Six ways to develop high-performance teams

Functional engineering teams must be built on a solid base.

By Jane Sidebottom, AMK LLC, Louisville, Ky. November 30, 2015

Several years ago, I was asked to put together a team of talented marketing and business-development professionals to identify and develop target new markets for my employer. The multigender team included both engineers and nonengineers, with team members ranging in age from mid-50s to early 20s. Did the team operate well together? Eventually, yes. But I had much to learn (and still do) about creating an environment where talented individuals could succeed. As I think about the challenges leaders face today, I can’t help but think that developing and leading teams has become even more complex. We are not just navigating generational gaps, gender gaps, and cultural gaps, but also personality and work-style differences. And the business stakes have never been higher. Successfully harnessing and focusing the power of these differences into a high-performance team while minimizing the negatives can be challenging for even the most seasoned leaders.

Whether you inherit a team or are forming one to deliver a client’s projects, the following six tools can help you accelerate your efforts.

1. Begin with some personality profiling. Often, when leaders surround themselves with similar personality styles, they get poor results. There are tools that, when applied correctly, do an excellent job of helping people understand how their personalities and styles fit or clash with other styles. Check with your human resources or organizational development colleagues for the best ones for you. However, executive coach Belinda Gates of Compass Enterprise uses the following tools:

A couple of tips about profiling:

  • Do not try and interpret the results yourself. Use an expert to help you map the results and the team construction.
  • Evaluate the skill level and passion for the work. Talented people with low passion are much more difficult to motivate and accommodate than passionate people with a lower skill level.
  • Self-evaluate your own skills and capabilities. Be honest about your own gaps and what you need to compensate for when building your team. These individuals need to be strong. You can’t afford to have them "developing" in an area where you are weak.

Evaluate the age gaps and attitudes that come with those gaps. Can older team members contain their parental tendencies to work with younger team members who may be close in age to their kids? And can younger team members appreciate the experience and reputation of seasoned team members? One of the most remarkable things ever said to me by an older work colleague was "think of me like your father." To this day, I don’t think he had any idea how offensive that was to a young female professional. If a team member demonstrates that kind of unwelcome attitude to a younger colleague, it could damage the team dynamic.

2. Consider communication styles. Who prefers e-mail and text versus person-to-person or team dialogue, and how does that align with your own style?

Evaluate who are strong individual contributors and who are team-oriented in their approach. I worked with a client that had a dysfunctional team. They were all very talented and passionate team members, but one did not really like to work in a group/team environment. The leader finally realized this was impacting the team’s overall performance and assigned the individual to projects that could be completed on a solo basis. He then managed the interaction with the team, resulting in a much-improved dynamic. The leader was careful to keep this individual fully integrated to prevent outcast syndrome through regular joint lunches, involvement with customer-facing projects, and recognition. And the team better appreciated her work product when the style struggles disappeared.

3. Be diligent about performance reviews and documenting development needs. Placing an important emphasis on the team dynamic, and performance of the team over the individual, will reinforce the message that the team success drives personal success.

4. Face conflict and disruption head-on. Quite often, we write off conflict within the team as individual drama. Surfacing and resolving conflict early can help prevent the issue from becoming personalized and creating damaging rifts.

However, aligning your team around a clear goal and maintaining laser focus will minimize the conflict. Whether your team is functional or project/client-focused, strong results are tied to minimizing distractions—especially those that are team-generated. I have long been a fan of Ram Charan. In his book, "Know-How: The 8 Skills That Separate People Who Perform from Those Who Don’t," he points out that the natural tendency is to have each team member focus on his or her specialty. But to achieve something noteworthy, the team needs to be pulling in the same direction.

Be willing to recognize that some team members may outgrow the team—and be willing to let them go. The rate at which people grow and develop is not in a leader’s control. If someone is more driven and ambitious than others, they will likely get impatient and want to move on. Early in my career, I failed to see that this was happening and fought to hold onto a talented individual. It resulted in a disrupted team dynamic and broken relationships.

5. Understand your own emotional intelligence. High-performance teams must have considerable trust and believe that the leader cares about them. If you do not rank high on the emotional intelligence scale, then look at how you can compensate for that. You may need to make sure that your No. 2 person on the team brings that skill to the table.

6. Recognize team members’ performance and celebrate successes. Taking the time to understand what personally motivates your team members will help you determine how best to recognize them for performance. Amy Gallo has some great ideas in her article "How to Reward Your Stellar Team" in the Aug. 1, 2013, issue of Harvard Business Review. Perhaps it is a simple, thoughtful thank you. Or perhaps it is a monetary bonus, additional time off, or the opportunity to lead their own team. What is the equivalent of "going to Disney World" for your high-performance team? I will leave that for you to decide.

Jane Sidebottom is the owner of AMK LLC, a management and marketing consulting firm that provides market development and growth expertise to small and medium-size firms. She has more than 20 yr of management and leadership experience in both consulting engineering and Fortune 100 organizations. Sidebottom is a graduate of the University of Maryland.