Leaders today are being asked to guide cohesive, high-performing teams on mission-critical initiatives, and they are being asked to do so earlier in their careers. This is no easy task. Teams must form more quickly, produce innovation more rapidly, and then disband faster than in the past. While teams are more important than ever, achieving their potential is harder than ever, too.

What gets in the way of a high-performing team?

  1. Not every team is really a team.  This is not necessarily a problem. There are many options for how to structure groups of people to approach an issue. However, when a group mistakenly believes they are a team, they will spend a too much time listening to each other talk in the all-too-familiar functional round-robins where nothing truly important is learned, shared or decided upon. People’s time would be better spent elsewhere.
  2. “Intact” teams aren’t intact for long. Sometimes this is by design, but teams also experience a relentless pace of turnover because of normal organizational turmoil.  In our experience, most teams can expect 30 percent turnover within 12 months. Without stability, it’s difficult to gain momentum.
  3. Organizational structure isn’t always conducive to collaboration.  This can happen when there’s an imbalance in decision-making responsibility on the team; players who carry more of the load can be dismissive of others they perceive as having less skin in the game.  The leader plays a central role in getting the right people into the right positions, and creating the right structure so the team has a clear-cut path to collaboration, cohesiveness and performance.
  4. Team development is more elusive than individual development. Individual change is difficult enough. Now imagine getting a group of people to identify, commit to and follow through on the new habits and practices required for shared success. Changing ingrained habits around how the team communicates and spends time with each other is particularly difficult.  
  5. Conflict is rarely constructive.  Too often, team members avoid conflict because of the implicit agreement: “I won’t make you look bad in front of the boss if you don’t make me look bad.”  It’s easier to not say what you think in meetings only to get what you want by petitioning the team leader in private. Rather than confront our peers, we expect the team leader to do the dirty work of resolving disagreements. When there is conflict – and there should be – it should lead to enhanced insights and collaboration, not be an acrimonious airing of grievances. Conflict should create value for the team.

What to do about it? Try a steady dose of inspirational leadership.

In addition to getting the right people on board, the team leader plays a vital role in getting a team to perform at a high level.  Most importantly, the leader helps the team identify an inspirational vision that motivates people to go above and beyond.

We recommend three core team practices in this vein:

  1. Identify shared purpose. This should be done frequently. Leaders should ask two questions: what is our purpose as an organization or team, and what gives you meaning and purpose in your work? Leaders will need to be patient and dedicated to this process as most are inclined to think of work in terms of status, money, and power. But the rewards of doing so are substantial. Those who work for cause are more engaged, productive and likely to lead.
  2. Ensure a shared fate. Think of professional sports teams seeking to win championships. This shared fate leads to all team members feeling accountable for and committed to moving the big rocks.
  3. Identify the big rocks that everyone must move together. A big stretch vision for which everyone is on the hook makes a team great. Yet, most teams have a difficult time identifying their version of Win-The-Cup. While financial goals can seem right, they lack the stuff of true inspiration.  Rather than “we want to become a $1 billion company,” we know one organization that seeks to “be the top global partner in supply chain transformation for the fortune 1000,” and another that seeks to be “the most trusted partner in professional audio.”

Leaders today are arguably asked to take on bigger challenges earlier in their careers than their predecessors. The pressure can be enormous; many managers will try to compensate by over-functioning. Yet the best chance for success requires stepping back and identifying a common purpose and a stretch vision so that the group’s effort amounts to more than the sum of individual actions.

Keith Goudy, Ph.D. is the managing partner of Vantage Leadership Consulting. He has more than 20 years of experience in executive assessment, succession planning and leadership development.