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High performance teams: Authority, ownership and motivation

By Richard Harpur    |    May 20, 2019

Leading a high performance team is all about how you communicate objectives, strategies and standards to the individuals on your team, and in turn, how your team members respond to and make use of authority, ownership and motivation. These three factors play a major part in your team’s ability to deliver on your technology strategy.

As a technology leader, it’s your role to build an environment where autonomous team members thrive and consistently deliver on your organizational objectives. Your success in doing so depends on turning the elements of authority, ownership and motivation into tools that inspire your team.

Authority drives clarity and accountability

Authority doesn’t just include your authority as a leader. It applies to each member of your IT team. Exercised correctly, authority brings about the clarity necessary for improved performance and reduces inefficiency, confusion and rework.

Authority is also a catalyst for accountability. If your database team is accountable for the performance of databases in your organization, then they also need the authority to make decisions such as what hardware will support the databases, the density of databases per server, backup schedules, test restores and more. Once you empower your team to make decisions by granting the necessary authority, the team becomes accountable for performance. With authority, teams no longer defer responsibility to leadership.


Here’s an example of unclear authority at work:

A legacy application written using a combination of C#, with significant business logic written in SQL, regularly experiences performance issues at month’s end. The code is performing poorly under the load, and the database administrator (DBA) team can only do so much to keep the servers running. They explain that it’s a code issue and they can not do anything to improve performance apart from providing additional resources, such as processing power and memory. The development team duly requests the DBA team get faster, more powerful servers to run the code. The DBA team doesn’t have the authority to fix the offending code as that is the responsibility of the development team.

Here's an example of clear authority at work:

Instead, provide the DBA team with the authority to make changes to the SQL code, remove inefficient code and replace it with high-performing code. Once month’s end comes around, if there is a problem with performance, then the DBA team will be responsible for the issue. They have the authority to change any piece of SQL code, server configuration and hardware that runs the database. What will ultimately happen is the issues will get resolved at their root cause, as opposed to blaming under-performing hardware. You won’t have these recurring problems for long periods of time, or at a minimum, you’ll have a roadmap to resolve the problems with confidence and speed.


It’s imperative that as you delegate authority, it’s given to the correct people. Team members with authority will have the greatest impact on achieving your goals, and will take responsibility for their part in delivering for the team. Keep in mind the overall mission and ensure lines of authority are used to progress toward that mission instead of away from it.

Ownership drives performance

Don’t confuse authority with ownership. Ownership is an activity of performance, while authority is the right to act and make decisions. A poor leader may have authority, but not deliver on the ownership. Similarly, a person taking ownership of a product or service without having the authority to do so will encounter barriers at some stage, even if their intentions are noble. Unless an owner has the authority to be an owner, they will not be effective.

However, once you get both elements in place you can start to make progress. Once an owner is granted sufficient authority, they can get down to the business of making decisions, providing direction and clarifying what needs to be achieved in a particular product, service or role.

What follows proper ownership is a domino effect: The owner makes decisions. Decisions bring clarity as to what the rest of the team needs to get behind. That clarity paves the way for them to push ahead with delivery. Additionally, proper ownership leads to teams working in sync with other teams and holding each other accountable. Distribute ownership correctly and you’ll get more scalable organizations and more accountability throughout your team, making your job as a leader easier.

To help you scale and be an effective leader, try to ensure that all your areas of responsibility have owners assigned from your team. Your job as a leader is to provide oversight and maintain overall responsibility.

Motivation comes from trust and respect

Techniques for motivating technical teams vary greatly depending on the company environment. Motivating teams at startups with real survival threats varies from established companies with significant scaling and quality issues, which varies from dictatorial organizations focused solely on personal profit for founders with minimum regard for team members.

Whatever organizational culture you find yourself in, you can increase the performance of your team members by first showing them respect. If you don’t show individual and collective respect to your team, you won’t build trust. Without that, it’s very difficult to build and sustain motivation.

Remember: You are asking your team members to join you on a mission, to do things that they sometimes don’t understand or fully agree with. You’re asking them to stretch their performance and deliver greater results. You can only do this if the team member believes in you as a leader. Take some time to understand what drives your team members, and tailor your technique to their type. Here are a few common types, drivers and things to watch out for:

Type 1: The “new tech” evangelist


What motivates them: 
This person is driven by experimenting with new technology because it’s new. Arrange a safe zone for them to research and adopt new technology. Make it clear that they have freedom to experiment and explore, but anything that needs to be used in core business systems requires all the necessary support structures. You need these people on your team to help you advance your technology stack.

Things to watch out for: 
Encourage the use and interest in new technology, but ensure you don’t get into a situation where wrong, bad or unproven technology is being slipped into key parts of your organization. Most systems remain in operational use for years or decades, which requires significant consideration around operations and support over the long term, so be appropriately cautious about introducing something because it’s trendy.


Type 2: The learner


What motivates them: 
This person also has a great hunger for knowledge, but unlike the “new tech” evangelist, the learner doesn’t have to be working with the latest technology. They are happy closing their knowledge gaps for existing technology. Professional certificates that demonstrate skills are important to this type. Publicly acknowledge and recognize their learning achievements, and ensure they have plenty of access to ongoing skill development resources. Consider providing them with a portion of time purely for learning. The more they really understand a piece of technology, the more your organization will gain value from it.

Things to watch out for: 
Be careful of the use of technology just for the sake of learning without a true business value return. The time investment put into learning should be measurably paying off for both the individual and the team.


Type 3: The career climber


What motivates them: 
This person is on a mission to advance their career. Titles and recognition are important to them. They’ll want to take on more responsibility and be seen within your organization as a person who is advancement-driven. You can motivate this person by having clear job roles and corresponding titles that are meaningful and real, combined with a path for the person to achieve the next rung on their career ladder.

Things to watch out for: 
Watch out for shortcuts, weaknesses or single points of failure that might be overlooked as the team member moves from position to position. If some positions require a large learning curve and investment by the organization, keep in mind that this type may not sustain a tenure as long as the other types.


About the author

Richard Harpur is a highly experienced technology leader with a remarkable career ranging from software development, project management through to C-level roles as CEO, CIO, and CISO. Richard is highly rated and ranked in Ireland's top 100 CIOs. As an author for Pluralsight - a leader in online training for technology professionals - Richard's courses are highly-rated in the Pluralsight library and focus on teaching critical skills in cybersecurity including ISO27001 and Ransomware. As a Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) Richard is ideally positioned and passionate about sharing his extensive knowledge and experience to empower others to be successful. Richard also writes extensively on technology and security leadership and regularly speaks at conferences. When he is not writing for his blog Richard enjoys hiking with his wife and 4 children in County Kerry, the tourist capital of Ireland. You can reach Richard on twitter @rharpur.