Lucy’s Kitbag – Episode 8 – Cracking the Code of High Performing Teams

rugby team

Teams fascinate me. We are all part of a team in some form or another. In his book ‘The One Minute Manager Builds High Performing Teams’ Ken Blanchard states that ’50 to 90% of a manager’s time is spent in some form of group activity with two or more people’. But how much of this time is truly productive? Today we run from one meeting to the next, we work with our colleagues in a range of permanent and ad hoc teams, we talk, communicate, try to work out how to sort out problems and generally do ‘stuff’. But are we progressing?

What does a ‘High Performing Team’ look like?

There are many publications exploring this topic, but here I offer you a few hints and tips from my own experiences and as a trainer on this very subject. I like to think of this as ‘cracking the code’ of high performing teams. Sport is always a good place to look for excellent examples. One of my favourites is the All Blacks rugby team. I was fascinated when they recently won the 2015 Rugby World Cup and an image burnt into my memory is the team doing the Haka with the World Cup in front of them after winning. So what makes this team (and many others) so successful?

To start with their coach took an approach like that taught to all Army Officers – Mission Command. Mission Command is a military process where soldiers are told the intent of the commander and left to decide how they achieve their orders. Leadership is devolved; people are empowered and trusted to deliver their responsibilities. The same approach was taken with the All Blacks team. In addition to this, a team mind-set of ‘service’ was cultivated. Again the military embed in their officers a ’servant leadership’ mentality. This is illustrated in the Sandhurst motto (which is on the cap badge of all officers) ‘Serve to Lead’. From the start of training all officers are taught to take care of their soldiers first, with traditions like serving dinner to troops and eating after their troops are fed (even when exhausted); taking care of your soldiers’ needs is prioritised above all else. Rarely can one person win a battle; battles are fought and won through courage, trust, loyalty and teams with a service mentality. For the All Blacks team this was cultivated by making team members sweep out the changing rooms after training – no elitism was allowed.

hockey teamI was a member of many sports teams at school, and learnt many team skills through the clubs I joined such as how to communicate, how to work effectively with others, and how to build bonds with team members so we could perform as one and win. This led me to Loughborough University and a Degree in Physical Education and Sports Science. At Loughborough I studied elite teams and regularly played alongside England Hockey players. What enabled those teams to be high performing? Talented players helped of course, but like the All Blacks, we trained six days a week, we practised continuously, often going back to basics (every practice we repeated dribbling the hockey ball until we could do it perfectly), we practised in small units and then as one team. We studied the opposition’s tactics and we formed a strong team identity – we were proud to represent Loughborough and be part of our National Teams. The All Blacks demonstrate this to World Class level.

We also respected each other, celebrated our strengths and helped each other develop our weaker areas. We were encouraged to be open and to share our views and not to judge one another. Through this sharing we bonded and recognised we all had a role to play in the team’s success. This bond and ability to share openly within a team is known today as ‘psychological safety’. This concept has been widely researched and developed as an approach for business by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson. In her book; ‘Teaming – How Organisations Learn, Innovate and Compete in the Knowledge Economy’, Amy states; ‘the term psychological safety describes a climate in which people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings’.

So what can we draw from this when thinking about teams at work? I would suggest leaders think about employing Mission Command in their leadership strategy, they should also reflect on their own style of leadership and consider how ‘servant leadership’ could improve their impact. The leadership community of any business would benefit from reflecting on how they create a climate of ‘psychological safety’ in order to get the most from their teams. As with drill in the Army and sports team practice sessions, businesses should not forget the basics. The Sandhurst passing out parade involves up to 1000 officers marching in synchronised complicated manoeuvres. This is only achieved by practising the basics of drill over and over again. Businesses should break down communication to its basics and work to make it better; they should consider how teams work and how to encourage them perform to higher standards. Finally we should not forget ‘identity’. I was proud to serve in the Army, I was proud to represent Loughborough and proud to be part of many cup-winning sports teams. ‘Identity’ is at the heart of success, if your employees do not identify with your business and purpose, you will struggle to gain their hearts and raise performance. Leaders can learn many lessons about building their own High Performing Teams simply by reflecting on what successful teams such as the All Blacks are doing, and applying some of the strategies that have led to that success.