Building an exceptional team

Individual contributor culture, unaligned visions hold teams back

Building an exceptional team
While 92 per cent of leaders view teams as critical to workplace success, just 23 per cent consider them to be effective, according to a 2013 survey of 255 managers by LHH Knightsbridge. Love the wind/Shutterstock

Boosting the performance of work teams requires dedication to clarity and commitment, according to Alex Vincent, senior vice-president of leadership transformation at Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge in Toronto.

In today’s world of work, teams are the engine that drive business forward — and it is critical that they operate at a high level, he said at a recent SCNetwork event in Toronto.

“All of us believe, and all of us know experientially, that teams are critical to an organization’s success,” said Vincent.

“Our theory, or proposal, is that teams who become truly accountable perform better. So, in fact, it’s by working on accountability that we actually increase team performance.”

Individual contributor culture and unaligned visions are holding teams back from maximum effectiveness, he said.

And while 92 per cent of leaders view teams as critical to workplace success, just 23 per cent consider them to be effective, according to a 2013 survey of 255 managers by LHH Knightsbridge.

“The gap is large between what we need our teams to deliver on, and what they’re actually delivering on,” said Vincent. “On top of that, our team experiences aren’t that great.”

Absolute clarity and total commitment are necessary for teams to complete their objectives, he said.

State of teams

Today’s work teams are more complex and built with the expectation of instant performance, said Vincent. Teams may be distributed across the globe, and connected via technology over different time zones.

“We need them to perform very, very quickly for them to deliver the mandate, and then move on to another project,” he said.

Many corporate cultures are stuck in individual reward and recognition models or recycled annual business plans — detrimental strategies that trickle down to team success as workers often become more concerned with their own personal performance, rather than the collective, said Vincent.

“We’ve put teams together in a non-deliberate way,” he said. “We don’t deliberately say, ‘OK, what is the team mission? What do we need a team to actually drive that’s going to help us succeed? Who are the members that need to be part of this team?’”

LHH Knightsbridge’s research reveals the vast majority of teams are viewed as mediocre or weak — often operating at 50 per cent of their potential, according to Vincent.

When determining a team’s problem points, it’s important to run a diagnostic, he said. Dysfunctional teams, for example, are very difficult to turn around.

“Too many organizations… have spent too much time trying to fix team dysfunction,” said Vincent.

High-performing companies have the most accountable teams, he said, noting both clarity and commitment are critical dimensions to their success.

“You can get a lot of the work done by making things more clear for teams and the team members.”

And by working on clarity, managers are naturally ratcheting up commitment levels, said Vincent.

“Clarity drives 65 per cent of commitment. If you want to drive commitment, work on clarity,” he said. “Team members don’t come in with full commitment; it’s not an inherent trait of people. People aren’t born fully committed or aren’t born not committed; they come in with a certain level of commitment. And then it either goes up or down based on what happens.”

Instilling clarity

Team clarity refers to the degree to which all team members are clear on the group’s mandate, said Vincent.

Clarity helps workers understand their clientele, ensures team members are clear on their collective goals and priorities, and clarifies trends and drivers affecting their specific industry, he said.

“When we put people together, it’s for them to deliver something that they couldn’t deliver on their own,” said Vincent. “If the clarity dimensions aren’t met, their commitment’s going to be low.”

When the mandate isn’t clear, workers are quick to get behind what they subjectively feel is right, rather than work towards organizational success, he said.

As workplaces change rapidly, managers should also be proactively sharing their thoughts on the unknown, said Vincent.

“Having that continuous dialogue, even when stuff changes, and just talking about the changes without knowing where it’s going, is important.”

Knowing how a team’s work aligns with a broader organizational mandate helps employees understand what “winning” looks like, which spurs them on to own their individual performance, rather than rely solely on a team leader for motivation, he said.

Improving commitment

Commitment refers to the degree to which the team members are fully committed to the group’s mandate, said Vincent.

Often, the best-performing teams are driven from within — caring deeply about colleagues, exuding passion about the future of the organization, and demonstrating resilience in the face of adversity, he said.

Leadership must offer a positive vision statement grounded in reality if they want team members to fully commit, said Vincent.

“The number 1 thing is that the organization that we are a part of has a positive future vision that they can articulate to us.”

It is also important that workers get to know one another on a personal level and pursue accountability, he said.

“I need to know that these people care about me — not just in terms of what I have to deliver as a professional — but also about me as a person.” 

In terms of workplace performance, peer feedback can be powerful, said Vincent.

“Team members need to have honest and open dialogue with each other, and not have it be always the team leader that does that.”

Breaking down organizational silos to drive greater collaboration is also key, he said.

“It’s about teams being able to help other teams, and work with other teams and collaborate more broadly, so that they can collectively drive things forward.”

Each team has to have its house in order, said Vincent.

“Each team has to be clear on their mission and their commitment so that they can contribute to other teams,” he said.

“You’ve got to make sure that your team is really solid and really clear and really committed...And then we can collaborate more effectively with teams across the organization. And they could do the same with your team.”

Teams cannot operate in isolation and need to be clear on a whole bunch of things, said Vincent.

“Being focused on a couple of things can actually move the needle pretty quickly,” he said. “And now we know which things for us to focus on, and for teams to focus on.”

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