I’m just working on a speech I will give to a large group of leaders next month. It is about what it takes to build high performing teams.  Actually, not just about what it takes to create separate, individual high performing teams, but also what it takes to get those teams working well together as one big team.

I’m still trying to decide how to make it positive and inspirational and also realistic and practical. It’s a tough balance because the path to high performance is a messy, painful, rocky one and I’m not sure I can talk about it without spending some time tromping through the valley of despair.

Here’s what it really takes

#1: A high performance team needs a high performance you

Any path to high performance begins with a commitment to do things that are personally difficult, sometimes jarring, and that make you more (not less) vulnerable in the short term. Think of any truly exceptional performer in any realm and you will see the dedication and gumption it took to get there.  If you want to make your team stronger, you need to be willing to make yourself stronger.  And you lean into weakness to achieve strength.

Prove it to yourself…

Reflect on one thing you learned to do that was extraordinarily difficult for you. What made you willing to invest the effort? How did you feel when you started to see progress? How did you feel when you stalled or slipped backward? What was the lowest moment in the journey? What did it feel like when you finally succeeded? What did you learn about yourself?

There are few feelings as powerful and profoundly satisfying as choosing something both difficult and meaningful and investing the effort to master it. That’s how you will feel when you invest in your own performance.

#2: A high performance team looks for opportunities for higher performance

Next, you have to move from having courage about your own growth to having the courage to invest in the growth of your teammates. Your team doesn’t get better when you smile and tolerate good performance.  It only gets better when you smile and say “next time, here’s how it could be EVEN better.” But if you’re like most people, you don’t seize the opportunity to convert good to great. You mislead yourself into thinking that you have to be positive and friendly to your teammates all the time for fear of creating negative feelings that might come back to haunt you.  But superficial, harmonious interactions don’t lead to a strong relationship; at best they contribute to a tepid, civil relationship.  Don’t kid yourself; the people who earn trust are the ones who are willing to put the relationship on the line for the benefit of the other person.

Reflect on the people that you trust the most…

Think of a time that person gave you really difficult feedback. What was the crux of the issue? How did they express it to you so that you were willing to take it in? How did you react in the moment? How did you use that feedback? What impact did providing feedback have on your relationship?

It’s a risk—sometimes a big risk—but the only way to build a high performing team is to give feedback, to disagree, to challenge. When you say something that is hard to say (and even harder to hear) in the service of making your team stronger, then you have a shot at excellence.

#3 High performance teams work with other teams, not against them

Finally, you have to move beyond the comfort and predictability of your own team to struggle and tug and fight to get aligned with other teams in your organization. Many teams think of themselves as high performing internally without worrying how they interact with other teams.  That just doesn’t fly.  Great teams understand that they have different roles and different motives than other teams and are willing to do the hard work to bring their goals into alignment.

When have you had a really tough interaction with other teams…

What were your goals and needs at the outset? How were those goals in conflict with the goals and needs of the other teams? How did you make sure your teams’ needs were met? How did you accommodate the needs of the other team?  Where were the tensions the greatest? How did you finally come to alignment?  How did that experience benefit the ongoing working relationship between the teams?

In each case, whether it’s investing in your own development, contributing to the development of your teammates, or struggling to build alignment with other teams, it takes risky, uncomfortable actions to really change things for the better. When you look back on those risks, I bet they are some of the best decisions you ever made.

So where to next in your never ending march to high performance? It’s not going to be pretty, or happy, or smooth. Excellence takes grit, and vulnerability, and heart, but there’s no greater payoff.

Further Reading

Want High Performance? Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Mistakes Team Leaders Make: Tolerating Poor Performance

Are you Making Higher Quality Mistakes?

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