The attributes of well-integrated, high-performing teams—those that “click”—never lose sight of their goals and are largely self-sustaining. In fact, high-performing teams often take on a life of their own, and it’s all due to leadership.
In every case that has been studied at the Europe-based Center for Organizational Research, teams that “click” always have a leader who creates an environment and establishes operating principles and values that are conducive to high performance. The evidence for this is clearly seen in organizations where a manager who builds a high performing team moves to another part of the organization, or a different organization, and within 18 months, again establishes a high performing team.
Effective leaders operate in an organized, systematic way to build successful teams. The formula for success involves not only what leaders say and do, but also what they don’t say and do. Building successful teams also involves working backwards—effective leaders must envisage the future before dealing with the present. They then create a clear vision and describe it in simple language before taking the time to get people to subscribe, or buy in, to that vision. Next, they assess the current situation, then work through the courses of action which are likely to yield results. It is the up-front work in getting to a clear end state that makes the process work.
The four most significant behaviors consistently demonstrated by high impact leaders are:
- Defining clear goals or a vision of the future in accordance with overall organizational aims (the “big picture”)
- Creating clear blueprints for action to achieve those goals (the “plan”)
- Using language effectively to build trust, encourage forward thinking, and create energy within the team (“powerful conversations”)
- Getting the right people involved (“passionate champions”).
Imparting a clear vision of where the team should be headed, and inspiring its members to make it a reality, is fundamental to team success. The great American tennis player Arthur Ashe had a wonderful phrase: “I never worried about winning or losing. I just went for it every time.” Leaders who get teams to click consistently have their members tied together and “going for it”. This takes considerable effort on the part of a leader, so it’s useful to reflect on why it’s worthwhile. As the English manager in a large aerospace company explains: “It’s a lot of work to get a team to click. It’s a lot more work to live with a team that isn’t clicking.” It’s as if successful team leaders calculate the up-front investment and then adopt a process to get the team to pull together to maximize the return on that investment.
The foundation-laying aspect of leadership is a determining factor in why some teams seem to grasp and then do their utmost to achieve organizational goals. It’s all about how the leader continually visualizes a positive end result. So, when things get tough for the team (as they always do), these extraordinary leaders reintroduce the big picture with phrases like: “Remember our objectives,” and “Let’s keep our eye on the ball”. This consistent single strategy of starting with the future and then moving back to the present allows leaders to make the tough decisions which enable the team to recognize and articulate problems, sort through possible solutions, and then take action.