The most often asked questions from my clients are “What are the most important characteristics of a high-performing team, and how would you prioritize them?” Thankfully, I have been asking myself these same questions for most of my adult life, starting when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. My father had been a professional athlete (baseball and basketball) and was the head basketball coach at a small college in New England. I grew up playing team sports and often felt that I saw the playing fields through the perspective of my father, after filtering it with my own experiences. I understood the power of synergy, of everyone on the team working together towards the same common goals, and the power of competitive spirits driving themselves and each other towards excellence. My high school basketball team won two consecutive championships and was undefeated. This was quite an accomplishment, but begged the question, ‘what made us different? What did we have that other teams did not have? Was there some magical formula that I could take with me, and help other teams win, in athletics, business, and life? Well, it took some more time and more experiences before the answers came to me. And I am happy to admit that more answers arrive every day, as I work with leaders and their teams. My choosing a career as an Executive coach has been rewarding on so many levels, one of which is the continuing education that I am receiving from my clients. Mine is a career in which the coach learns more every day, thereby becoming a better coach. I can look back at some of these experiences and benchmark them as “the tipping point” in my discovery, even though I did not consciously acknowledge the answers appearing in that moment. The first time came after we won our second state championship. I was sitting in the locker room after the celebrations had subsided, and as I looked around the room, at the faces of my teammates, I realized that I would not only miss them and the camaraderie that we shared, but I felt the loss of something else that I never did understand until years later. The second meaningful experience came when I was working for United Parcel Service, as a package handler, while I was in college. Our job was to unload the brown UPS trucks as they returned from their daily routes. We carried the packages from the trucks and placed them on conveyor belts, to be sorted and loaded on tractor trailers (called feeders) bound for other delivery centers scattered all over the country. I worked as hard at doing my best, pulling more than my share of the load while helping the team succeed every night. I was rewarded with a promotion to student supervisor and realized, at that moment, that I was now expected to be a leader. There were many more experiences and epiphanies over the next few decades and they all re-emphasized my initial thoughts on the most important characteristics of high-performing teams. Here they are:
What I realized, sitting on that locker room bench, was that every player, coach, trainer, and supporter in the room performed at their highest level and contributed everything they had, in order to help the team succeed. We had people who rebounded, others who scored, and still others who played defense. We all had a role on the team and we filled it. What we had as individuals and as a team was credibility. My individual credibility was the main reason I was chosen to be the first student supervisor at UPS. I unloaded trucks faster and more accurately than the others and I also helped them out whenever I could. I know now that I fit the mold of what kind of people UPS management was looking for at the time. So, back to the question of high-performing team characteristics. I put credibility at the top of the list. Teams will not perform at the highest level unless each individual has his or her own credibility. And credibility is the result of integrity, personality, work ethic, experience, and education, among other things. When there is individual credibility, combined with common goals, collaboration, focus, intensity, and passion for excellence, then there is team credibility. Or said differently: WE have credibility.
The second realization, or Ah-Ha moment that day in the locker room was that I trusted every person on my team. They had all proven themselves so many times that I allowed myself to be vulnerable to them. Even though none of us were perfect, and even though I knew that we would miss shots, commit fouls, and make mental mistakes, I trusted them because they proved their value to the team repeatedly. And, we had built relationships with one another that were so strong, we entered every game with the same mindset. When we all put forth our best effort we win. And we did.
The third priority on my list has everything to do with credibility and trust. Put a group of credible people, who are able to build strong and trusting relationships, together and help them collaborate on some higher arching goals and accomplishments, and you will have the foundation for that high-performing team.