4 Steps to Building High-Performance Teams

Companies want high-performing teams. But few know how to build them. Each time I have been invited to join a company in a leadership capacity within the Toyota Industries network, I have been tasked with fulfilling on this need by changing the status quo. There has always been some problem identified by the hiring manager that the company needed help in solving. They knew what they wanted to change, but didn’t always know how they wanted to change it. It was up to me to figure it out.

Over the years of growing within these organizations, and being a part of their leadership and growth, I saw what works and what doesn’t work in building high-performing teams. Each time I have been tasked with growing a new team, I have been better able to articulate the steps needed to achieve team success.

Today, I can clearly express how to build a winning team. Indeed, if I could get in a time-machine and hand this leadership information to my younger self, I am certain that the young, energetic and enthusiastic manager I was would have been eternally grateful. It would have saved me from making many of the mistakes I made and smoothed the trajectory of my teams.

Without the benefit of that time-machine, I instead offer this advice to new and experienced managers alike. The topic of leadership is deep and wide. There is enough advice around to fill many books. Although we can in this article distill the advice into short bullet points, it will be worth reconstituting the ideas again in the future. Therefore, I leave much of the detail and specifics of how to follow this advice to later posts. For now, I’ll at being pithy and succinct as possible.

There isn’t a book or resource I’ve found that lays the leadership advice out in four neat steps. So I provide this guidance here for new managers and experienced leaders alike, to fill a void.

Look for links embedded in this article. They will point you to more detailed explanations and specific advice.

The 4 Critical Steps to Building High Peforming Teams

There are four steps to creating high-performing teams. No more, no less. Although they are simple to articulate and understand, most managers have a tough time executing each step.

Each of the four steps are in a specific order. It is very difficult to achieve success by taking these steps out of order.

Step 1 – Hire Talent

Hiring talent may seem like it is a simple objective, but it is easier said than done.

Here are some of the reasons why hiring managers struggle to hire talent.

  1. Hiring criteria is arbitrary. Many hiring managers know what they don’t want, but can’t clearly articulate what it is they are looking for.
    • Can you write down the 3 or 4 character traits you are looking for in the role?
    • Do you know what specific talents you are looking for?
    • What experience is crucial to the success in the role?
    • How will you identify these character traits, talents and experience? How will you score each of these when deciding in favor of one candidate over another?
  2. The hiring manager is charmed by the reflection of themselves in candidates and hire in their own image for all roles in the company.
    • How are you objectively scoring a candidate?
    • How will you parse their abilities from their charm and charisma?
    • Who is involved in the hiring decision? What steps are you taking to avoid the ego-trap of hiring in your own image?
  3. High-potential candidates cannot see a brighter future for themselves on your team.
    • Can you clearly articulate what future you are building for the team? Does it inspire you? Does it inspire others on the team?
  4. The hiring manager hires the candidate who is available instead of waiting for the right candidate.
    • Have you clearly defined what your goal is for the current hire? Is this a forever hire, or are you hiring for a shorter-term goal?
    • What is the future of this candidate once the team has reached the short term goal? Will there be a place for him/her once the goal has been achieved?

Adding Talent to an Already Strong Team

If you already have a strong team, it is natural for an outsider to want to join the winning team. But adding talent to a winning team is not the same as building a winning team.

In a weak team, there is a culture and an expectation for under-performance that you need to shift. There are specific ways to do this which I will layout in later articles.

On a strong team, hiring is just as important. Simply sustaining an already successful organization is easier to do, but by no means easy. You may have seen this in action. You may have watched a new manager take over a team and, slowly, you notice, the performance and overall caliber of the team diminishes. You wonder why.

Later, another manager takes over the flagging department and the team is breaking records again. Why is this? If you investigate the hiring practices of both the successful and less successful manager, you will understand why. Go back to the four reasons for above and look for these pitfalls in the hiring approach.

Step 2 – Invest in Training

Training is the first thing that gets canceled when an organization is short on resources, time or commitment to the future. It is easy to see why this short-sighted practice is a problem.

Henry Ford said famously: “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”

The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay - Henry Ford (famous quote)
The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay – Henry Ford (famous quote)

Henry Ford’s advice is well-taken. Many managers hear it and endeavor to fulfill their duty to provide training. The problem many they face is the specifics. They don’t know where to start.

  1. Why should we train?
  2. What should we train?
  3. When should we train?
  4. Who should we train?
  5. How should we train?

The best place to start is to answer #1. Why should we train? It is all about where you are currently and where you want your team to get to.

Why should we train?

Look at the outcome you want for your team. Ask yourself, if they were already trained, what would they know and how would that help? The “why” is answered by the destination. When you clearly articulate where you want the team to get to, you will be able to justify the investment of time and effort. With the destination clearly understood, you can start to work backwards and create a training plan with milestones along the way for how you are going to get to your training destination.

A symptom of an untrained team is how busy the manager is. As the team becomes more competent, the manager finds she has less to do. Over time, she finds that the focus can be adjusted from tactical, get-through-the-day type goals, to strategic goals.

  • How busy are you?
  • How competent is your team?
  • How much time do you invest in training?

Answer these questions and you will discover the source of your workload. The manager is usually promoted to the role due to their competence in producing excellent work, and the expectation is that competence is transferred to the team. The transfer of knowledge rarely happens in the short term without following the 4 Steps to Build a High-Performing Team.

What should we be training the team to do?

Once you have defined your why, you can start to work on the what. What should we train becomes a simple act of filling in the blanks.

When you have defined the destination of what a fully trained team-member looks like, you can identify the component parts of the curriculum.

EXAMPLE: As a result of some team analysis of a forklift dealer, we recognized that the most successful account managers on the team were able to articulate the value of the dealership (aftermarket), were experts in each of the classes of product we sold (classes 1, 2, 3) and were excellent in providing a detailed demo on each lift truck model, understood racking, conveyor/sortation, the fleet management software, and they were well-versed in selling skills. Based on this, we created eight training segments, which we covered over eight 12-week periods. In this way, at the end of a two-year period, the team had completed training on all eight segments for the team.

After only two years, results improved, morale improved and we recruited higher-quality talent. Training became the foundation for our success.

When should we train?

Whenever you introduce new training, the complaint from the team will be, “This training is taking me away from my job, I don’t have the time to train.”

Therefore, it is very important that training take the form of bite-sized chunks. Schedule times of the day, week, month and quarter that do not interfere with the business you are in. It also needs to be relevant.

Who should we train?

Everyone in your organization needs training, but not everyone needs training on every topic. It is important to identify the topics for training, then identify roles that need training.

Training needs to be role specific. Each role in your organization needs a training plan to identify which training they need.

Look at your whole organization and ask, what is it that everyone needs to know? Create a general training for every associate, then specialize the training for each group. You may decide that every manager in your organization needs situational leadership training, but only operations management needs 5S training. Make sure you clearly document who should be trained on each topic. Then include it in your training plan.

How should we train?

When one teachestwo learn.” ― Robert Heinlein

My experience learning Hapkido in Korea taught me a lot about effective training. I noticed that the master of the martial arts academy trained very specific people. His time was focused on the strongest and most senior individuals in his school. He then delegated to his senior pupils the responsibility to train the next tier down the belt ranking system. They delegated their training to belts immediately junior to them. In this way, every level was responsible for training the level directly below them. Black belts trained brown belts, brown belts trained purple belts, etc. The master audited everyone’s mentoring and put the weaker mentors into remedial training.

This approach reminds me of TOYOTA’s PDCA cycle. PDCA stands for Plan, Do, Check, and Adjust.

How to Use the PDCA Cycle in Training

In Korea, I experienced the PDCA cycle in action. In the martial arts , the plan is the belt curriculum. The curriculum is documented and clearly defined. When the senior belt teaches the junior belt student, this is the do. It is the execution of the planned teaching curriculum. Once the curriculum has been taught and practiced, the master comes around and audits the senior belt’s teaching and the junior belt’s assimilation of the curriculum. This is the check part of the cycle. If either the teaching of the skill or the assimilation of the skill is found wanting, the master pulls the senior belt away, reinforces the senior belt’s knowledge and ability to teach the skill and then task the mentor (senior belt) and mentee (junior belt) to review the curriculum again. In this way, the PDCA cycle continues until the junior belt is an expert in the curriculum and gets his black belt.

Therefore, it is crucially important that a successful mentor-mentee relationship be fostered within your organization. Using the PDCA cycle, you will build skills in both the mentor as well as the mentee.

When on teaches two learn - Robert Heinlein
Create a culture of learning at your company

One of the companies I worked for in a leadership role, made the Mentor-Mentee relationship the signature focus of his organization. Every year, this forklift dealer, held a training academy, the company’s management training event. Every supervisor or manager who was invited to be a part of that year’s academy was required to either have a mentor or to mentor someone throughout the duration of the academy.

In this way, knowledge and experience passed from senior member of the team to more junior members of the team. Additionally, lifetime friendships and trusting relationships were formed within the organization.

Step 3 – Measure What is Important

Failing to measure leading and lagging indicators that will drive your business forward creates confusion and anxiety. All team members need to know what the measurements are and what activities will get them a stronger result.

When I first joined Raymond Handling Solutions, we did not have a way to identify top performing account managers. We knew we wanted to identify top performers, but we didn’t have benchmarks to discern who was doing well.

At my previous employer in Canada in 2005, performance was a very private affair. Low performing sales reps knew who the top performing sales reps were by their “master status” conferred on them after 10 years of experience. They also knew they were doing well by the luxury-brand cars they drove.

What did not work about this approach in was that a person’s financial success might have mistakenly been attributed to the opportunity the individual had or the favors he received from upper management. Sales reps might have believed that their paychecks were tied to the largess of their employer instead of how they structured their deals. There was no direct line of logic between how a rep was paid and performance. It was all a big mystery.

I was at Raymond Handling Solutions (RHSI) in Los Angeles when we introduced our Sales scorecard. We were looking for something to celebrate and needed the data. The scorecard was simple. It documented the performance for each category of product we sold, and it was sorted by Gross Profit (GP). Therefore, the highest GP producing sales rep was stack-ranked at the top of the chart and the lowest GP generator was at the bottom.

Ranking based on GP was the perfect measurement for the team. It aligned with how the sales reps were paid (a percentage of GP) and it aligned with the goals of the company: profitability.

In this way, you need to choose a measurement that is meaningful to those who are being ranked. If you are paying salespeople on GP, but measuring units sold, it will be difficult for the sales team to connect the dots. The team will focus their energy in directions the company may not want to go.

Notice that by simply measuring performance and putting those measurements up on the wall, you shift the conversation. I remember one senior sales rep telling me how he had sold $2.5 million in gross sales revenue. When I asked him how much GP he had produced, he wasn’t sure. When I asked him what he was paid on, he told me GP. So, in this situation, we found a sales rep who was putting his energy into one measurement but being paid on another. The result was he and the company he worked for were dissatisfied. He didn’t feel appreciated and the company wasn’t getting what it needed.

Once the measurements for GP were put in place that aligned the senior sales rep’s activities with how he and the company were getting paid, performance improved almost immediately.

Step 4 – Celebrate the High Performers

Companies that fail to celebrate the high performers create an “in it for the paycheck” culture. Associates hold back on commitment and wonder privately or sometimes out loud: “Why bother?”

The argument against celebrating this: How can we celebrate until we hit our company’s goals?

So, you end up getting stuck. On the one hand you don’t want to celebrate anything until there is good news to celebrate, and on the other, until you start celebrating achievements, albeit small ones, the culture of achievement never takes hold.

Therefore, the solution is to find something to celebrate at every meeting. If you can’t think of anything, ask the team for help. Ask them: “Who should we acknowledge this week and why? ” or “What can I acknowledge you for this week?”

Sound goofy? Perhaps, but not celebrating anything is worse.

When the door to the Executive Meeting room opens and the meeting lets out, notice what the folks in the office do. You will see that any admin sitting near the meeting room door will instinctively look up. He will notice the mood and expression of those coming out of the meeting and will make up a narrative that either the company is doing great or the company is doing poorly. And then that energy and interpretation colors his conversations for the balance of the day.

A man is but a product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.  Mahatma Gandhi famous quotes
Find something to celebrate every time your team meets

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