Rethinking Leadership:

Understanding the "Genius" of Your Team


Published on: December 2018

Written by: Andrew Atkins

Most leaders have been promoted to the top because at one point or another, they’ve come in and saved the day. They routinely solve problems and deliver tremendous value to their organizations.

At the same time, hero leadership, as its often called, has real downsides.

Swooping in to fix things not only creates dependency on you as a leader, which is exhausting—it kills creativity, team problem-solving, ownership and know-how. The best and brightest leaders want to become part of an organization where they make a difference. They don’t want to work for heroes.

This phenomenon has been recognized globally in the world’s best companies. The most accomplished leaders understand they can’t do it alone. They can’t just hire great people, they have to get people to work together. That means they must tap into the “genius” of the team. The question is how to do that?

What it means to be a team

First, you must define “team.” It’s one of the most overused and misused words in business. Almost any grouping of people, regardless of how they work or what they do, can get referred to as a “team.” Unit managers often call their direct reports their team. Cross-functional groups and even senior staff may be routinely referred to as the leadership team.

While these and other loose applications of the word “team” may be better than calling a collection of employees a cluster, gaggle, or crowd, we’re referring here to a team with a clear mission and purpose together. And, when that team becomes high performing, it is a unique experience.

Some people have experienced real teamwork as a part of the military, or playing sports, or in the arts such as music or theater. Some may even have been fortunate enough to have it in business. They know how memorable and powerful it is. High performance teamwork transcends almost any experience we have, outdistancing those achievements on our own. When people talk about great teams, they are  vivid in their descriptions, and their energy and nostalgia are palpable.

Thinking differently about what defines a high performing team

We began researching teams because of our experience over two decades working with about 20% of the Fortune 500.  It led us to conclude that leaders can be promoted for individual achievement, but simply cannot sustain the wins and grow without fully understanding and appreciating what a great team can do.

Our research led us to a very specific definition of a high performing team:

“A high performing team sets free the genius of its members to create the extraordinary together.”

This definition reflects key distinctions in how and why people work in teams that transcend mundane performance. Let’s explore four key distinctions captured in four parts of the definition.

  • “A high performing team sets free the genius of its members to create the extraordinary together.”

High performing teams create an environment or culture of trust that supports the efforts of the members. They are freed from worrying about others misconstruing their actions because their work aligns to a common higher purpose and each team member can rely on others to apply their expertise in service of the greater good. Trust is grounded in expectations of autonomy and accountability. Working as trusted partners to each other, team members can take initiative to do the right thing because all team members also hold themselves and each other mutually accountable for fulfilling their promises and dealing candidly, fairly, and transparently. This freedom provides tremendous motivation for exerting discretionary effort in service of the greater good.

  • “A high performing team sets free the genius of its members to create the extraordinary together.”

Legions of studies have confirmed that diverse team membership contributes to better team outcomes. Variety is necessary, but insufficient to realizing these gains. High performing teams go beyond being inclusive to foster “belonging.”

Tolerating differences isn’t enough, nor is just an appreciation of our commonalities. On high performing teams, what makes each team member different is what makes them valuable. The uniqueness of each team member–their distinctive skills, perspectives, experience, expertise–in dynamic combination and recombination with their teammates creates the rich opportunities for insight, innovation, and agile execution.

  • “A high performing team sets free the genius of its members to create the extraordinary together

A team is not the sum of its members but of their relationships. The value of a team goes beyond the cumulative efforts of individual members to the exponential impact of their work in combination with each other. A four-person team can take advantage of almost a dozen combinations of two, three, or all four members. This rich mix of capabilities allows teams to far exceed individual contributions.

High performing teams also continually consider the intended and unintended consequences of their actions on their stakeholders and on their place in the context of the enterprise. Team boundaries are permeable to ensure that they communicate effectively with those who will be affected by their actions. And that communication is two-sided because these teams actively solicit input and ideas from others to remain open to new perspectives that can spark innovation.

When these teams face dilemmas, they resist “satisficing” or settling for the least worst option. Instead, through their openness to other perspectives they can adopt a higher strategic perspective and generate better ways of addressing seemingly irreconcilable demands. They solve for “both/and” rather than for “either/or.” Furthermore, because they have a strong focus on the future, they can take a longer term strategic perspective, helping them solve dilemmas and increasing their resilience in the face of execution challenges.

  • “A high performing team sets free the genius of its members to create the extraordinary together.”

Getting to those solutions points to one more unique characteristic of high performing teams–they relish a good fight! Conflict is something they cultivate, because they know that a lack of disagreement is often a sign that the team has ceased to work together. The rich mix of contrasting ideas is the raw material from which high performing teams forge their extraordinary results. When these teams collaborate, they are disciplined in how they solve problems, make decisions, and engage in constructive conflict. Where lesser teams will suppress discord to preserve harmony, high performing team rely on the trust they’ve built to provide a safe arena for wrestling through differences.

How much difference does being high performing make? Our research into team behavior has shown a direct relationship between the prevalence and consistency of these behaviors and the effectiveness and productivity of teams. With our Leadership Team Performance Index (LTPITM) assessment, we’ve looked at 90 high performance team behaviors and found that acquiring even a few of these behaviors has an immediate and significant impact on performance. Gaining mastery of many yields accelerating gains.

Closing the gap to high performance

Leading, or being a member of a high performing team can be one of the high points of a career.  However, it shouldn’t be so rare. To have a high performing team we recommend that you:

  • Make “setting free the genius of your teams to create the extraordinary together” a mantra in your leadership–a way of leading that distinguishes you and sets you apart.
  • Understand the qualities of teamwork that make your team high performing, and then measure your team’s gaps and strengths.
  • Create the mindset that great teamwork should not be such an “extraordinary” and rare experience! Set the expectation of high performance and encourage your teams to go beyond getting along, to making things happen.

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