When top business executives are asked to recall an experience when they and their management team were performing at their best, their answers often include the same themes: At the top of their game, the team worked intensely to achieve a shared, deeply meaningful business objective. The executives often speak of enjoying open communication with their teams, as well as constructive debates and mutual support. They use words like “exhilarating” and “rewarding” to describe the experience.
But when asked whether their teams perform at their best when the stakes are at their highest – for instance, during a major transaction – the answer is almost always, “No”.
How can business leaders re-create that “winning team” experience? Research across hundreds of executive teams worldwide reveals that the best-performing teams share several common characteristics that enable them to bring out the best in each other and their organization as a whole.
Firstly, winning teams focus on a few critical objectives. High-performing teams focus their efforts on the handful of fundamentals that make the biggest difference. They also have a flexible working style, within a clear set of operating norms. When faced with a new challenge, high-performing teams are able to transform themselves, adopting a style that the new situation demands. For example, during times of organizational change, teams need a much greater degree of collaboration and alignment than when they are simply running the day-to-day business. However, even in these exceptional circumstances, the working style respects a few commonly understood norms.
Winning teams have a CEO who is “first among equals”. Too many leaders tend to either step back and delegate decision making or rule with an iron fist. The best leaders have impressive command of all aspects of their business. Rather than having all the answers themselves, they build an environment for open dialogue, free from the frictions of ego, thereby facilitating more rapid decision making.
The best teams take on work that only the team can do as a collective. They also create a “high challenge, high support” environment. The ideal environment is one that enables constructive debate based on facts and free of emotions and politics. Team members cannot achieve peak performance when the fear provoking disagreements or emotional debates, when they mistrust the motivations of colleagues, or when there is a history of hurt feelings. On the other hand, a lack of challenge leads to false consensus, or worse.
The best teams also set far-sighted goals that stretch into different dimensions of the business. They set high standards for both business results and team performance. While ensuring that financial results are on track, they maintain a sharp focus on long-term performance and health indicators, such as the quality of the business portfolio and investments that will broaden and deepen organizational capabilities.
Finally, winning teams invest in building the team’s effectiveness. Star-studded teams often fail when top performers dive into business issues without recognizing that the team’s performance is the real challenge. Instead, the best teams invest in the skills of individual members as well as the team itself.
Instilling these habits in an executive team is not easy but it’s critical to achieving a track record in developing and executing winning business strategies successfully over the long term.