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From potential to performance: My Reflections on Building High-Performance Teams

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As a leader, I’m doing as often as I’m thinking strategically. There are flights to catch. Meetings to get to. Events to attend. But suddenly I find myself working from a single location during this pandemic. And time in transit has shifted into time to reflect.

With some of this re-found time, I thought I’d consider a subject close to my heart. And unpick what 20 years of managing high-performing teams has taught me. After all, there’s a power in writing down reflections. It reinforces learning. I generally take what I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from others or my own experience and pass it on.

Fond memories of being with the Iberian Team in Madrid, Spain during February 2020Fond memories of being with the Iberian Team in Madrid, Spain during February 2020Let’s start with the fundamentals. As a leader, I’m in the business of success. And success comes from talent. However, understanding what talent I have is only the first step. I have still got to nurture and motivate people. Turning potential into high performance is a crucial part of my role.

The good news is, high performers have an appetite to learn. How far they progress depends on how I can feed that hunger. So, here are some bite-sized principles for sustaining teams that succeed.

Achievement Starts with Belief

Every high performing person has been coached at some point to go beyond what they think is possible. This means, as their manager, I need to have more belief in them than they have in themselves. I then need to set targets that stretch them and give them the confidence to change from high potential to high performer.

Alongside belief in individuals, it’s also key to create an environment of trust. I often find that highly successful people are very good at asking for and gaining support. I promote this by using methods like a buddy system or the open sharing of best practices. I like to create an environment where it’s encouraged to ask for help, spurring my team into a habit of helping each other, from there the strength of the team can quickly grow.

Success is Built on Structure

Belief will only count for something if it’s backed up by structure. This could be the overall purpose or common set of standards I give my team. Or it could be the processes and targets I’ve put in place for individuals to reimagine themselves. Actions like turning their CV into an infographic – to grow their self-awareness. Or getting them to say out loud what they want to achieve. Or finding an opportunity for them to achieve their aim and supporting them through it. I once used techniques like this to coach a salesperson to his first $10m deal. At the heart of his progress was confidence and an understanding of why he was being successful.

While I put the structure in place for his progress, I did not micromanage him. High performers need autonomy and space to thrive too.

One of the breakout sessions during a regional kick off before the pandemicOne of the breakout sessions during a regional kick off before the pandemicMotivate Through Real Progress (Not Selected Reality) 

Progress is inspiring. So, I look for examples of it every week and use these to motivate my team. This could be results. But it could also be better behaviours.

What if progress is slow? Avoid the temptation to take data points out of context and use selected or interpreted reality. Always stick to the facts and how they relate to KPIs. Otherwise, you risk misleading people about the progress they’re making.

Raise Standards. Retain Clarity.

No one ever jumped higher because someone lowered the bar. Ask any high performer which managers helped them get where they are today, and they’ll reel off a name or two without hesitation. And it won’t be the ones who were easiest on them.

I set high standards and hold on to them. Then, I’m crystal clear about what I expect from my team because ultimately, I believe you get the performance levels you tolerate.

Lead by Example

If you set high standards, you need to live up to those standards. I make myself accountable too. Conduct effective one to ones. Be ready for meetings and complete your actions. In the end, as a leader, I’m the biggest influence on my team. Remember, standards are not just about results. It’s how you get there. Behaviour breeds behaviour and I always try to behave in such a way to inspire my team.

I think it is important to lead by example, people will follow if they believe in you, but it is just as important to show you’re a follower too. Most managers have their own leaders. So, I like to demonstrate how I am supporting the aims of the business and its leadership.

The Rewards of Fulfilling Potential

Committing to helping people be the best they can be is not an easy path. It takes time and effort and organisation. And exacting standards.  I like to coach before befriending, which involves having challenging and direct conversations. But helping people do their best work will improve employees’ confidence, fulfillment, and team success in the long run.

Got your own tips on creating high performance? Or thoughts on my thoughts? Add a comment below.