The Promise of High Performing Teams

Why do we hear so much about the importance of teamwork and high performing teams? UCLA Coach John Wooden won a record 10 NCAA basketball championships because he focused on the basic fundamentals that make a team great. He didn’t care how talented a player was. He understood we could accomplish so much more as a team, than you can as a group of individuals working together. There is a price to creating high performing teams, which most leaders aren’t willing to pay. Those that do, find their investment rewarded greatly.

Today, most people assume because they are in the same department, they are part of a team. Many hiring managers have a tendency to focus on top talent, rather than how well the individual will fit with their culture. People unconsciously favor natural talent to work ethic, effort, and motivation.[1] Teamwork takes dedication, commitment and hard work. Many leaders take a short-term approach that it is easier to work independently as part of a group rather than commit to the steps of becoming a high performance team. In reality, once they have committed to developing a high performance team, everything is easier.

Several years ago I worked for an organization that was, ironically, providing leadership and teamwork training to businesses. The company was struggling with sales during the 2008 recession, so I was asked to leave my position in training and development to focus on increasing sales. The sales department had hired and lost over 50 sales people from 2008-2011. None of them were able to have the success needed to remain working there. Clearly, the sales process was not working. I found that the sales practices of the company incentivized individual performance versus team performance. I learned everything I could from the best performers, and I brought my own experience as well. When I began to share my ideas, I was told my ideas would not work. In this situation, I felt it easier to take my own approach rather than follow the current process. I was working on a “team”, but we did not function as a team. I became the top sales performer within a year and I remained one of the top performers. Then I was promoted to sales manager.

Because of the toxic culture this was a big challenge. As a manager, there was tremendous pressure to produce. Ownership had a short-term focus and had little patience for the work it would take to change the culture. Top performers behavior was seriously disruptive. Because sales were low, leadership opted to allow top performers to work from home to reduce friction and drama. It would have taken time and commitment to hold them accountable and build a cohesive team. Instead, this short-term approach created sales results which were difficult to sustain. Sustained results require much more than individuals with talent working separately. It requires people who are willing to work hard and put the team ahead of their own personal ambition and agendas. It requires that the members of the team trust each other’s motives and actions. It required me to take more ownership of the process and be more courageous than I was at the time.

My experience is that business leaders are afraid of replacing disruptive top producers. They rely on their production and are not sure they can replace it. In my experience, your organization will thrive without these disruptive talents. I find that when they leave, trust increases and the rest of the team is more willing to step up and take greater responsibility. I would rather have a team of average players who are committed and motivated to work together, than a “team” with great talent who thinks they can do it alone and so would you. Billy Bean, the manager of the Oakland A’s starting in 1997, showed the impact of average players working as a team who could get on base vs. the all star with a “big bat.” His approach was revolutionary and was chronicled in the 2011 movie “Moneyball” starring Brad Pitt.

Several years ago, Boyd Packer was at a county fair in Vermont. He was interested in the main event, which was an ox pull. Teams of two oxen where given three chances to pull a sled of cement blocks starting at five tons. As more weight was added, teams were eliminated until one team remained. He observed several teams; one in particular with enormous oxen seemed favored to win. They did not even place. Instead, an unlikely much smaller team won the event. He asked the local New Englanders how this was possible? They explained that the small team pulled at exactly the same time allowing their energy to be evenly distributed through the yoke creating tremendous power. The bigger teams did not work as well together and the difference of one second as the oxen would pull caused the energy to be lost and the pulling power to dissipate.

Teamwork is one of the greatest advantages any organization can have. It will have more positive impact than any individuals with intellect or natural strength or ability. Change is happening so quickly today. It is reported that information doubles every twelve to eighteen months. Computing power doubles every two years. We must learn to work as a team to keep up.

If teamwork is so vital to our sustained success, why are there not more effective teams?

  1. It takes commitment, effort and courage. It takes a willingness to embrace change to create high performing teams

  2. Most leaders do not know how to transform their people into a high performance team.

  3. Many leaders are under so much pressure to produce today, they forget about the need to produce tomorrow and the day after that.

  4. There is a culture of blame. If the leader blames, he cannot expect anyone else to take ownership either and this creates a vicious cycle of poor accountability.

  5. There is a bias toward talent. Often high potential performers are overlooked because they do not immediately stand out. A team of dedicated and committed people will outperform a group of individually talented people.

  6. Incentives often reward individual versus team performance.

  7. Not enough time is devoted to building trust with team members.

These challenges can be overcome. Working on a high performance team is fun and energizing. The return on investment is exciting and profitable.

Think of the best team you have ever been on. What made it great? What did you accomplish? Years ago, I played basketball in a city league. The members of this team were not particularly talented or fast. We had fun together and we worked cohesively. One Saturday, we were practicing on a court by the beach. A group of young and individually talented men challenged us to a game. They were supremely confident in their success and told us we should be ready to lose. Instead, they became frustrated as we began pulling ahead. We were playing as a team. They were showcasing their individual talents and eventually began arguing and blaming each other. They lost and left in disgust and frustration.

How do you get committed to the team? You have to be willing to own the results of the team. You can’t say you are succeeding and failing because of someone else. It is our boss, our co-workers, or our customers who are fault. Our marketing is poor, our product is weak, our leadership doesn’t know what they are doing. You must own the results of the team you are on. Regardless of title and position, you can influence the team to improve, by your commitment to the team. It is easier to blame and go it alone or leave. That is what many of us do.

If you are willing to pull together, you will be rewarded. I have a client that today is absolutely thriving as a high performance organization. There are multiple teams at many different levels. It took several years of hard work to make some major changes. They had to ask one of their founding principals to leave. This process took tremendous courage and commitment. The individual was immensely talented but toxic. The team was so much better in the long run. They were able to heal and come together to fulfill the very important mission of the organization. At the time, there was uncertainty about losing the talent of this individual, though there was damage to this person’s reputation and also the organizations reputation. The results two years later were unmistakable.

It is so much fun to be an underdog that exceeds expectations. Your leadership matters to the performance of the team. You do not have to be the smartest or most talented. You just have to be the most committed to creating team performance. You are much more effective as a team than alone.

The author Spencer Horn is the President of Spencer Horn Solutions, LLC. Additional articles which may interest you: 7 Steps For a More Productive Team; Leadership Is About Impact Not IntentionHow To Prepare Your Next Generation Of LeadersIncrease Your Effectiveness As A Leader With Perception Science;  How To Create Success From Failure; How To Get Your People To Change TodayCure For The CEO DiseaseThe Importance of Values; Results Killing Virus

If you would like to take a closer look at how much more productive your team could be through greater teamwork, message me and I will send you a comprehensive diagnostic tool.

[1] Chia-Jung Tsay, an assistant professor at University College London, “Beware Of The Bias Toward Natural Ability”, Harvard Business Review, April 2106, pgs. 28-29