High Performing Teams

By Stephen T. Messenger

August 23, 2021

Redwoods thrive in groves. Standing somewhere around 300 feet tall and up to 30 feet in diameter, you would think deep roots are the key to keeping them up. Instead, their root system is shallow and broad extending over a hundred feet from the base. More amazing, they intertwine with one another to support high growth and work in concert.

Team performance is the bedrock to any organization. Some believe the success and failure of a team lie on the shoulders of the leader—in the redwood example, that one tree would lead the others. Organizationally speaking, this is true to some extent; however, team performance and interaction play a critical role in producing results. The leader’s job is to foster an environment where everyone is intertwined and support each other.  When good teams figure this out, they become really good!

Two weeks ago, I assumed a new position leading an extremely high performing team. It’s quite the blessing; in 22 years of military leadership and over 20 completely different teams, I’ve never been a part of one with such high professionalism and autonomy.

As I start learning the ropes of my job and observing these outstanding individuals working collectively together, a few points from the book Creating Effective Teams came to mind. Susan Wheelan, the author, speaks on the characteristics of high-performance teams, and I was able to understand why this group is taller than the rest.

1. Shared Leadership. Everyone takes ownership of their role and is a leader in their space. They are constantly demonstrating initiative, challenging assumptions, and striving to accomplish organizational goals at all costs. I am impressed by how much a team can accomplish when everyone shares the privilege, and burden, of leadership.

2. Credit Is Irrelevant. It’s thrilling to watch professionals completely focused on the mission without a care for who gets the credit. This team is truly working for the good of the organization and not themselves. Clearly, they want to see each other, and the mission, succeed.

3. All Agree on Team Goals. There is no ambiguity on what needs to be done. Everyone has a role, and each member understands how their piece fits into the bigger picture. While some may not agree with the methods of getting there, all know what needs to be done to achieve success.

4. They Talk Constantly about Problems and Solutions. Sure, there will always be problems, but great teams like this one continuously discover areas to improve upon and more importantly come to the table with multiple solutions. As my Dad used to say, “Don’t be a problem identifier; be a problem solver.”

5. High Performance is Expected. The implied mentality is for everyone to excel in their job with little to no oversight. They each hold themselves to their maximum standard and require others to do the same. This mindset across a team is challenging to achieve, but after many years, it is obvious this team has embedded a culture of excellence that newcomers, including myself, quickly understand is the norm.

6. They Truly Like Each Other. It’s a great moment to watch a group that enjoys both their work and the people they work with.

Organizations, like redwoods, have potential to grow beyond what anyone can either ask or imagine. However, the key for leaders is to foster an environment where the root systems of individuals can support each other to achieve organizational goals. Once you get teams taking care of each other, there is nowhere to go but up.

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