expectations around roles, behaviours and standards. This provides psychological safety
  • Things that create unnecessary stress or anxiety are discouraged.  There may be positive tension but not to the point of impacting peoples well being
  • Leaders provide clarity of direction and feedback around what good looks like so the teams are set up to succeed – we know what we need to do be successful
  • Leaders are supportive and empower people to make decisions and do their roles with some autonomy
  • Leaders are the last ones to speak allowing their people to problem solve and work things through with their peers – leaders only step in when they need to
  • Time invested in things that don’t add value to the customer is seen as wastage
  • People enjoy each other’s company and there is genuine care for well being.  Vulnerability is seen as a strength not a weakness
  • People are allowed to work in a way that brings out their best.  They are not stifled by controlling ways of working.  Ways of working promote agility and simplicity
  • There are clear non negotiables ensuring critical things are done to a standard.  This protects people and customers, but doesn’t restrict them

For leaders wanting to shift from second to first requires an entirely different approach.

It requires you to shed the perfectionism you have been rewarded for your entire career and shift to a mindset of joy and encouragement balanced with achieving the goals you set out to achieve.

It requires you to provide clarity but not to control.

It requires you to provide feedback on what is good (gratitude) not what is bad (criticism, judgement and punishment).

It requires you to show vulnerability, not be rigid or impersonal.

Most importantly, it requires you let go and trust others to do the job. Even if they occasionally fail.

This balance of care and performance is critical for any leader wanting to build a sustainable high-performance team that is consistently the leader in their field.  One without the other won’t work long term as care precedes performance in all high-performance environments.