High-Performing Teams

Robert Mann

Best Practices

A well-trained team that understands the mission and is aligned with the organization’s values can operate with connected independence, supported by brief moments of direction. 

Seems like a straightforward statement. While it is, there are five components that each require leadership’s attention prior to demanding their team perform, with connected independence, at a high level. A solid foundation must be laid in which team members have a strong desire for group success and know how to hold each other accountable. Leadership provides equipment and training, sets forth a direction, removes obstacles, monitors for deviation, and gets out of the way while the team achieves the goals with minimal direction. 

This is the first article in a four-part series. In this volume, we are going to break our initial statement down by its components. In volume two we’ll delve into instilling a desire for group success and team members holding each other accountable. Then in volume three we’ll focus on addressing performance gaps. And, of course, what conversation about team performance would be complete without addressing culture, which we will cover in volume four. 

What is “A well-trained team …”? A well-trained team is comprised of individuals who are technically proficient in all necessary work streams at their operational levels. This does not mean they are technically proficient at the work streams above their level, such as their supervisor’s job functions, although solid succession planning dictates that lower levels are preparing to step into roles of greater responsibilities. Technical proficiency means they have the knowledge and skills to perform all aspects of the multiple job functions of all possible assignments at their level or job classification and can do so within standard work instructions and allowable time margins. 

To ensure the team is trained, the organization must keep accurate documentation of all individual training records, as well as ensure the training methods meet industry best practices.  Additionally, training should be sufficiently challenging to drive team member engagement. Training that is challenging and realistic provides team members with well-earned confidence. If the training is too easy, no reasonable person believes that it is preparing them for challenging situations. Basically, you should be training your team with the intention of them achieving excellence, not striving for the easily achieved grade of mediocre. 

“… that understand the mission …” means all team members can clearly state what “great” looks like, which outcomes or tasks are prioritized over others, and who the stakeholders are. The mission statement should be brief, yet complete. The supporting tenets of the mission should be posted in conspicuous places.

One way leadership can ensure the team members understand the mission is to reinforce it by verbalizing the “why” behind their decisions. It might sound like this, “We are holding some people to stay for overtime because it supports our mission for timely service, and we need staff to support that goal. We are also going to ensure the burden of overtime is equally distributed.” There could be other reasons why team members were being held for overtime, but the primary reason was to support the mission. If the staffing shortage is ongoing and negatively impacts the team members, then address it and communicate what is being done to address it with the team members. 

In order for team members to take the mission seriously, leadership must address equipment issues, staffing needs, and performance gaps between the current state and the desired state, otherwise, the mission statement becomes a banal platitude.

Another benefit of a clearly defined mission is to provide your team members with a worthwhile purpose for their efforts and sacrifices. Although it is true that you are providing your team members with compensation for their work, it has long been accepted that the longevity and degree of motivation from financial compensation have limitations. 

“… and is aligned with the organization’s values …” An organization’s values manifest themselves in the ethical standards to which it holds itself and its team members. These are memorialized in policies and procedures. The policies and procedures should be more specific than a profession’s code of conduct. In essence, a profession’s code of conduct may state something in general terms such as, “Be good.” The policy and procedure are going to detail how to “be good in specific situations.” Now, most people cannot remember all the directives in a policy and procedure manual, so how can we expect team members to adhere to them if they cannot remember them? Have all members of the leadership team model those values in everyday behaviors while wearing those values on their sleeves. When the team sees the values in action, even when adherence to the values has a cost to the organization, then they know there is a commitment to those values. 

“… can operate with connected independence …” This phrase came to mind while I was considering what a high-performing team looks like and how it operates with minimal supervision. I thought about teams that just flow and individuals fill in where they are needed. I was reminded of my time in the Marine Corps and as a member of an explosive breach team at a sheriff’s department and how all the team members “just knew” what was most important at any given time. Of course, they knew because they were capable individuals who were properly equipped and trained. Our leader made sure we had resources and opportunities to train under realistic conditions, and a standard for performance was well established.

High-performing teams don’t need to be told what to do, although they may need to be made aware that a gap exists. When they become aware of a gap, they immediately fill the gap without being directed to do so. Picture a team that has started handling the top five tasks.  The tasks are prioritized in order of importance one through five, one being the most critical and five being the least critical. The team member handling task three has fallen ill.  Once the team member attending to task five became aware of the gap, they would immediately abandon task five and attend to task three. The team would communicate with each other as to where gaps exist. If task two were to get completed, that team member would, without direction, go complete task five. In short, they know what needs to be done, they do it without being told, and they are all capable of doing each task necessary for the team to accomplish the mission.     

“… supported by brief moments of direction.” Under this model, the vast majority of the active leadership takes place prior to executing tasks. Once the team is engaged and executing, the leadership team merely monitors to understand where and when support is needed, provides redirection if priorities change, and provides feedback as needed. In short, if you have selected and trained the team properly, provided them with the correct equipment, removed obstacles, established a clear mission statement, and modeled the ethical standards of your organization, your main job is to get out of the team’s way and get ready to recognize them for their hard work and success. 

In conclusion, ask yourself these questions on a regular basis.

  • Is my team equipped and trained to perform all the tasks within their level of responsibility? 
  • Do team members understand the mission?
  • Do all my team members understand which tasks are prioritized?
  • Are my team members confident enough to make the decision to reassign themselves to prioritized tasks?
  • Has my team been trained under realistic conditions?
  • Have I (and all members of the leadership team) been modeling the ethical standards of our organization?
  • Is the performance standard well-established, known, enforced, and documented?
  • How will I recognize my team for their efforts and success?