By Russell Borland and Thomas Chalmers

A version of this article first appeared in the book ‘Legal leadership: a handbook for future success’ published by the Ark Group in 2018.

What do we mean by a High Performing Team?

One way of providing a structure in differentiating between a group, team and high performing team is to consider each in terms of the following components:

  • the nature of interactions between group/team members;
  • how members of the group/team relate to the collective identity of the group/team and;
  • how the group/team is viewed from an external (to the group/team) perspective.

Using this as a structure we propose the following definitions:

A group can be defined as a collection of individuals working alongside one another with little interaction or dependency on one another, and a loose shared goal and set of values, if any.  Group members are likely to feel only a low level of affinity with the group as a whole.

A team is a group with a shared goal and set of values, with a discernible level of interaction or dependency between team members.  They are likely to express feelings of belonging to the team, and will be viewed externally as a distinct team.

A High Performing Team is a team with a strong sense of meaning and purpose, and an ease of communication that allows for fluid interaction.  Individuals operate at their highest level, and the output of the team of the whole is clearly greater than the sum of the individual parts.  The team is highly regarded externally.

Building a High Performing Team

High performing teams don’t simply materialise and are most likely the product of four stages which were identified by the late researcher, Bruce Tuckman. He studied the theory of group dynamics and in 1965 published the relatively well-known, ‘Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development’ as follows:

  1. Forming – team members experience lack of clarity on purpose and responsibilities. Strong reliance on the leader for answers and direction.
  2. Storming – much deliberation. Difficulty in making decisions. Team members try to position themselves. Purpose becomes clearer, but uncertainty still prevails.
  3. Norming – harmony, accord and compromise are found as the team establishes understanding and a way of working together. Leader becomes more of a coach and facilitator.
  4. Performing – team is aligned on purpose and displays (many of) the characteristics listed above.

(Note: In 1977 Tuckman added a fifth stage: Adjourning – the dismantling of a team after it has (hopefully) achieved its purpose or stated objective)

But what does it take to build high performing teams time and again? Perhaps we can gain some insight from the approach of the late Steve Jobs, CEO and Co-founder of Apple. His autocratic leadership style has often been referenced but in the final days of Steve Jobs’ life, his biographer, Walter Isaacson seemingly visited him and asked which of his products he was most proud. ‘Was it the early Mac?’ enquired Isaacson, ‘or perhaps the iPod, iPad or iPhone?’

If you don’t already know then Jobs’ reply may surprise you.

He said that he was ‘most proud of his team – The Apple Team – that had created award-winning products time and again.’

If Jobs was most proud of his team, what was his secret? How did he build the team that built those disruptive, market-leading products? To gain further insight of his approach it’s also worth looking at the success of Pixar Animations which produced several hits from Toy Story 1, 2 & 3 to Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles. When Jobs became a major shareholder in Pixar he built an atrium – a communal space where people could meet, talk to one another, collaborate and create; where the goal was to produce their best work regardless of whose toes (including their own) were stepped on. For example, they knew that by introducing the iPhone, they would disrupt their own iPod. Ironic in some respects that the man who brought us the iPhone also knew that face-to-face communication is the key to building a high performing team.

According to research by the Harvard Business Review the average team achieves only 63% of its strategic plans and, as discussed above, high performing teams seldom, if ever, evolve randomly. In recent times MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has provided insightful research on the team dynamics necessary to create dramatic leaps in performance.

Professor Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland leads MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and is a founding member of advisory boards for Google, AT&T, Nissan, and the UN Secretary General. He’s also cited as one of the most powerful data and computational scientists in the world. So, what did Sandy and his (presumably high performing team!) find or -perhaps confirm- what we’ve probably always inherently known?

The Human Dynamics Lab set out to find the elusive group qualities that characterise high performing teams. They observed, measured and quantified those teams that demonstrated drive, imagination and alignment to a common purpose. The Lab’s modus operandi was an electronic badge called a ‘sociometer’ that they basically pinned to people’s lapels – a wearable gizmo that recorded extraordinary amounts of data relative to face-to-face contact; what were team members’ physical proximity to one another when conversing; what was their tone of voice; their body language; how was the airtime split between them; were they introvert or extrovert in their communication style and what was their level of emotional intelligence?

Even before they studied the data, MIT had a sense of whether a team might be exceptional or not simply by its ‘buzz’ or ‘esprit de corps’. The Lab didn’t need to understand what was being said because the style of communication said it all. Unsurprisingly then, it’s not what we say, but the way we say it, that matters. Sandy and his colleagues found that communication patterns are critical to a team’s success and that communication not only trumps any other individual factor but trumps all other factors combined, including intelligence, personality type and even the topic being discussed.

They then sub-divided communication into Three E’s: Energy, Engagement and Exploration. In other words, how much energy was each member contributing; how often did they engage with one another and to what extent did the team communicate and collaborate with other teams? And if you’re reading this thinking that nobody ever engages with you, it might be because you aren’t engaging with them; time for a look in the mirror perhaps?

Allied to communication, further research from Harvard reveals that high performing teams tend to celebrate their successes and show appreciation for one another’s skills as well as share and resolve emotional issues that might hinder their success. The converse is of course true: teams who focus solely on process and forget about people ultimately falter or fail.

The MIT Lab tracked sales teams who failed largely because of their lack of face-to-face communication coupled with an over-reliance on email, especially at the beginning of projects; people got together too late. What these sales teams should have done was create bonds sooner, both internally with each other and by extension, externally with their clients.

In summary, MIT’s formula for high performing teams includes the following features:

  • conversations are largely in person.
  • team members both talk and listen. No one hijacks the airtime. Discussions are dynamic.
  • members communicate 1:1 with each other, not just through their team leader.
  • side conversations are continued out-with structured team meetings.
  • external input and perspectives are occasionally sought by members to inform and enlighten their team.
  • positive communication patterns are more important than individual talent or contribution.

And the ‘Ideal Team Player’, ‘Connecter’ or Leader’ generally:

  • circulates regularly.
  • engages in short, dynamic conversations.
  • communicates with everyone equally.
  • doesn’t need to be an extrovert but does feel comfortable initiating conversations with others.
  • listens intently.
  • focuses their complete attention on whoever is talking.

Logic dictates that the more people on a team with these latter qualities, the greater likelihood of a team’s high performance.

Interestingly MIT’s formula for high performance matches Steve Jobs’ innate approach – that the most valuable form of communication is face-to-face followed by video and telephone – with email at the bottom of the list. Jobs most certainly harnessed the power of high interaction; people checking in with one another to create powerful conversations. He knew that creativity comes from spur-of-the-moment meetings, ad hoc conversations on the telephone, Skype or Facetime if not in person. Jobs recognised that there is a temptation in our digital age to think that ideas can be developed by email or imessage. As a leader of many high performing teams he knew, however, that when we type less and talk more with colleagues, we instil the essence of teamwork and high performance. That said, you don’t need to be Steve Jobs to lead a high performing team and in the next section we’ll share a learnable leadership model that is both practical and informed by decades of research.    

Leading a High Performing Team

Firstly we’ll consider the general characteristics of leadership, then consider the specific issue of leading a high performing team.

We believe leadership is a learnable set of activities/behaviours that anyone can enhance.  Good leadership can instil confidence and credibility in leaders, and enhance performance, motivation and collaboration in those being guided by the leader.

There are many different models of leadership:  Servant Leadership, Level 5 Leadership, Democratic, Autocratic and so on.  One thing that is common across all such models is that leadership is essentially about the relationship between the leader and others.

We use an established relationship-based leadership framework developed by academics Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner and applied in industry, education and professional services sectors.   It sets out a straightforward but powerful set of leadership attributes represented by five practices. The framework can be applied to the leadership of a High Performing Team.  For example, we can map each practice to leadership behaviours that will foster high performance as follows:

Practices of Effective LeadershipApplying to the Leadership of a HPT
Modelling the WayThe leader needs to demonstrate the behaviours associated with high performance
Inspiring a Shared VisionHigh Performers will want to see how what they are doing has meaning and purpose
Challenging ProcessesThe pace of change is increasing – the leader’s role is to ensure the team keeps on top of change
Enabling OthersThe leader’s role is to create the conditions that encourages people to perform at their best
Encouraging the HeartEven High Performers need support and encouragement when the road ahead gets tough

A high performing team may include experts in their field and those who are strong leaders.  As such, the leader of a high performing team arguably needs to think “What can I do to help the team operate at its highest level and maximise its impact upon the organisation?”  In other words, the leader needs to put aside his/her own needs and focus on the needs of the team as a whole. 

Leading a team of high performers is not a trivial exercise.  People we work with are intelligent and are also likely to have a high level of drive and desire for autonomy. 

As such, a leader who is democratic and seeks the input of their team is more likely to succeed in this environment than one who is autocratic.  Autocracy can be a killer of motivation and innovation.  Of course, there are times when quick action is taken, or a decision needs to be made when the leader is aware they may have less than the full support of all team members.  For example, if a team member’s behaviours threatens to destabilise the team, the leader will need to take action.

The leader of course will need to have credibility in the eyes of their team.  In a professional services firm, that often means that the leader will themselves need to have demonstrated expertise in the relevant profession.  Thus, to lead a team of high performing legal professionals, it probably helps to be or have been a good lawyer.  Some roles of course do not necessarily require you to have such professionals experience (e.g. CEO) but many team members may, unconsciously, find one of their own type more acceptable.  In some way this is the concept of ‘Modelling the Way’ being applied to the team leader – you can be our leader if we feel you are one of us and can understand us.

A natural starting point in a leader’s journey is to seek a common understanding for the future vision of the team/organisation (‘Inspiring a Shared Vision’ in the above table).  High Performers are more likely than others to want to dig deeper into the interpretation of that purpose.  In some cases that interpretation may be in a business context, with a preference for an ambitious business strategy that enhances status together with an appealing financial return.  Others may prefer a vision that appeals to their intellect and creativity, whereby they can see further opportunities for interesting and challenging client work.  Others may be attracted to a vision relating to the culture of the organisation in terms of its people policies and/or impact on the community or broader social causes.  Of course, most people will probably find some aspect of all three broad areas appealing.  The role of the leader is to help the team make sense of these competing preferences, and to guide the team to a collective agreement and understanding.   

In terms of the third practice of great leadership, “Challenging Processes” we would argue that the role of a leader is that of being a change agent, helping the organisation evolve from its current position towards the future vision.  Each member of the leadership team needs to be an agent of change, constantly seeking better ways of achieving results, experimenting and taking risks where appropriate.  The leader of the team will encourage this, whilst maintaining one eye on the energy of both their team and the broader organisation, as change can be both exhilarating and exhausting.

Finally, in term of the last two practices of great leadership, “Enabling Others” and “Encouraging the Heart”, there is a common underpinning of leadership of a high performing team is recognising and responding to the emotional needs of their team.  Of course, some may think that a high performing team would be devoid of emotions!  But high performers are still humans, and we all have emotions.  Thus a key role of the leader of a high performing team is to support each team member in operating at their highest potential.  This will generally mean giving each team member clear high- level objectives, relation to the share vision, with the autonomy and tools required to achieve their goals.  Don’t seek to do the job of a member of your team, or to micro-manage them.  It will cause huge frustration and resentment, particularly with a high performing team.  Team members will also need different levels of on-going support, such as the opportunity to brainstorm different options, let steam off constructively when things go wrong and celebrate successes. 

Understanding each member of a team, their motivators, fears, strengths, weaknesses, values, stressors, interests outside work – who they are essentially – and responding sensitively is invaluable to any leader of any team.  As such, good leaders recognise that it takes time, dedication and hard work to create and lead a high performing team, but the results are well worth the effort.