Many leaders claim to have built high-performing teams. Many of them are completely full of shit… and in my experience, most can’t even clearly articulate what a high-performing team is!
If you want to build a high-performing team—I mean, really want to build a high performing team—then there’s going to be some pretty tough leadership work ahead.
Many leaders fall at the first hurdle. High-performing teams are comprised of high-performing individuals: no passengers, no tourists!
Convincing individuals to stretch themselves to the edge of their capability can be incredibly difficult. And, as humans, we find a thousand ways to rationalize why we shouldn’t do the work that would stretch our people.
Let’s look at a few of the rationalizations that are likely to derail us in our quest to get extraordinary performance out of our people:
1. “Everyone deserves a chance”
That’s an awesome rationalisation, because it’s true! Everyone does deserve a chance. But only if they’re held to rigorous standards of both behavior and performance, and they’re not given an infinite timeframe to meet those standards.
2. “Who am I to play God?”
If you’re a good leader, you’ll have a personal connection with your people… you’ll be friendly but you won’t be friends. Great leaders build trust and connection with their people. So you may know their kids’ names, where they live, and maybe even a little about their future hopes and dreams.
But paradoxically, this thing that makes you a better leader also makes it much more difficult to make decisions that impact your people’s lives. This is a rationalization that you’ll probably have to fight through if you’re committed to building a high-performing team.
3. “But they’re a great person”
It’s common to look at an under-performer and say to yourself, This person has so many great qualities and they’re such a great person, everyone really likes them, they’re such a good fit for the team. All of which might be true, but this has never been a criterion for leadership performance.
And so, regardless of a person’s wonderful qualities, or how much they’re loved by the team, at the end of the day, you’ve gotta get results.
4. “I can make this person better!”
This is really the height of arrogance. When you say that someone will be better just because they work for you… really? Will they? You may well be able to motivate and support people to bring out the very best they have to offer. But at the end of the day, every individual chooses how they behave and perform. We shouldn’t be so arrogant as to think that we have that much impact and control over any other person.
5. “They’re improving”
This is normally an exercise in futility. Improvement should be expected, of course. But it’s a very rare individual, and a very rare leader that can muster up the breakthrough improvements that are often required to hit the mark. But our optimism bias often kicks in, and we look for the tiniest little green shoots of improvement, before we declare victory, way too early.
A common pattern is for an individual to improve initially… just a little. This is the stark realization that they have to do something different if they wanna keep their job.
But longer term improvements, reaching the performance bar your setting, is a rarity. Although I know this is going to be a little controversial, the truth is that it’s always much much easier to bring in someone who already has the ability to exceed the performance standard than it is to try to drag someone kicking and screaming to reach that same bar.
It’s a lot easier to rein in a stallion than it is to flog a donkey.
Putting the individuals in place who are going to give you an even-money chance of building a high performing team isn’t easy… but it’s the necessary first step.