High performance teams: Playing to strengths

By Richard Harpur

Playing to the strengths of your team isn’t about doing what team members want and nothing else. Instead, it’s about recognizing the strengths each individual team member can bring to your organization, being aware of their limitations, and then structuring your organization around maximizing their contribution. When done correctly, this is mutually beneficial for the organization and team member, and is an essential component of creating a high performance team.

The following tips will get you started on maximizing the strengths of your team to operate at a high level:


1. Embrace differences

Not everyone you hire or work with will think, work and behave exactly like you do. And the truth is: You don’t really want them to! Different people possess different strengths and weaknesses. It takes many different types of team members to make a successful team.

For example, the skill set required for running a high performance operations division and ensuring that systems operate within SLAs is very different from the skill set needed to design and solve a business problem with a technical solution. Being aware of the need for different skills will help you to move more quickly in positioning your team members into the correct roles, and in hiring new team members to fill the gaps in your team’s composition.

Consider this real-world scenario: One team member is highly driven in their database role. They’re motivated by learning new technology, attending conferences and training. They value learning new things, staying current with technology and applying new technology to existing problems. Another team member is simply one of the best service delivery people in the industry. These two team members, with very different personalities, strengths and talents, would complement each other and deliver far more together than either could deliver on their own.

The cliche of 2+2=5 is true here. If you can recognize the differences in your team members and get them working in a complementary manner, they will elevate each other.

2. Assess your team’s strengths

The key to assessing your team’s strengths depends on how well you already know each individual. Have you worked with them for years, or are you about to hire new team members? Depending on the scenario, there are a few approaches you can take:

Observation: You can learn a lot about your team members by simple observation. Observe how they undertake their day-to-day responsibilities. Are they very organized, well planned and do they deliver work on time with no surprises? Maybe they are more creative in bringing new discoveries and suggestions to the table, but could not plan even simple tasks with any degree of accuracy. As you observe, remember that your own biases may influence an objective assessment of your team members’ strengths, so always supplement your observations with data wherever you can.

Listening: Listening to your team members gives you far greater coverage in terms of assessing their strengths than observation. You must do this in the correct sequence in order for it to work successfully, and you have to provide a safe space for team members to share freely and vulnerably.

Feedback: If you can establish trust among your individual team members, they are more likely to come to you with feedback and assessment of their peers, which provides you soft data to form a more complete picture of your team’s strengths. Establish an open channel for trusted feedback from your team members about your team members (and even about you), then act on it appropriately and quickly. Your team members will learn they can provide honest, candid feedback to you, and then directly to you and to each other.

Assessment: Psychometric assessment can be useful when you don’t know the individual you wish to assess, or have no opportunity to assess the individual’s past performance. This type of assessment is commonly undertaken during the interview stage, to help organizations select candidates and position them within the team.

3. Know your organizational needs

Depending on the stage of your organization, you will have different requirements from your team. “High performance” will mean totally different things to a startup doing two releases per day than to a mature enterprise doing two releases per year.

If you are a startup organization and trying to launch the first product, a high performance team for you means having a team that can anticipate the needs of the customer, build the product with reasonable quality and do everything quickly. At this stage of maturity, your organization is selling to customers that value the solution you are bringing to their problem, so a product that’s a little rough around the edges is usually not a dealbreaker.

Compare that to mature organization selling to large enterprises, where customers may have much more stringent requirements and expectations of the product. For example, a large enterprise’s security needs or global footprint may mean things like SSO, 24/7 support or localization into different languages are non-negotiables, which could kill deals if those features aren’t present and polished.

When you are creating a high performance team, you need to be aware of the maturity stage of your organization as well as what you need to deliver to customers, and then address the gaps within your organization. If you remain with an organization during the transition from startup to securing multiple enterprise customers, you will have to regularly redefine “high performance” and reconfigure your team accordingly.

4. Get your team to gel

The goal here (and the overarching goal of this guide) is to create high performance teams, not high performance individuals that happen to work on the same team. Teamwork needs to be fostered, supported and mentored. As a leader, your role is to forge links between team members, so that they can solve problems together instead of running every team function through you.

Instead of having strict 1:1 weekly meetings, consider changing to 1:2 weekly meetings, where the trust and respect can start to triangulate. Continue with this approach until you have all your team members in a single weekly meeting and no longer need to hold time-consuming 1:1 meetings. By doing this, you will establish trust and respect across your entire team and they will work together more closely.

Let’s look at how this process might take shape in a real world example:

Your IT Operations Manager comes to you with concerns about a new solution that’s going to be deployed. The Solution Architect notified the Operations Manager that he wants to put this into production next week. The Operations Manager requested documentation for the new solution, so that all required documentation can be written up and training of the operations team can take place. The Solution Architect feels there’s nothing complicated in the new solution and thus no need for documentation.

This kind of misunderstanding is common. The Solution Architect has strengths in the design and delivery of new technology, but is not really that interested in the on-going support and maintenance. The Operations Manager is more concerned about the support and customer impact than the solution itself.

If this scenario occurs in your organization, you can take comfort in the fact that you probably have the correct people in the correct roles already! The Solution Architect is solely concerned about creating new technology and solving business problems with technology, and the Operations Manager is concerned with keeping the lights on. While there may be a minor trust issue between the two parties, it’s a net positive that they both care about their ownership and roles enough to make their voices heard. It’s good that they are advocating for the areas where they have strengths and experience.

To help create a strong high performance team, you need to improve the interaction between the two team members and establish greater trust between them. You may need to broker this in the early days to help both parties understand the needs of the other, but once you have set it in motion it should gather momentum on its own.

Once you’ve established a high performance team, you’ll know it! Your team will work without reverting to you for affirmation, and will bring forward improvements and advancements to your process on their own. Remember: The definition of a high performance team will change as your organization grows, matures and changes over time. Your team may need to change multiple times to stay in sync with the organization’s demands, but once you’ve got the skills to evolve, your organization will benefit greatly.

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.