What good is a high-performance team in a vacuum, and how long will one last without an environment in which it can thrive?
This is the question that comes to mind when I’m asked to comment on the role of leadership in high-performance teams. Teams may be able to achieve various states of high performance for a time, or from time to time, perhaps experienced by the team as being “in the zone.” But my thoughts turn toward questions of causing teams to be in the zone on demand, and of sustaining a state of high performance.
Three Simple Words…
Be. Do. Have. These three words outline what I’ve learned in life, and they work as a sequence to achieving sustained success. Ironically, in most cultures I’ve encountered, the success sequence is often performed backward, and doing it backward isn’t successful. In fact, instead of success, the reversed sequence leads to a state of sustained unfulfillment. Too often, people operate in a “have-do-be” sequence. For example, “Were I to have money, I would do what people with money do, then I could be what people with money are” (rich). As a result, following this sequence leaves people perpetually unfulfilled because how much “have” do you need before you can start “doing,” and how much “doing” is needed before you can declare yourself to “be rich”? Typically, starting with the “have” leads to never getting to the “be.”
You can put anything in place of “money” (try “happiness”) and see people running their lives and companies using this never-successful-but-always-alluring operating model (i.e., have what happy people have before you can be happy). Put another way, this is basically the “get something before you can be something” model.
We’re inculcated in this approach practically from birth. It starts in most schools and sounds something like this: you’re not considered smart unless you prove it with grades. (“Have good grades, be considered smart.”) Then we mature to: you’re not qualified until you graduate; then that’s not enough, and it becomes: you’re not qualified until you’re certified; and then: you’re not qualified until you’ve done it before. It never ends …
Have-do-be is a self-defeating and demoralizing Catch-22 of an approach that almost no one questions. To question it is even cause for being ostracized as an eccentric anticapitalist nonconformist. Meanwhile, we contradict ourselves by telling our young people, subordinates, and peers that they’re to take risks, try new things, have confidence, “put yourself out there.” The latter prescriptions are the exact opposites of the “you’re not qualified until…” cycle. Who’s crazy now?
To be clear, I’m not dismissing the value of doing what it takes to get grades, education, certification, and experience, but all too often these are relied upon as poor proxies for the more important and harder-to-pinpoint attributes that make people and teams perform at a high level. These are attributes such as initiative, interpersonal and communication skills, empathy, reasoning, confidence, and analytical skills — as applied in the real world, not in the classroom, not on a certification exam, and not in the antiseptic environments of many regimented workplaces.
In the Right Order
I’ve found the inverse of the above — that is, “be-do-have” — to be a far more effective model. Let’s use it with happiness this time: “Were I to be happy, I would do what happy people do, then I could have what happy people have.” Or, in the case of our careers, employees, and teams, it would be less about “qualifications” and more about how people conduct themselves, what’s important to them, and how they work with others. In other words, to be a high-performance team, people would conduct themselves in the ways in which members of high-performance teams behave. They’d be effective communicators; they’d be autonomous; they’d be good team players. The problem, however, is obvious: telling people to “just be a high-performance team” or “just get it done” isn’t realistic either. People in the workplace need the foundations that only leaders can provide.
Too many organizations and consultants are operating backward, starting with the “do” instead of the “be.” And in order to start with the “be,” as in, “be a high-performance team,” we must start with what that takes. Hint: It’s not in the practices of what higher performance teams do; it’s in everything that makes it possible to be high performance. That is where leadership, coaching, mentoring, and team building come in.