The (Not so Secret) Sauce to Create a High-Performance Team


Over the course of my career, I have established a reputation for building and maintaining high performance teams.  Some of this is luck; I have been fortunate to work with some amazing, talented people.  I have also learned from my own managers and mentors, which has helped shape my leadership style.  And of course, I have developed some of my own tips and tricks along the way.  This blog will focus on the “ingredients” for what I believe the “secret sauce” is to create a high-performance team.

Not so secret sauce


Ingredient 1: Hire the Right Talent

This seems obvious, and there is a lot behind this (in fact this topic could be its own blog post), but there are a few things you can do to get this piece right.  One of the secrets of my success when externally hiring is to use strong referrals.  I can only think of one instance in my career where a referral from someone I trust didn’t work out.  Another hiring-related tip – think about cultural fit when hiring.  How will the new hire gel with the broader team?  What about with the company culture?  One bad hire can alter the chemistry of the team and send you down a bad path.  Third, consider a diverse slate of candidates; your team will be more successful if your team has diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, and experiences.  Having a team willing to challenge each other and look at problems in different ways is a performance accelerator.

Ingredient 2: Understand and Leverage Individual Strengths

Everyone has their strengths.  Some are great with managing customers, others may be phenomenal at detailed analysis; some may be amazing visionaries and able to guide strategy, others may be killer project managers and excel at delivery.  The secret here is to understand each of your team members’ strengths and then leverage the heck out of those strengths.  As a new manager to a team, the first thing I would do is sit down with each person on the team and talk to them – what work has made them feel the most fulfilled in the past?  Where have they received accolades?  What assignments have been most challenging for them and why?  Having these direct conversations in tandem with review of past performance and conversation with their previous manager (if possible) will help give you the full picture.  Armed with this information, you can make sound decisions as new initiatives come up and assignments need to be made.

Ingredient 3: Individual Input into Career Path

No one wants to have their career dictated to them.  It is important for employees to feel like they are empowered to influence the direction their career will take.  I am not suggesting that employees be able to demand or dictate to be assigned to particular positions, projects, or customers, but ideally as a manager you should be as inclusive as possible as opportunities come up to consider your team members’ career goals.  It is important to have ongoing conversation with each of your direct reports to gauge their job satisfaction and proactively discuss and plan development opportunities to help them reach their goals.

It may not always be possible to provide your employees’ upward growth in the timing they want or expect; there are always business considerations and needs that must be balanced.  If this happens, look for other ways to keep them working actively towards their goals.  This could take the form of helping to align a solid mentorship arrangement or providing assignments outside of their normal responsibilities as a growth opportunity.  These types of activities are meaningful and show that you are actively engaged with helping them prepare for their next role when the timing is right.

Ingredient 4 – How Can I Help?

While there are some situations where an autocratic approach is necessary, if you micromanage and lead with a dictator-type approach, employees may perform well for a time, but long term will be unhappy, burnout, and ultimately leave the company (or at least their position).  While there are many leadership styles and pros and cons of each, I have found a blend of “servant leadership” where the manager’s purpose is to focus on employee and customer’s needs and “democratic leadership” which encourages participation and collaboration amongst team members results in the most high functioning and happy team.

There are a few things you can do to actively manage in this way.  One thing I like to do is to include team members in team meetings, both in presenting what they are working on and in having open dialogue about opportunities for improvement.  I also highly recommend having at least a bi-weekly 1:1 session with each of your direct reports. Check-in and see how they are doing. everyone has their own life challenges and family situations; it is good to be aware (to the extent they care to share) and to allow flexibility when an employee is met with one of life’s major hurdles.  You should also use this time to provide any direct feedback, and to provide guidance related to work deliverables.  It is your job as a manager to help your employees be successful.  I always like to check-in and ask, “how can I help?”  Sometimes the answer is “I don’t need anything right now”.  Other times it may be, “You know, it would really help to get more information about XYZ”.  As a leader, I find one of the most important functions I have is to remove roadblocks for my team to pave the way for successful delivery.

Ingredient 5 – Recognition

Thank you.  These are just two little words, but they mean so much.  Most organizations seem to run lean and ask a lot of their employees.  Teams may be faced with aggressive deadlines or tough customers.  In today’s environment, financial recognition may not be available, making these two little words all that more important.

If someone does something outstanding, let them know you appreciate it.  It is always nice to send an email and copy their manager.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; simply acknowledge what they have done and what the positive impact is.  People appreciate knowing that others are paying attention and value what they are doing.   I have found that when people feel valued and recognized, they will be much more content and will want to continue to perform.

Another great approach is to provide thanks publicly, via a call-out in a team meeting, or a write-up/presentation opportunity to a broader audience to have them share the amazing work they have done.

Ultimately, your team’s success is your success.  Be aware of the effort going into deliverables and be thankful for all that your team does for you, for your team, and for your company.

So, there you have it; my not-so-secret recipe for success.  There are of course variations to the recipe that may still result in a great end-result, and each person has their own style.  For me, getting these 5 ingredients right leads to a successful and productive team dynamic, employee satisfaction and business results.  What are your secret ingredients?   I would love to hear your thoughts.

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