The art of leading high-performing teams

The art of leading high-performing teams

High-performing teams share a number of key attributes that enable members to function optimally both as individuals and as a team, which are important to foster in your own IT department.

We know that high-performing teams exceed expectations and demonstrate remarkable resilience in times of adversity and crisis. They’re more productive, better at honouring commitments and meeting deadlines, often more innovative and creative, and usually capable of functioning autonomously in most daily activities.

While it’s true that these teams often consist of high-performing individuals, just putting a group of your highest performers together doesn't automatically create a high-performing team. Conversely, it’s possible to significantly elevate the performance of a group of largely average performers, provided you create the right conditions and the right leadership.

Even though high-performing teams show great diversity in size, structure and environment, the following attributes are generally found in high-performing teams:

1) Clarity of purpose

The team has a clear sense of purpose, which all members are very aware of. They feel that personal goals align closely with the overall team purpose and take pride in being a member. This empowers decision making and helps frame behaviours in a wider context. It also enables members to see beyond the boundaries of individual tasks and align efforts to achieving the team's outcomes.

2) Clarity of roles and contributions

The team's composition is no accident – members have been chosen for particular skills and strengths they offer, and work well together because they complement each other. They are aware of their own and other’s contributions to team performance and success. This leaves little ambiguity around roles and responsibilities, even in unexpected or complex situations. It enables the team to quickly self-organise because each member knows which particular strengths to focus on.

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3) Clarity of communication

High-performing teams are great at communicating with each other. Their internal communication is developed over time based on shared vocabulary and experience, which help members to be both concise and precise in the language used with each other. While this may seem like a form of jargon, its real function is not to exclude others, but to facilitate the flow of information between members.

4) Clarity of ownership

A clear understanding of ownership and delegation is important when relying on each to other to complete complex tasks. This avoids gaps and overlaps that would diminish the team's effectiveness, create uncertainty and tension, and could lead to unintended and counterproductive competition for time, attention and resources.

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5) Celebration of success

High-performing teams take time to celebrate their successes, which are directed both internally to emphasise the team work and reflect on the collective achievement, as well as outwardly to demonstrate to external stakeholders the significance of the achievements. Celebrations provide moments of reflection necessary to offset the high pressure they are under most of the time.

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A high degree of self-management and self-organisation is typically displayed by high-performing teams. That doesn't mean, however, they don't need a leader.

Bard Papegaaij, Gartner

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Leadership is key

A high degree of self-management and self-organisation is typically displayed by high-performing teams. That doesn't mean, however, they don't need a leader. They usually work within an organisational structure that provides top-down goal-setting, strategy, general constraints and directions for execution, within which the team then functions fairly autonomously. The leader is an essential link between the team and the enterprise, communicating goals, strategies and directions downwards, as well as progress reports, problems, requests and outcomes upward.

Equally important is the leader's role as the team’s advocate and representative in the political arena. Even in harmonious organisations, there’s a constant struggle for scarce resources, attention, recognition, power and influence. Without a leader to promote recognition, negotiate for mandates and resources and remove barriers to their success, even high-performing teams find it hard to successfully play in this arena.

The most important role you can fulfil is that of the facilitator and enabler of high performance. The attributes of high-performing teams don’t arise by accident, nor do they appear overnight. It takes time, effort and attention to create the right conditions, form the team, set the conditions for the right culture to emerge and for the team to develop the shared belief system and behaviours needed to excel. You can be the focal point and set your team on the road to high performance.

It’s not necessary, or even possible, to create a high-performing team from scratch with all the attributes addressed above. Trying to change too many habits, cultural assumptions and unspoken rules at once may cause more confusion and stress than progress. So, start by identifying the three attributes that the team and you want to work on first.

A high-performing team is never finished or perfected; it is perpetually improving.

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Bard Papegaaij is a research director for Gartner's Office of the CIO group. With 29 years of experience in the IT industry, including CIO, CTO and IT management roles, Papegaaij delivers IT advice and guidance to help CIOs and IT leaders improve their personal and professional success in delivering exceptional business results, while building their personal, interpersonal and leadership skills and capabilities. Follow him on Twitter @BardPapegaaij.

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