Friday, June 10, 2016

Building Leadership Skills and High Performance Teams

Jennifer Yarrish
Manager of Competitive Intelligence and Best Practice Performance,
Insurance and Financial Services

National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA)

Bob, a high performing contributor at his pharmaceutical company, was promoted to lead a new product development department, managing a medium-sized team.  Bob’s team was pre-selected from various departments within the company and no one on the team had any experience in product development.  It did not take Bob long to realize that his team members were not performing well together and were struggling in their new roles.  He was also stretched thin, and did not have much time for training and development of his team.  Bob attempted to set goals, but the team found them to be too vague to be actionable. 

Despite Bob’s efforts, the team remained stressed and dysfunctional.  During one meeting, tensions boiled over when one of his team members acted out in frustration, and Bob’s response showed equal frustration.  The team member complained to the CFO, and Bob was reassigned to an individual contributor role, his team was taken away, and he was given a below-average performance review.  He requested that he receive leadership and managerial training so that he could learn from his mistakes, but the request was repeatedly denied.

The above is typical of what can go wrong when untrained leaders are in charge and teams are not functioning well.  From this example we can observe several things:
  • Individual, high-performing contributors are often promoted into leadership or managerial roles without anyone taking their ability to lead into consideration.  This can be fatal to the development of a high-performing team.
  • Bob failed to clearly communicate the team’s goals, and subsequently did not earn the trust of his team.  Bob needed to find a balance between project deliverables, team building, and skill development that was sustainable.
  • Rather than cultivating a culture of continuous improvement, Bob’s boss chose to deny him opportunities to learn from his mistakes and grow. 
As businesses strive to differentiate their products and services, achieve profitability, and remain competitive, developing and maintaining high performing teams is essential to success.

Here are some of the key components necessary to develop leaders and high performing teams. Things might have turned out differently for Bob and his team if these guidelines had been followed:

  • Ensure those individuals designated to be leaders within an organization are more than just strong individual contributors. Providing team members with the opportunity to demonstrate leadership on projects helps to identify individual contributors who are both strong individual performers and also possess the ability to inspire and develop talent. Ongoing leadership development and training can also help.
  • Define clear team goals and establish a vision for the future.
  • Set a vision. High performing teams understand how the team’s work fits into the overall organization’s goals and helps give purpose to projects. It is de-motivating to only see your contribution without understanding how your work benefits the overall organization.
  • Establish goals. Teams need to be focused on shared goals and outcomes and understand precisely what is expected of them. Effective leaders set clear goals for the group and individual and establish frameworks for how to achieve these goals. 
  • Structure team members' roles. Ensuring that everybody understands their role and purpose and how it supports the team overall is a good way to enhance productivity and limit duplication.  As appropriate, high performing teams also determine who makes final decisions to minimize conflict. 
  • Empower team members. Effective leaders ensure that everyone’s agenda is heard and explored.
  • Create a culture of continuous improvement. Create a learning environment and emphasize the development of the team by learning from successes and failures. It is often said that you learn more from your failures than your successes. Do not be afraid to give second chances. It might feel like you are making your team vulnerable, but the long-term investment may yield a much greater payout.
  • Minimize stress levels. Creating a process for decompressing and venting frustrations in a healthy manner is a skill that all high functioning teams possess. Effective, high functioning teams often have a time out process where they can vent frustrations in a constructive manner and then table the conversation until tempers have cooled.
There are many attributes that define high performing teams.  Building leadership skills requires trust, a clear vision, goal setting, transparency, and a safe-haven feedback loop.  Revisiting the team’s process frequently and making modifications as necessary helps to ensure critical leadership skills are developed and teams perform fluidly and effectively.

As businesses strive to differentiate their products and services, stay profitable, and remain competitive, developing and maintaining high performing teams is essential to success.

Jennifer serves as the Manager of Competitive Intelligence and Best Practice Standards at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.   With 15 years of competitive intelligence experience, Jennifer has made her career standing up research and competitive analysis departments within large organizations. Previously, Jennifer worked for the Advisory Board Company, a $1B global research, technology, and consulting firm specializing in healthcare and education, where she created the custom research division for higher education.

Jennifer started her career at a boutique competitive intelligence consulting firm where she spent seven years working across industries and developing her competitive intelligence and research skills.  

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