TEAM! Every annual report lauds one. Every acceptance speech thanks one. If a team means a bunch of people who report to one leader and try to work together, then they have a “team.” By that definition, the Detroit Lions have a team. But building a high-performance team is tough (ask the recently resigned Wayne Gretzky), and rarely done (ask any Leafs fan).
Here is my recipe, informed by the few teams I’ve been in myself (some great, some good, some not so good) and many more I have closely observed as a venture capitalist or as an advisor. Take this checklist, tack it up on your wall or in the front of your journal. Constantly scan your efforts against this template. Team-building is like weightlifting: you have to work on it regularly and with discipline to make real gains.
Let’s start with a new definition: “A team is a group of committed, competent individuals with shared values and a common goal who understand the strategic role they have to play in executing the plan to attain that goal.” A high-performance team is one that consistently sets and hits ambitious goals — which it can do only if it’s built with these four components:
Committed, competent individuals
This component is the “right people on the bus,” as Jim Collins writes in Good to Great, and it’s worth 50¢ of your team dollar. But how do you tell whether people are right for your team? Ask any entrepreneur these three probing questions about an individual’s recent performance, and they’ll know in their gut whether the person has the right stuff:
¢ Does your company’s goal matter to this individual in some intrinsic way (e.g., does it overlap with one of his personal goals)? Which behaviours have you seen — within the past week — that demonstrate this alignment?
¢ Does this person come to you with problems or, at least, some ideas for a solution? What are some recent examples? What is the biggest problem this person is dealing with this week, and how is she tackling it?
¢ Does this person take responsibility for himself and his contribution to a problem, from missing a stated goal to conflict with a fellow team member? Did he miss any goals last week? Last month? How did he react?
We entrepreneurs tend to be quick to hire and slow to fire. I was. Try not to be. Enlist someone, such as a mentor or advsor, to ask you “brutal questions” like the ones above about your people on a frequent basis. (They’re also great questions to pose during the hiring process. Ask them of each job candidate’s references. But try not to make reference checks a final “disaster check” before hiring — there is too much bias at that point to hear what you want to hear.)
This component is highly underrated. Get the right people with the right values, and the rest will follow. This group will settle only for an ambitious goal and, under your leadership, will craft the roles and plan to get there.
One outstanding value of high-performance teams is the need for open and honest communication. It helps to develop good plans, and it also helps to rescue plans that (inevitably) falter during their execution. Each team member should be his own toughest critic.
It’s said that Stanley Cups are won in the dressing room; in business, they’re won around the water cooler. Why? Because no one knows better than one’s peers who is achieving, who is slacking and where things are going right or wrong with the customer. Members of a high-performance team identify problems, accept personal responsibility, don’t assign blame, discuss the problems openly and honestly, and deal with them quickly. The coach usually doesn’t need to get involved.
A Common goal
Shared objectives provide the necessary octane when spirits get low, the road gets longer and detours are required.
It’s always hard to tell whether there is true goal alignment, but an entrepreneur’s instincts can help her tell which team members buy into her dream for their own deeper reasons.
Clear strategic roles
Everyone needs to know what their job is, how it helps the team and how their performance will be measured — what Tom Peters called a “no-excuses job description” in
In Search of Excellence
. I stress the word strategic. There might be a list of 10 to 15 bullet points on what a person does, but each team member should be able to state, in one sentence, that: “My job on this team is to help us get to our goal of X by doing Y. I know I am doing my job when Z happens.” Open, honest communication will help relieve the pinch points that inevitably occur between roles and functions.
Sir Arthur Currie, who commanded the Canadian Army in World War I, was one of the first commanders in that war to share his plans with his enlisted men. Each man knew what he was doing and why he needed to do it, allowing him to act independently if necessary. This was a big factor in helping Currie’s “team” take Vimy Ridge after all others had failed.
Clear roles will help your team do the same. Good luck with your battle.