Jigsaw 3
Suzanne Powell
Suzanne Powell

CEO and Founder of Simple Business Transformation

How to build a High Performing Team


High performing teams don’t just come along by chance. They are the result of a good leader, a willing team and a lot of time and effort. There are very few of us who are given carte blanche to recruit a whole team of high performing individuals from scratch. More often than not you will have inherited some, if not all of the team, and that team may not be the most enthusiastic you’ve ever met. So is the creation of a high performing team worth the effort and can it be done? Well the answer is a resounding YES to both of those questions and what’s more it can be extremely satisying!!

Despite being given cost reduction targets of the multi million pound variety I’m often asked to deliver it with little or no team. Once, an MD dismissed a transformation team of 33 project managers in favour of delivering his cost reduction target in house. He later changed his mind and asked me to pick up the £14.6m target with just 4 people and 6 months to do it. But that suited me. I like small teams and these 4 soon became high performers. The other scenario I’m often faced with is when the people I’m given don’t want to be on the project, or in the team. Or else they have been passed from pillar to post and labelled as poor performers.


In my experience they are rarely genuine poor performers, and that’s when working with the team becomes very satisfying. It’s like taking some neglected plants and seeing them bloom, or panning for gold and finding that nugget. So, speaking from experience, and in no particular order, here are my top tips for creating a high performing team to be proud of.

Be a genuine leader

The first thing is to call a meeting with your direct reports and then an all hands call with the management layers and team members. The aim is to increase visibility.

This is a chance to start as you mean to go on. If you have a tough challenge ahead or things aren’t going well then be honest and say so. They will have already guessed and probably be relieved you’re acknowledging and taking ownership.

Be humble and have patience and listen to your employees, even if they are unhappy. This is your stake in the ground and the start of the change towards becoming a high performing team. Unhappy employees do not perform well so you need to show you can be trusted and that you keep your promises and commitments. In short you need to make them happier.

No matter how tough things get remain optimistic and cheerful. Leaders of high performing teams know how to create energy and enthusiasm in a team. You want the team to be inspired by you, and these meeting and calls need to happen regularly to keep up the positive momentum, which brings me to my next point.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Now you need to maintain regular communication and be visible. Have you ever worked in a team where the MD doesn’t even say good morning let alone speak to you about your projects or your team? Nope? Well I have and it’s the best example I could give you of a broken team. I didn’t even really speak to my colleagues as we were never brought together as a group and fair to say that half of her direct reports left within a few months of her arrival.

So make sure you prioritise communication. Your employees need to know they are operating as one unit so keep them updated with any new procedures and initiatives. Don’t keep them in the dark, openness is key as a high performing team needs trust and loyalty.

Assess the team

So now you are visible and communicating your next action is to assess the team. Is morale low? Do you know why? If not maybe an employee survey can shed some light?

Do in depth one to ones on a monthly or 6 week basis with your direct reports and as part of their one to one ask them to give a 5 minute summary of each person in their team. What are the strengths and what are their development areas. The aim is to understand where the team are now and where you need them to be.


Part of the assessment could be Myers Briggs or Belbin’s model which give a view of personality type. An effective team ideally needs different personality types. It’s not unusual, if you are recruiting, to choose people who are just like you, however you do need to choose people who contrast and complement one another.  People who are different in personality make for a versatile team but watch out for clashes and …………..


Nip conflict in the bud

You are going to encourage ideas and you are going to make it safe to speak up so it’s inevitable that people with different motives and drivers are not going to agree. A team, with your help, will need to understand and respect that individuals are different to them, but don’t let conflict get out of hand or be seen to actively encourage it. In a previous role I saw the CEO deliberately set his direct reports against each other. 

He would give work to an individual, let’s call them Bill, that was proper to another person, let’s call them Robert. The CEO would tell Bill that they had been given the work because they didn’t trust Robert to do it and Robert, when they questioned why Bill was doing their work was told it was because he wanted to see if Bill was capable of doing a good job. Bill would do everything they could to make Robert look bad and Robert would do everything they could to make sure Bill failed. It was carnage.Some leaders believe conflict is healthy but I’m not of that opinion. Disagreements at work can lead to an unproductive team so set the rules with team.

My rules go like this. If you are irritated by someone in the team come and tell me. I won’t think badly of you, I won’t go running to that person but I will listen to you and even if I don’t agree with you I will acknowledge it’s a problem for you and address it. Let me give you an example. Frank came to me and said that one of their colleagues, Richard, was phoning Frank’s team to get them to do work without going through Frank first. This meant that Frank’s team were getting conflicting messages on priorities and too much work. At my next one to one meeting with Richard, and without telling Richard about Frank’s complaint I asked about the progress Richard and his team were making and specifically about a report that I knew had been completed by someone in Frank’s team. Richard took me through the report and I asked who in his team had completed it. Of course he had to tell me that it was someone in Frank’s team. This enabled me to have a discussion about how and why he had gone to Frank’s team. He admitted he didn’t have the same analytical skills in his team but that he hadn’t approached Frank first because he thought Frank would say no. At our next team meeting I put “Work load and work requests” on the agenda and the problem was resolved, without me intervening, by Frank offering to take on Richard’s requests if we had a central register for work requirements. Problem solved and Frank and Richard never needed to have a cross word. It’s important to be approachable and empathetic to your team.

Set goals and objectives

 The team can’t perform and give their best if they don’t know what is expected of them. During one of your communication sessions make the vision clear for both them as individuals, and for the team or organisation. Give every individual in the team objectives but make sure they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Based (SMART).

Don't micro manage them

Tell them what they need to achieve but not how to achieve it.  When I give a project or a piece of work to anyone in my team I let them know the outcome that’s required and the timescale it’s required in. I don’t say “first you need to do this… and then you need to …” That doesn’t mean I don’t coach them at their one to ones but everyone has their own way of doing things and my way may not be their way so let them get on with it. It’s all about accountability and they won’t develop into a high performing team if you hold their hand and don’t let them think for themselves. If they make a mistake then coach without blame and move on.

Invest your time in them as individuals

I once worked for a CEO who could remember the name of everyone they met. No mean feat when the organisation has over 30 thousand employees. Not that she met them all but believe me if she met you she would remember you. Very impressive.

If you want these people to become a high performing team then you need to understand their aspirations and their strengths as well as the areas they need help in. Knowing they like gardening or the names of their children shows you see them for themselves and they will respect you for it. But as the quote above says you need to reinforce their strengths with them. They need to be able to see their potential. And when they do well, tell them. There are many studies that say job satisfaction can come from more than money. Knowing you are appreciated and told what a great job you are doing can make a real difference.

Reward and Recognition

Thank individuals or even the team as a whole for a job well done. Recognition can often be a stronger motivator than money and can take all forms. I’ve seen it done well and I’ve seen it done badly. One company partnered with Talk Talk and their recognition was tickets to the X factor show. Not everyone’s cup of tea and people actually started saying no thank you to the tickets. Recognition and reward has to be something the individual is pleased to get. One MD I worked for had a lunch once a month for employees who had been nominated by their managers. He was a bit of a character and very down to earth so lunches with him were prized and it meant he got to know them better.

However recognition is a tricky one and the reason I say that is because often the top performing individuals get the recognition,but the people working until the small hours to get the work done that allows that individual to land that sale or deliver that project go unnoticed. For these people seeing someone get recognition for what was their hard work is demoralising.

Develop your employees

Provide ongoing training so employees don’t stay stagnant. Training can help employees take on new roles, further their knowledge, hone their skills and step up to the next level.Think of ways that you can give your employees leadership roles. You don’t have to promote employees to manager to make them leaders. Consider forming committees or assigning leadership roles for projects. By encouraging employee development, you equip your employees with the skills and knowledge to become high performers.

Create an environment in which team members feel it is safe to take risks, innovate and grow in confidence in their abilities.

However when you do your one to ones you will learn who is happy to come in, work hard and go home and who wants to progress to the next level. For those people who don’t want promotion it’s important they know it’s ok if promotion isn’t their thing. It doesn’t mean they are not a high performer. For those who are keen to take on more responsibility and get promoted I always tell them that operating at that level will help them at interviews with evidence and will make the transition easier so they are not out of their depth in their new role.

I take a 2 step approach. First I let them shadow me in the work I do and the meetings I attend. Individuals who are clearly talented I take to meetings with my seniors, I introduce them, give them credit for the work I’m about to present, and let them see how these meetings operate and get a feel for the CEO or the board. At this point they don’t present.

The 2nd stage is to involve them in the presentation. Ask them if I missed anything or if there is anything they want to add.

Finally I take them to the meeting and explain they will be presenting this time. My aim is to give the people the opportunity to become the next leaders but in a way they are comfortable with. Realistically if you want a high performing team you want to be comfortable with the fact that these people may one day be promoted to a role higher than you and if they are? Well be proud that you helped

Make sure the team don't burnout

 I’m a terrible example to my team. I often work into the small hours of the morning so it’s even more important that I stress to my team that I’m not example to follow.  When people tell me they’ll look it at the weekend and I have to tell them that the weekend is for family. Or people who tell me they will get a large piece of work to me by the morning and it’s already 6pm that they need to have some downtime. Although I work long hours in the week I rarely work weekends and I make sure my team know that. If they are driven as individuals you won’t be able to stop them but they need to know you don’t expect it. When people ask to take a half day for a funeral I tell them don’t worry about leave. Or they will be in at 8 and have a doctor’s appointment at 10 I tell them to come in after the appointment. Of course you need to keep an eye on it but I rarely find anyone who takes advantage and it’s a small gesture when you know people are working late to help you hit your deadlines.

Team size and dynamics

I would recommend a team size of about 8 people. A smaller team (6 or less) means that you will not get the diversity you need for making the best decisions. A larger team (greater than 10) is harder to manage. I’ve seen larger teams form sub groups and at meetings a “them and us” mentality start to form which can lead to conflict. It’s also harder for everyone to be heard and contribution recognised.
Assess what each individual brings to the team but be wary of including a “star” performer who thinks they are better than the rest to the detriment of the team. A few years ago I saw one such “star” who disrupted the team with going solo, working in his own silo to deliver his own results and alienating the whole team. This behavior was tolerated by the MD who protected this individual due to the fantastic results he was getting only to find the results were false. Egg on faces all round I’d say. If the extent of your organisation is so great that 8 to 10 direct reports is too few to cover all the work you need to deliver then consider creating 2 or 3 top teams where you can focus on each area such as operations, product development and strategy. In this way it doesn’t just have to be direct reports but also members from the management layer below so you can get the right experts in the room and give them the opportunity to operate at the next level.

Manage the workload to ensure value add work

Make sure the team is focused on the right work and not bogged down with other trivial and unimportant tasks which detract from the work that’s going to make a difference. Which tasks are important and add value and which do not. Which can be stopped to allow the continuation of “real work”.
In a previous role 4 times a year myself and my colleagues would be swamped with writing comprehensive performance reports for our teams and then attend meetings to ensure our marks were fair. I would hold a meeting with my direct reports to discuss their teams and then go to another meeting with my colleagues to do the same thing. Levelling it was called. Projects were left unattended while we all wrote the appraisals and had the meetings. Eventually sense prevailed and the exercise was reduced to twice a year.
If you want a team to perform assess at the one to ones who is progressing with their objectives and if that progress is what you were expecting. If it isn’t they may not be poor performers but dragged down by bureaucracy which can be evaluated and removed.

Performance Management

After a while it will become evident who are the high performers and who aren’t. If people can’t pull their weight then it will affect the team and ultimately you will need to help them move on. Having these conversations is difficult. I usually find starting the conversation initially with how they are feeling about their performance. What can I do to help them achieve it? The next conversation usually involves a performance improvement plan with a set of actions to help them get on track. This may be training, weekly one to ones, etc. People usually come to their own conclusions that it’s not working for them and that’s the time to support them with moving on.

I’ve moved people to another part of the business that suits them better. I’ve moved people back down to the next management layer if they are not coping with their current level, and I’ve moved people out of the business, helping them find another job, helping with interview practice. Above all it’s important to be compassionate.
Remember people may have issues going on outside of work so support may be required.
One person was moved to my team because they were being performance managed for failing to multi task as a project manager, and had been told they needed to leave the business. This caused them great stress and they were moved to my team as they could no longer work with their current manager. I noticed that the person did ok until they were dropped a more urgent task in the middle of what they were doing. I had my suspicions so I asked them to see Occupational Health who confirmed they had Aspergers. This person had no idea but once they were told it was a weight of their shoulders, an explanation they could understand. With this new knowledge I moved them from project manager, a job that didn’t suit them because of the variability of the work to a PMO role. This person then became my highest performer. He calculated benefits and wrote reports on progress. Finance would challenge and lose because he was so thorough in his calculations and he thrived on the work.

So build a high performing team today and be the envy of your colleagues.

For further information including statistics which support the importance of building a high performing team, and the impact on the business, check out this great article in Forbes

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