How leaders can create high-performing teams

“The most important decision you make in your company, ever, is who you make team leader,” says Marcus Buckingham, best-selling author and business consultant, and a keynote speaker at the 2014 EY Strategic Growth Forum® in Palm Springs, California.

That begs the question, what do great team leaders do to deliberately create more of the best teams? Buckingham says just three questions explain almost all of the variance of high-performing versus low-performing teams.

Through the lens of the led

Buckingham says Gallup has surveyed people for the past 15 years on the best and worst teams on all manner of subjects — recognition, compensation, vision, mission, values, etc. — and then repeated the questions millions of times.

“We can all wax lyrical about what leadership is and what it feels like, and we should,” he says. “It’s almost inexpressible sometimes what a leader can do for us and with us. But if you want to put some numbers to it and say, ‘What does the data say that the best leaders get done through the lens of the led?’ These three — well, they capture it pretty well.’”

In order of importance, they are:

  1. At work, do I have a chance to do what I do best every day?
  2. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  3. Are my colleagues committed to quality?

In position to do your best

On the most productive teams, people strongly agree to a question pointing directly at whether or not their leader knows them for what they do best.

“You fail to address this top item and everything else you try to do to build high-performing teams will be diminished,” Buckingham says.

People only care about the mission initially. If they don’t understand how they can contribute, it withers away. Instead, the best leaders start with the employee. Who is he or she? What does he or she bring? How can you figure out how he or she can bring it every day?

“The every day-ness, the idea that I’m actually getting to do a lot of this, seems to be a really important word in that question,” he says. “Take the word out, the question is broken.”

It’s not an easy task with pitfalls like bad relationships and delusions about what you do best.

“Your job as a team leader is not to come and to tell people who they really are; what do they really do best,” Buckingham says. “You don’t know. You are not an objective judge of who they are. Your job, instead, is to figure out where they feel that they are at their best.”

Focus on what they perceive as strengths and surround them with like-value people and you’ll win.

Confusion vs. productivity

“You have never met a confused productive employee. Confusion is the opposite of productivity,” Buckingham says.

In order to manage expectations, yearly performance reviews or meetings every six weeks aren’t enough. The best team leaders check in weekly about near-team future work.

Buckingham says it’s a five or 10 minute meeting that’s focused on two questions. What are your priorities this week? How can I help? It creates a coaching atmosphere that is better than feedback. Leaders are offering advice for the near-term future, such as next week, not writing reviews or trying to sum up personalities.

“The best leaders seem to realize that a year is 52 sprints,” Buckingham says. “So how do you get that weekly sprinting rhythm in place? You do it from team leader to team member.”

Bring quality to life

On the best teams, people all seem to share the same definition of quality, Buckingham says. For example at Apple, quality is beauty. Down the road at Facebook, it’s speed to impact.

Both the people and atmosphere reflect those. Facebook’s offices scream temporary and there’s posters on the walls that say: Move fast; break things; done is better than perfect. At Apple, done isn’t better than perfect because it’s not done until it’s perfect.

“If you look at what the best leaders get done, one of the things they do beautifully well is they bring it to life,” he says. “They bring it to life through stories, through heroes, through ritual, through the expressed values you see on the wall. They’re brilliant at bringing quality to life and making it vivid for us.”

Creating this kind of high-performing team culture is an ongoing, all-the-time challenge, Buckingham says. It’s not easy, but it’s the right hard thing to do well.