Leading High Performing Teams
Throughout my career I have helped many leaders adapt their style to one that better supports teams reach a high-performing state. Across a wide range of different industries the patterns of high-performing teams, and how leaders help shape them, have some striking consistencies.
I can clearly recall one of the highest performing teams I ever worked in. It was during my first career as a chef. The Head Chef quit, and the owner of The Ruptured Duck (yes, that was the pizzeria name) asked me if I would take over. I was only 23 years old and felt totally daunted, but figured I had nothing to lose so gave it a go.
Throughout the following two years, I somehow helped shape an incredible team of people who felt they could literally achieve anything. The lines between work and fun blurred. We were all “in the zone” – that incredible space where everything around you seems to fade into the distance and you are utterly present. We were somehow there nearly 100% of the time.
The team could handle massive, unpredictable waves of customers and work under incredibly intense pressure for prolonged periods of time, often during extremely trying conditions. Yet we consistently delivered an incredible experience and regularly had customers commenting how obvious it was that we all loved what we were doing. I would regularly have staff coming to work early, working unpaid, just because they liked being there.
How on earth did we achieve this?
Reflecting back, I can see some clear patterns:
- Goal: We had a clear objective – to provide the most awesome casual dining experience in Christchurch in a friendly, fun environment.
- Leadership: at 23 years old, with less than a year of practical chef experience under my belt, I was not in a position to tell others what to do. I had never done this before, so how could I? All I could do was lead by example. I worked hard and expected others to also. We were largely self-managing.
- Culture: we created a culture of extreme teamwork by always having each other’s backs. If the chefs got a lull in work, we helped the front of house staff, and vice versa. This was never questioned. It was how we rolled. When introducing new staff, we’d focus on the team culture and would only introduce one or two new people at a time. It created trust and courage as a core group value.
- Continual improvement: we would hold what I would now call a retrospective every night. We’d have a couple of beers and talk through how the evening had gone, what worked, what hadn’t and what we could do better.
- Transparency: the entire operation, kitchen, dishes and all, could be viewed by the public the entire time. Nothing was hidden.
- Rapid experimentation – we would constantly try new ideas as “specials”, gaining valuable customer feedback as we went.
- Fun – we had a lot of fun together as group.
The result was a team that could turn over an 80-seat restaurant 6 or more times in a single evening without a glitch. That’s close to 500 people and we could do this 7 days a week if needed.
Ways of Working
Fast forward to my current world: helping knowledge workers achieve similar outcomes. Radically is helping organisations transform the way they work, applying new ways of working, autonomous teams, a high-performance culture and a relentless focus on customer value.
While the setting is different, the themes are the same. High-performing teams have those same characteristics: goals, appropriate leadership, culture, continual improvement, rapid experimentation, transparency, trust, courage and fun.
A key aspect of this is helping organisations unlearn last centuries management practices.
Ivy league business schools and the big management consulting firms pushed these practices for decades. “Good management” was based on planning, hierarchy and control. The mindset was that the top layers of the organisation would come up with the right strategy, and then the troops would execute. The focus was on coming up with the best strategy (which of course you would need help with) and on execution excellence, namely conformance to plan (i.e. control).
However, with business increasingly operating in a world of unknown unknowns, this approach increases risk, reduces responsiveness and ultimately results in the organisation becoming fragile. To adapt, we have to acknowledge the approach we have used for the last 30 years doesn’t work in all contexts, and then explore alternative approaches.
Instead, at Radically we help leaders focus on establishing a clear, compelling vision and then re-thinking how their organisations deliver on this, largely through the exact same characteristics as my Ruptured Duck team. It isn’t about Agile. It is about the mindset, the environment and the culture required for high performance.
Autonomous teams are self-managing. Self-management requires two critical ingredients:
An absence of traditional management.
A light set of constraints. Constraints help balance autonomy with accountability. Constraints might be an iteration, a Sprint Review, a social contract or a facilitated meeting.
An absence of management is important as people cannot self-manage when they have a manager telling them what to do.
For many managers, creating an absence of management is truly frightening. How can you be accountable when the teams manage themselves? How does a manager approach this situation? Do they just let go of everything and hope for the best? We are seeing a lot of people struggle with this.
The art of it is choosing how much space to leave by actively stepping out, in order to allow others space to step in. You can’t just walk away, leaving a gaping hole, and expect everyone to magically self-manage. Yet if you don’t leave enough space, you will prevent them from self-managing.
We ask leaders to move their focus away from telling others how to do the work, to the following three areas (leveraging David Marquet’s experiences captaining a nuclear submarine with no knowledge of how it worked):
- Clarity – what do you seek? What difference does it make and to who? Why is this important? What does success look like?
- Competence – does the team/individual have the competence to deal with this situation (or at least the growth mind-set to learn what is required). Does the structure support them in their level of competence? What help might they need?
- Control – delegate control to the people doing the work, once the platform of Clarity and Competence is in place.
This is precisely what I unwittingly established all those years ago as a chef at The Ruptured Duck!
Leadership and Culture
I believe one of the most critical factors for a high performing culture is leadership. The agile community has pushed servant leadership as the answer, but I don’t believe this is correct. I believe situation-appropriate leadership is the right answer.
To help organisations discover what this means, we prefer a discovery-based approach.
We use the Cynefin framework to first establish context. Collectively, we work through what it feels like to work in each of the four domains, what is different about each, and which approaches might work best for each domain. We then work through what sort of culture and leadership style would be required to support this way of working in each domain. Then, we review how we all currently think and lead compared to this.
The results can be quite profound.
These are some of my experiences helping create high-performing teams. What are yours? Have you ever worked in a high-performing team? What was it like? How did it compare to my pizzeria team? What was the predominant leadership style?