Are you tolerating toxicity and unproductivity?

In order for a leadership team of any company to truly operate at a high-performance level, the leaders need to have the courage to look at themselves in the mirror, face reality and take stock of what is working and what is not working in their own team dynamic.

The ‘working’ part is easier than the ‘not working’ for obvious reasons. There are always challenges, tensions, and issues between teams and between leaders. At times, teams feel frustrated by the fact that other teams are not listening or providing the support they need. Some leaders feel their counterparts are complacent, arrogant or simply incompetent and not adding value.

A few recent examples I have encountered include:

  1. The Head of Sales feeling a lack of support from Marketing. He felt Marketing was not listening to Sales’ needs, they put on events that are not effective and overall not adding value.
  2. The Head of Manufacturing complaining that Sales keeps selling features that do not exist or promising delivery deadlines that the factory did not agree to and cannot keep.
  3. The Head of Sales being frustration about his Head of Services counterpart not being responsive and supportive because he is too focused on selling new services rather than supporting existing ones.
  4. The Head of an overlay function complaining about the lack of inclusion, collaboration, partnership and mere respect and appreciation of Sales.

I could go on and on, there are so many examples.

Leaders tend to take the critical conversations about their team, personally, so even when everyone knows that something is not working, in most cases leaders avoid addressing the issues in order to avoid the unpleasantness of conflict. When issues are addressed, they are often discussed in a wishy-washy, politically-correct, diplomatic and/or polite way.

If leaders want to elevate their trust and partnership, they have to find a way to engage in an honest and brave conversation to air the grievances, complaints, and frustrations they and their team members have about other teams and managers.

Obviously, it has to be done respectfully and productively. It also has to be done in an honest and direct way. Beating around the bush simply doesn’t resolve anything.

I recently had the opportunity to help a senior leader of a technology company in doing exactly that.

Each leader wrote the key frustrations/complaints that his/her function had about the other teams they interacted with most and depended on most. Then each leader, in turn, communicated what they wrote, and others tried to listen openly without reacting.

By the time everyone had a chance to give and get feedback the space of the room had changed. People seem to be more reflective and less defensive.

No one seemed to be surprised by what others said about them.

Everyone acknowledged that many of the issues and frustrations had been around for a long time.

In addition, everyone acknowledged that these dynamics were stifling teamwork, productivity, and performance.

So, I asked them:

“If everyone knows these negative dynamics are going on and hurting the team, why have you tolerated them for so long?”

A couple of leaders took offense and claimed that they tried to change things but didn’t succeed. However, when we examined their claim a bit deeper, they admitted that they made a few light attempts in the right direction, but without strong enough courage, conviction or persistence.

Why do leaders tolerate any level of toxicity around them?

There was a good dialogue in which leaders acknowledged that they had avoided these tough conversations because – in simple terms – these conversations are hard, messy, scary and risky.

You may think that this specific senior team is particularly wimpy or weak. Trust me, that is not the case. On the contrary, this team has accomplished great things. However, like so many other effective teams, when it comes to addressing the challenging conversations, they shy away from the heat.

After acknowledging their shortfalls, the leaders also acknowledged the negative consequences of their environment – the stress, discouragement, lack of collaboration, lack of fun at work and reduced quality and productivity.

I have a client who when describing his job, he refers to it as “his 8-hour inconvenience.” Can you imagine going to work in that space?

It doesn’t have to be this way. If you focus on the negative consequence associated with not addressing the tough conversation, you may be able to muster the courage to take a stand and say: “Enough Already!”, “No more!”. From that declaration, you can start doing things differently.

It takes courage, but it is extremely empowering!


How good is your strategy?

I was supporting the senior leadership team of a global service provider in taking their game to a new level. As part of my preparation for the work with this firm, I attended a PowerPoint presentation of the global vision, mission, and strategy of this firm.

It was spectacular both visually and in terms of its content. It was simple, clever, it used catchy phrases and it incorporated a few cool visual effects. It was one of the best I have seen (and I have seen many), I was impressed!

Then I started the work with the team, and I cannot begin to tell you how dysfunctional these leaders were. They had significant trust, cohesion and communication issues between each other, which also trickled down to their functions. They had many conflicts, which they avoided dealing with, they did not collaborate well, and they definitely were not aligned on their strategic objectives. Needless to say, the did not live up to their spectacular vision and mission.

There was such dissonance between their impressive strategy presentation and the way they actually behaved.

This senior team is no different from so many other teams I see. Obviously not every senior leadership team is highly dysfunctional. A few are really great, a few are really bad, and most are mediocre or average at best.

This dissonance only emphasizes the premise that any vision, mission or strategy are only as good as people’s relationship with them. By relationship I mean the degree that people genuinely understand, believe in, are committed to and feel a sense of personal ownership and accountability toward them.

Coming up with a spectacular strategy and PowerPoint deck is so easy and common. Transferring the words from the slides to people’s hearts and minds is the most challenging, but exciting tasks leaders have.

Unfortunately, I meet so many senior leaders who seem to be stuck in traditional, old-school thinking. They seem to believe that if they communicate their vision and strategy to their people – in a PowerPoint deck, no less – their people will automatically get it and own it.

But as we all know, nothing is further from the truth. Managers and employees don’t buy into strategies just like that. They have to be enrolled; they have to understand the business rationale and logic – the “why are we doing this?” They want to feel confident and be inspired, not merely taken for granted. And, they want to know that their leaders have what it takes to follow through and lead the strategy to conclusion, no matter how challenging the journey may be.

There is always pressure on senior leaders to provide leadership, not merely hide behind their rank and authority. Leaders need to inspire and bring their personal charisma, courage and stand to the game. Not every leader gets it, is committed to it and/or is capable of it.

Therefore, when answering the question “How good is your strategy?” you must include two dimensions: The content and context of the strategy.

The content means – is there is a clear, precise, robust and well-structured game plan (strategy, objectives, process, structure, etc.) that everyone understands the same way?

In so many organizations this seemingly common sense and simple step is not achieved in a powerful and effective way. Typically, the strategy is too high level, vague or conceptual, and different team members have different ideas, interpretations, agendas and priorities about the direction, methodology, process, and destination.

The context means – is there is a team dynamic (culture, environment, mindset etc.) in which everyone can truly be open, honest, authentic and courageous; an environment in which people feel “in it together”, even if they don’t all report to the same boss, which is the case in any matrix management environment; an environment in which everyone is excited about the game and feels genuine ownership commitment and accountability toward the bigger success?

Addressing the content alone will at best produce a dynamic of unenthusiastic compliance (and often frustrations, fear, and resignation). This will be insufficient for achieving a new, more powerful game. Alternatively, attending to the context alone will also not work because un-channeled enthusiasm will not be productive and effective, therefore it will not sustain as well.

When you examine the strength of your strategy don’t underestimate the value and importance of these two dimensions. A successful strategy relies 30% on its content and 70% on the context inside which it is being executed.

A strong context can compensate for weak content. However, strong content will not compensate for a weak context.


What kind of leader do you want to be?

The CEO of a large global service organization was a very strong and tough leader. This enabled him to drive, almost single-handedly, significant and impressive changes in the structure, performance and market position of this organization.

His leaders admired the CEO for his bold leadership and the progress that he was driving. However pretty much all of them also felt intimidated by his strong personality and assertive and decisive leadership style.

The CEO stated that he wanted his leaders to be engaged and co-own and co-lead the company with him. However, in reality, he had such strong views about the business – which were often the right ones – that he infrequently actually listened or incorporated his leader’s ideas. And, the fact that he was wicked smart and knowledgeable about most aspects of the business, as well as an extremely rigorous and diligent leader presented an extremely high bar, which most of his people couldn’t match or live up to.

The members of the senior leadership team were frustrated because they weren’t making the difference, they felt they should and could be making and the difference they wanted to make. They felt they weren’t engaged and involved enough in influencing and shaping the important strategic topics and directions. They were also frustrated about the fact that they were not operating as a real cohesive and aligned team. They felt discouraged because they felt they couldn’t change their predicament. Needless to say, this company had significant alignment, teaming and cohesion challenges across and within its businesses and functions.

However, the story is not all bad. The company was making great progress and people, including the senior leaders, were feeling good about that.

Everyone wants to be part of a winning team. Everyone wants to be associated with great results. There are benefits from success – a sense of pride, satisfaction and often financial rewards too. That is why people are often willing to put up with a lot of hardship in order to stay associated with success.

Business success is important, but it isn’t everything. People spend the majority of their life at work. They dedicate so much of their heart and soul to their company’s cause. And, they often make a personal sacrifice for their job and put their work before their personal priorities.

The way you drive and achieve the results is often as important as the results themselves.

Unfortunately, many senior leaders still believe that business success is everything and the only thing that matters at work. They relate to team spirit, culture and job satisfaction as ‘nice to have’, but not a critical aspect of the business, or their job. So, they behave accordingly.

If you think back through your career and recall the most memorable teams you were part of, and impactful experiences you had – what do you remember most? The business results or the team dynamics, atmosphere, spirit, relationships and communications that took place that led to the business results. I am sure it is the latter.

People remember the leaders who inspired them by driving team unity, alignment, collaboration, growth, accomplishments, and pride. They remember the environment that enabled, empowered and encouraged them to be authentic, brave, express themselves, grow, be part of something bigger, and make a difference.

So, if you are a formal or informal leader or you want to be, you should ask yourself the questions:

  • What type of leader do I want to be?
  • What legacy do I want to leave on others?
  • What impact do I want to have on people that I lead?

Are you investing in building your team?

If you were the manager of an NBA basketball team, or any professional sports team, with the best stars in the league, would there be any dilemma or doubt in your mind about the need for a coach?

Would you think: “We don’t need to spend time on team strategies and team dynamics, they take away from individual players’ shooting practice or their chance to rest between games?

And, if you were winning the playoffs, would you then feel that “We don’t need a coach because we are doing so well“?

The answer is No, No and No! No sports manager in his/her right mind would think this way. And, by the way, it is the same with any Olympic athlete or world-class musician and probably in many other disciplines.

So why do so many CEOs and leaders don’t get it?! Why do so many leaders avoid investing in building their teams?

You could say: “Well, in the NBA the goal, prize and what is at stake are so clear” and “Well, basketball is a team effort“.

But, isn’t it exactly the same in business?

I was working with a large global technology company that was going through tremendous growth and change after acquiring a few companies in a very short period of time. A very ambitious undertaking under any circumstance.

With such a bold undertaking they expected that things would get worse before they got better. But the ‘get worse‘ phase was taking too long. Their performance wasn’t where they wanted it to be and it wasn’t improving fast enough. Needless to say, the downward trend was undermining internal and external morale and confidence.

The senior leaders were especially frustrated because they felt that a big reason for why things were not improving faster was that the level of alignment, trust and communication within the senior team itself was not strong. This was undermining the level of alignment and collaboration within the teams under them and hindering their ability to collaborate and fix problems.

However, the CEO felt that taking the senior leaders out of the field for a meeting was not a good investment of time. In fact, he felt that every minute away from being with customers or selling was a waste of time. He also felt that there was no point talking about anything other than how to make the sales numbers for the current week, month and quarter because if they didn’t make their very short-term numbers, they won’t have a future to talk about. Lastly, he felt that the one-hour conference call he had with his leaders every Friday, was sufficient for them to coordinate things and stay on the same page. Most of the heavy lifting he did in one-on-one calls with each of his senior leaders.

While his rational had logic, following it dragged the company further down. He was speaking with all his leaders, but they were not speaking among themselves. After a few quarters, during which the company did not meet its targets, the CEO was only then willing to change his mind. He agreed – at first reluctantly – to spend a day with his senior leaders.

To make a long story short, when the senior team started to spend quality time together, their trust, unity, alignment, courage and communication grew exponentially. They were able to discuss and address the real challenges and opportunities and make decisions that they all owned. It didn’t take long before company results started to turn around too.

I have seen this type of turnaround many times before!

When team members are in it together, they can accomplish extraordinary things. Nothing is too big for them. They are bigger than any circumstance, challenge, or opportunity. However, when team members are siloed and divided, they will be smaller than their circumstances and they will not overcome even basic challenges and opportunities. In fact, things would most likely get worse around them, just like the example above.

If you want to take your game to the next level, you need to think strategically and that often means going slower and smarter in order to go faster. To do that you must make sure that your senior team is 100% aligned, committed and in it together.

Like any NBA championship team, you need to invest the time to build and coach your team.

Agreeing to disagree is always a cop-out

Too often I see the following scenario: A team meets to discuss issues that are critical to the organization’s success. The conversation goes on and on without resolution, as different people have divergent opinions about the best course of action. When the leader tries to bring it to a conclusion, they are no closer to alignment. They leave the meeting “agreeing to disagree.”

Such meetings are worse than a waste of time, in fact, they can actually damage the organization, which is then no closer to making the necessary decisions and assuming responsibility for them. People stay within their comfort zones at the expense of moving the organization forward in new and dynamic ways.

Take as an example a successful technology company that was trying to take its game to the next level. One of their biggest challenges – and opportunity – was to get all their business units and functions working together in a more cohesive and aligned way. Instead of interacting with customers with one voice, different sales and services groups were promoting their own agendas, often competing with other internal groups for customers’ mindshare and business. Cross-selling was suffering and a lot of potential revenues was left on the table.

The senior leadership team of this company made many attempts to get on the same page. They scheduled many long and exhausting meetings, but these perpetuated the vagueness and didn’t create clarity and alignment. Leaders left these meetings with different understandings and expectations and every time issues came up and a leader would say “But, we agreed on this!” a colleague would respond with “We never agreed on this!” Needless to say, this company was not going to the next level any time soon.

Why does this happen? It is either because leaders lack the courage to drive clarity in the face of controversy, or they lack the understanding of their role as leaders, or they lack the ability to effectively manage conversations.

True leaders know how important it is to have an open debate with honest, respectful listening because there is rarely a single right answer to any dilemma or question. They are able to elevate their people to set aside their personal egos, agendas, and preferences to align with the collective wisdom of the group. They instill in their teams a real commitment to the type of conversation that leads to making choices, aligning behind those choices, and taking responsibility together. This requires courage.

There is never a justification to leave a conversation agreeing to disagree. It is always a cop-out!

Of course, some topics are complex and may need a number of meetings to gather the necessary input and to digest it as a group. But paralysis by analysis is always an excuse to avoid taking a stand. And, the cost of lack of decisiveness, accountability, and follow-through is cynicism, resignation, and stagnation.

Achieving extraordinary results requires the ability to align on goals. Agreeing to disagree precludes that. Organizations that achieve 100 percent alignment behind a goal that is 80 percent right have a much greater chance of success than those where people are divided behind a perfect goal. Compromise too often means that some of the people are 100 percent behind one point of view and others are zero percent. How motivated are those ‘zero percent people’ to work towards the success of a goal they have not endorsed? They are the ones watching and waiting to say: “I told you so”.

Obviously, it is scary to step up to the plate and take full responsibility for a goal or direction that is uncertain, controversial, difficult to achieve, or politically incorrect. Making choices means eliminating alternatives. But when team members do find the courage to make tough choices, they are immediately more powerful. They are able to apply their energy towards proving their choices right rather than wasting energy on proving that others are wrong.


Is “good” good enough for you?

Here’s my high-level assessment of corporate and business teams:

  • Many, perhaps most are dysfunctional or mediocre.
  • Some are good.
  • Few are excellent.

Unfortunately – this report card doesn’t directly correlate with business results.

I say “unfortunately” because pretty much every team talks about wanting to become more effective and some version of moving from “good to great” yadda, yadda, yadda.  However, for most teams this desire lives as a “good idea”, not a “must do”.

If only great teams produced great results it would be easier for the dysfunctional and mediocre, and even good teams to confront and own the consequence of their inadequacy.

But, things don’t work that way and there are a lot of dysfunctional and mediocre teams who still achieve good, even great results.

Part of the problem is that we use a very narrow definition of what constitutes “Great results”. For the most part, it means – revenues, profitability and stock performance.

Contrary to what many executives say about people being their most important asset, there are simply too many examples of companies… well-known companies… who are obsessed with achieving great financial results while treating their people like crap.

There are only a few truly excellent teams because there are only a few truly excellent leaders who care not just about the bottom line, but also about the corporate culture, their people and the way team members interact and go about performing their work.

These leaders don’t tolerate or settle for less than excellence in all aspects of their organization, including in areas that don’t require it in order for the company to succeed, or areas that are not visible to everyone. They don’t cut corners because they relate to excellence as a value, an end, not a means, and the best and only way to do business. They also don’t use cost as an excuse for not driving excellence.

It is always easier to help teams who are dysfunctional to move from “good” to “great” when things are dysfunctional everyone is anxious and on board to turn things around, fix the problems and get the company out of a bad predicament.

But, helping the “good” teams move to “excellent” that is the hardest challenge, because when things are good people often settle and feel that good is “good enough”.

I was working with a technology company that was going through a decline in their corporate culture, business results and brand. When I started to work with them all the executives and managers were eager to turn things around. It wasn’t easy for them to face reality and own their predicament, but when they got over it everyone was on board for the intense remediation plan we put in place for the following year. The plan worked and after a year of quarterly meetings and task forces between them, the company started to turn around. In fact, at the end of that first year, they had achieved the best results in their history, their reputation in the market had improved dramatically and the overall the mood and spirit, at least at the managers and executive levels were at an all-time high. People felt great.

Everyone knew that the recovery plan was a two-year to three-year plan. Everyone signed up for that at the outset. However, the second year was very different from the first one from a commitment and energy standpoint.

The minute the results turned the corner and people felt good they started to get lax and complacent with the program. Meetings were delayed or cancelled, deadlines were not driven or met and overall the humble, self-reflective sentiments that I heard when we started the process turned into more arrogant rhetoric about how they were better than everyone else in the market.

One of the reasons most dysfunctional teams don’t sustain their peaks and breakthroughs when they reach these is because they get lax and complacent and they start losing ground again. I have seen it happen so many times.

“Good” is the enemy of “Excellence”, good makes people complacent, lazy and comfortable. Because there are so many dysfunctional and mediocre teams out there, the good ones stand out as better. Many justify their lack of drive for excellence by explaining that they are better than their competitors. Some are best in their industry.

But, “Better than good” is still a long way from “Excellent”. In addition, you could be better than everyone else around you and still not even close to what you could achieve.

So, you have to decide – is “good” good enough for you?

Is your team’s communication candid, transparent and courageous?

Most teams are not good at having the tough, uncomfortable conversations, even if it is necessary for a really important cause. Furthermore, most people are not good at giving honest and direct feedback and coaching to others, especially if it involves negative criticisms and feedback, even if it would make a big difference.

Even when team members do attempt to say what’s really on their minds, they often say things in such a diplomatic, vague and sugarcoated way that the impact of their message is lost in its tepid delivery.

At times being diplomatic can be an effective approach. It may allow you to address a delicate problem with a teammate in a more sensitive way, which will make it easier for them to hear and own the issues. However, some critical issues demand a more direct and candid approach that cannot be gained from being cautious or politically correct.

For example, when a team needs to make clear and tough decisions about topics such as where to cut costs and/or reduce budgets or headcount, where to invest and whom to promote. These are decisions that require team members to prioritize and make trade-offs. These are decisions that require team members to put their personal agendas, survival, and egos aside and do what is best for the company or team.

As we all know, this is often easier said than done. Size of budget and/or organization are considered power and status symbols. Typical corporate mindset is often “if you have less money or people you have less control, power, influence, and status.” Therefore, contrary to any politically correct statements leaders may say about looking out for the good of the team first, most are not inclined to give these up too quickly, at least not without a fight. Needless to say, these type of discussions have to be open, honest, direct, courageous and effective in order to make a difference.

From my experience, 95% of the challenges, problems, and dysfunction that exists within teams are due to one of two things:

  1. Team members lack the courage to rock the boat. They are afraid to piss others off, get into trouble, lose credibility, appear as troublemakers and/or fear they will look foolish.
  2. Team members are resigned about their ability to make a difference. In most cases, people have tried to raise issues before or they’ve seen others do it, only to get shut down and perhaps even blacklisted, so they have concluded that it is best to play it safe, pick their battles and let others take the risk.

I am sure many leaders would deny this very simple analysis of why so many teams lack power. It’s the lack of courage to speak up that leads to conflicts, lack of alignment and collaboration, and status quo. Most leaders would rather blame others or their unfavorable circumstances for their lack of open, honest, authentic, courageous and effective communication.

You would think that the larger and more complex the organization the more critical it would be for the senior most leaders to communicate in the most direct and effective way. After all, these senior leaders are typically more seasoned, experienced and mature in leadership and the senior executive team is where all the different functions and businesses come together. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In so many senior executive teams the level of siloed behavior and avoidance of direct and blunt communications is baffling.

In fact, in many senior executive teams, the inner expectation is that each senior executive will run his/her division and colleagues won’t interfere with each other’s areas. The unspoken rule seems to be: “You don’t call me on my stuff and I won’t call you on yours…” The exception to this rule is when the CEO believes in the power of team and he or she insists that their senior team members behave as a real team. I have worked with different CEOs including the ones that invest in building their team and generating candid, transparent and powerful communication, they are refreshing to work with.

The consequences of cautious, politically correct communication include things like:

  1. Team members make tentative and contingent commitments by saying yes and agreeing to decisions they are not fully aligned with. They go off and do their own version of the commitment made, blame circumstances when they fail to live up to their part of the commitment or say, “I was never fully on-board with this.”
  2. Team members tolerate confusion and misunderstanding in discussions and then use those as justifications when things don’t get done.
  3. People see that things are going to break down, and they don’t say anything about it.
  4. People have negative points of view or criticism about their colleagues’, or even their boss, which undermine team trust, but, they don’t confront them.
  5. In meetings, team members know that there is an elephant in the room and something is not being said, but they don’t want to be the one to bring it up.
  6. Yes does not mean yes, no does not mean no and a promise is not a promise. Instead, people sit in the meeting, choosing what they say or don’t say based on being politically correct or covering their asses. Everyone knows there is no real alignment or agreement, but no one will say it.
  7. Rather than confront a colleague directly with their concerns, team members engage in undermining backchannel conversations about their fellow members or their departments.
  8. Team members spend a great deal of energy looking over their shoulders, being suspicious about others’ agendas, and overall protecting themselves from being screwed over or surprised by others.

I am sure you would all agree that the cost of lack of candid, transparent and courageous conversations is grave. So, why is this the norm in most companies? We all know the answer: it is an easier and safer behavior. It allows us to avoid ownership and responsibility. We may feel bad or guilty, but these are easier to confront and experience than fear.

That’s why courage is so important. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather it is about embracing the fear, acknowledging it and speaking up anyway. In fact, the prerequisite for courage is fear. If you’re not afraid to speak, you don’t need the courage to do so.

Here are two final tips:

  1. If you focus on yourself and your own self-preservation you will hold back and let your fear run the show. However, if you focus on your future and what you want to achieve it may empower you and give you more courage to step out of your comfort zone and communicate on your future’s behalf.
  2. There is a powerful quote widely attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, which I love, that will enable you to strengthen your courage muscles: Do one thing every day that scares you.”


How to build a High-Performance Team

A lot has been written about this topic. I would like to keep it simple.  

For me a high-performance team is:

  • A team that is truly cohesive, aligned and trusting.
  • Everyone has each other’s back and people feel they are in it together.
  • Team members address and discuss any topic, no matter how sensitive or difficult – in an open, honest, authentic, courageous, effective and respectful way.
  • People give feedback, coaching and hold each other to account.
  • Everyone is comfortable taking a stand and being explicit about what they are committing to.
  • And lastly – there is no tolerance for gossip, blame, and negative conversations.

So, how do you develop a High-Performance team?

Here is a simple and powerful four-step approach for starting the process:

Step One – Choose high-performance:

First, you have to make sure your team members genuinely choose to become a high-performance team. Becoming a powerful team is no small task. It is a challenging roller coaster ride with some high points and many low points along the way. It requires a huge commitment. You can’t assume that people want it enough that they will do whatever it takes. Also, if you are the leader or manager of a team, you can’t mandate it.

At the middle manager level, you don’t need to have every manager fully committed to high performance. You need enough of the managers; a critical mass. However, at the senior-most leadership team, nothing less than a genuine commitment by 100% of the team will be enough.

Once you have determined that all your team members are genuinely on board and committed to doing whatever it takes to go the whole way in order to become a high-performance team you can begin the forming work.

Step Two – Take stock of your starting point:

In order to reach the next level you have to first take an honest look at your starting point; your current reality – especially the areas where you and your team members have the biggest high-performance deficits and gaps.

It’s not enough to just be honest about the gaps. You have to own them too. Even if you didn’t start or cause them; even if they began a long time before you came on board.

Team members that keep blaming others or circumstances for their lack of team effectiveness will not be able to become a high-performance team. Why? Because one of the key characteristics of a high-performance team is its members’ ability to always take responsibility.

By owning I do not mean that your team members have to beat themselves up or feel guilty. You have to be able to see your circumstances at least from the standpoint that you and your team members had something to do with your lack of high performance.  Perhaps you caused it. Perhaps you tolerated it. Perhaps you were blind to it. But, you had some role in it, especially if it has been there for a while.

It would be much more powerful if your team members can look beyond and take full responsibility for their misbehaviors. For example, instances where people didn’t communicate or collaborate; they looked out for their own agendas, or they sold out and didn’t act with courage.

Step Three – Create a bold strategy worthy of high-performance:

A team can only become a championship team if its members are aiming to win a championship, and they have to rise to the occasion in order to win it.

So, in order to become a high-performance team, your team has to create a bold vision and strategy; one that would require you all to interact and operate at a significantly higher level than you ever have.

Obviously, your vision has to be desirable. But, it also has to represent a stretch end-result that, even though your team members may not yet fully know how to achieve, you all believe it is achievable.  Make sure you also design and outline the plans for executing and delivering on your plan.

If you do a good job in this step, everyone should feel excited about the aspirational future they created.

Step Four – Align on ground rules for working as a high-performance team:

Once the external game is set up you should spend some time on your team’s internal game. You and your team should align on simple and powerful ground rules for how you will work together as a high-performance team.

You should think about things like:

  1. Addressing issues directly and quickly and not letting issues fester
  2. Speaking with one voice
  3. Recognizing each other’s efforts and achievements

Team principles and ground rules are a great way to cement commitment and begin to turn commitment into action. Keeping the ground rules simple, clear and plain language – not PPT language – will make them more powerful.

In this step, you should also discuss anything else your team members may need in order to feel equipped to stay the course, no matter what, and deal with the inevitable ups and downs of your future journey.

I have helped many teams reach high-performance, and to be honest, taking this game on is demanding and challenging. However, if you stay the course, it is actually very energizing and rewarding. In fact, people often remember these bold initiatives as the highlight of their career.


Are you willing to go beyond your comfort zone for the good of the team?

I cannot tell you just how many times I have witnessed the following dynamic in organizations: Managers and employees sit around a meeting table, nodding in agreement as their leader explains the plan for a critical change initiative.  Once the meeting is over, people push back their chairs and drift back towards their desks.  As they congregate at the water cooler, they open up to each other: “What a pile of crap!”, “That’ll never happen!”, “I can hardly wait until the weekend!”.

Within hours (or less…) these mischievous comments go viral throughout the organization and cynicism, sarcasm and resignation become rampant. As a result, people start paying lip service to the organizational mandate.

Meanwhile, their unsuspecting leaders leave the same meeting believing they have done a great job of communicating their strategy and getting their people on board.

Have you ever experience this type of dynamic?

Nothing will undermine an important strategy, initiative or the culture of an organization more effectively than a lack of employee ownership and alignment.  If employees are expressing criticism and skepticism about their leaders and the initiative in “around the water cooler” conversations that is a sure sign that they are not on-board and not aligned with the company’s strategy.

So many leaders and managers simply don’t get it. They think that what people tell them to their face is what they really think. Sometimes that is the case. However, so many times it isn’t.

There are two types of conversations taking place in every organization at all times – one is spoken; what people say out loud. These are often the diplomatic and politically correct spins on the truth. The other is unspoken. It’s what people only say in private to those they really trust.

When leaders don’t create an environment that fosters genuine openness and honesty people go underground to converse.

Instead of addressing the important opportunities and challenges out in the open they cover their behinds, blame others for things that are not working well, or they simply become silently frustrated and resigned.  When they have to, they go along and pay lip service to the authorities. They say only what they believe to be politically correct and safe.

As a result, far too many leaders simply have no idea what their people are really thinking and saying. In fact, many mistake fear and compliance for commitment.

It takes courage – on both sides – to create an environment of blunt honesty.  Leaders must be willing to hear the undiluted truth, and employees must be prepared to express it.  It takes two to tango, however, this has to start and be encouraged and promoted from the top.

Leaders who learn to listen carefully and engage in blunt and meaningful dialogue with their people will find that the investment of time and effort is highly worthwhile.  Over time, people will rise to the occasion, abandon the back-channel conversations and start addressing challenges and opportunities head-on.

In fact, even if the strategy is not optimal, if managers and employees feel they can make a difference and their leaders really want to hear what they have to say, they will go out of their way to make sure it succeeds.

But, in order to succeed both leaders and employees have to go beyond their comfort zone for the good of the team.


How well are you balancing the strategic and tactical; the new and the old?

I was attending a meeting with the leadership team of a successful technology company that was growing aggressively. The company was barely keeping up with the execution of the massive number of projects they were selling.

Everyone was working long hours and extremely hard every day. Leaders were traveling non-stop visiting customers and installation sites in order to motivate the troops and ensure everything was working as well as possible under the circumstances.

Needless to say, there were many challenges and issues that required the attention of the senior leaders, least of which, the fact that people were burning out and morale was suffering.

This meeting was the first time the entire LT spent quality time together in a long time. It was a much-needed opportunity for them to step out of the day-to-day churn in order to focus on, and address the business challenges and opportunities in a more proactive and strategic way.

The meeting was very productive and at the end of it the leaders faced a dilemma – they all acknowledged the importance of meeting on a regular and frequent basis, especially in such times of significant change. However, they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to meet that commitment because they were too busy.

In a different instance, I was working with a leadership team of regional sales division of a different large technological company. Like any sales teams, the pressure to make the weekly, monthly and quarterly sales number was grueling and constant. When the team had a bad week the pressure increased in order to catch up. When they had a good week the pressure continued to mount in order to keep the upward momentum. There was no release.

What made things worse was that the market, technology, and customers’ needs were changing quite rapidly. As a result, the sales team had to learn how to sell new products and services while at the same time continuing to sell the existing products and services. This was a challenging balancing act in an already stressful environment.

The leaders were challenged with how to lead the transition of the team into the new changes while at the same time keeping their people focused on the existing things. At a practical level, even though everyone understood how critical it was, people were finding it extremely challenging to find time to get away from their day-to-day selling in order to attend training classes and have strategic planning sessions.

Two different examples, among many that I come across, in which leaders need to manage for themselves and their people a balance between focusing on strategic topics, innovations and learning new things, for the good of pursuing a bolder and greater future, while at the same time continuing to dedicate time to the existing activities and initiatives that are still paying the bills. If you have experience in this, you know it is not an easy task.

So how do you do that effectively?

Here are a few practical tips:

  1. Start by envisioning your future state.
    Articulate in writing what success looks like once you have completed the transition/transformation of your team to the future state. Describe it as rich and detailed as possible.
  2. Identify clear processes, practices, and activities from the future state.
    Extract clear practices, behaviors, and activities from the future state. Highlight the ones you believe would make the biggest difference in compelling you toward your future. For example: if generating the future state requires the leadership team meeting in person every quarter or even every month, put it on your list.
  3. Commit to implementing practices from the future stated.
    You don’t need to commit to everything. Choose the ones you want to start practicing and commit to them. Actually declare your commitment explicitly and publically. In the case of the first team, the leadership actually committed to getting together for two-days every quarter. Every member promise to make that a priority and to attend, no matter what.
  4. Keep your commitment no matter what.
    When you commit to the new practices, you are likely to experience issues, challenges, and circumstances that will make you second guess your decision and want to not do what you promised. Be prepared for this. If you promised to meet every quarter, do not sell out, even if you are very busy. Just do what you said and trust your decision. If you have to “go through the motions” or “fake it till you make it” but do not stray from your commitment. I can’t stress this enough!
  5. Stay the course until the new practices become part of your DNA.
    Don’t let your emotions and self-criticism dictate your behavior. You must have faith in order to succeed. If you stay true to your commitment and keep it no matter what you will have a transformation in which the new practices will become easier and part of your new norm.

Generating change is a tough undertaking. It requires commitment, determination, patience and courage to stay the course.

You will go through a roller coaster of emotions. At times you will be sure it isn’t working or even worth it. At other times, you will feel elated about the fact that you stayed the course.

That is why, when it comes to this type of transformation it is so important that you do not pay too much attention to your emotional noise. Instead, stick to the simple principle of:

Say what you will do and do what you say!

Are you tolerating the blame game?

I was speaking with a senior executive in a global company who has a successful division. He described his team in the following way:

I have great, smart and committed people, but we don’t work as a powerful team. Trust is not high, we don’t address big issues well and I am especially frustrated by the fact that there is too much blame.”

I’ve known this executive for many years. He is a great leader, he has always had successful teams and he got to where he is by always achieving strong results. This time was no different. His business results were very strong, but he wanted to make them even stronger by getting rid of ‘the blame game’.

No matter how efficient or successful your team is from a business results standpoint, the blame game is always harmful and destructive. It undermines the team dynamic and creates a stressful work environment. When something goes wrong and there’s a witchhunt for whose fault it is, people react by hiding, covering their behinds, misrepresenting and being cautious. Nobody engages in a productive conversation to learn from past mistakes, which only perpetuates the situation and increases the likelihood the same problems will be repeated.

Unfortunately, most workplaces – even the most successful ones – are filled with people who spend more time and energy trying to avoid blame for something that did – or might – go wrong, than in anticipating and addressing the real problems.

In an environment in which people are too occupied by looking out for themselves and making sure everyone else, especially their superiors, knows that they are not at fault for issues, they also look and compete for credit and praise as evidence of being better than others.

This is because in most corporate environments people are threatened by others getting more credit and praise than them. The unspoken mindset, which shapes behavior is “The better you are, the worse I am”. People fear that others might get advanced and promoted before them. As a result, there is a subtle, but clear, orientation around “Look how great I am”. You can see it in the way people promote themselves and their agendas in meetings, presentations, and one-on-one conversations. It’s a constant wrestle, jocking for positions and status, which is “normal” in corporate environments, but nevertheless quite exhausting.

In this environment its harder for people to be happy with the accomplishment and success of others. Also, they are far less inclined to recognize and praise others for a job well done.

Contrast this with an environment of ownership and commitment, where people are orienting around open, honest conversations that lead to the source of the problems and allow for real resolution and improvement. In this environment, no one is interested in who’s at fault, but rather in getting to the source of problems. In this environment, people are eager to volunteer their insights, observations, and energy in addressing what was missing, what needs to be corrected and take personal ownership for resolving the issues.

In a healthy environment, people are also much more open to receiving feedback and constructive criticism, as the name game is “How can I get better all the time?” rather than a “gotcha” environment where they are consumed by the fear of being caught or penalized.

In a healthy team environment, where people feel they are working together towards a common aim there is no angst about credit and blame. In this environment, people are much more inclined to view others accomplishments as their own; they are far more generous in providing praise and recognition to colleagues.

This produces energy, inspiration, motivation, and a desire to do whatever it takes for the team to be successful.

So, if you want to create a powerful team environment without blame, focus on a few basic things:

  1. Make sure your team has a higher purpose and goal that everyone is clear about, aligned behind and excited about.
  2. Promote a recognition mindset and plan that rewards and promotes authentic, collaborative and courageous behavior.
  3. Put together an incentive plan that supports collective success, in addition to individual success.
  4. Explicitly declare your stance and commitment to building a strong team environment that is based on team alignment, collaboration, communication and success at every opportunity. Don’t tolerate anything else, and be willing to take developmental and disciplinary actions if people behave counter to your direction.
  5. Promote open, authentic and courageous communication around you. Role model this behavior yourself by sharing your thoughts and being open to honest feedback. Empower and encourage your team members to do the same.

Are your leaders all in?

Building a high-performance culture in an organization is a daunting undertaking. Anyone who has taken on such a commitment on would attest to that fact.

You are never going to get it perfectly right. You need nerves of steel and a combination of conviction and drive together with patience and tolerance for a messy process.

The main reason, of course, is that people are different, with diverse personalities, styles, and commitments. The likelihood of getting everyone in the organization to commit to the change, growth or success you are trying to implement is slim to none.

At the level of the employees, that’s OK. In fact, even with the managers, you don’t need to achieve 100% ownership and commitment to your goals. As long as you achieve a critical mass of buy-in and commitment with your managers you will have enough steam to succeed in your endeavor.

However, when it comes to your senior leadership team you must have 100% ownership, alignment, and commitment among 100% of your senior leaders toward the change, growth, and success you are trying to achieve.

If the head of the organization or team can’t completely enroll his/her leaders in his/her commitments, objectives and execution strategy you can bet that the effort won’t succeed.

A committed and determined leader will do his/her best to enroll, inspire, engage and even demand that his/her leaders own, lead and drive the new direction.

However, if the leader doesn’t succeed he/she must have the courage to make the tough decision to replace the leaders who won’t step up with ones who will. Nothing less than 100% ownership and commitment at the Leadership level will suffice to achieve a high-performance game!

Unfortunately, many organizations and leaders don’t seem to understand this simple nuance of total commitment. They underestimate how critical this point actually is, or they lack the courage to make the tough, uncomfortable, disruptive, unpopular decisions in order to achieve that 100%.

Many CEOs like their leaders on a personal level, which make these dilemmas even harder. In many cases, the CEO has been ‘in the trenches’ with his/her team members for a long time, so there is a bond and a sense of loyalty between them. That makes matters more difficult too. In other cases, certain people whether committed or not are a source of priceless knowledge, experience, and expertise. So, the idea of letting someone like that go or even upsetting them by merely changing their role in order to give way to someone more suited to the cause is understandably challenging. However, if a CEO wants to build a high-performance culture and game, he/she must be willing and able to make these calls in order to build a genuinely committed team around him/her.

Take as an example the struggles of the CEO of an up-and-coming technology company that was on a path of significant growth. He had just acquired a couple of companies in order to expand and strengthen his product and services platform. He was under tremendous pressure from his board to continue to manage the company’s aggressive growth, while at the same time integrate the companies he had acquired. The combination of significant growth and change was putting a lot of pressure and stress on everyone.

Needless to say, this was the time for his senior leaders to come together in the most unified and aligned way in order to lead and drive the opportunities and challenges of the change in the most cohesive, effective and rapid way, whilst continuing to unify and motivate the overworked and stressed out managers and employees.

However, this was not the case. Most of the senior leaders clearly understood the need for strong unification at the leadership team level, and they made attempts to bring the senior team together. However, a couple of the most senior leaders in the team who were also the CEO’s favorites, and who enjoyed the special attention and ‘privileges’ that relationship afforded them, were cynical about spending the time on teamwork, so they blocked these attempts to rally the leadership team.

Even when the pressure was mounting, as company performance was declining, the CEO did not take action to bring his senior team together, and/or coach and discipline the troublemakers.

He continued to interact with his senior leaders on an individual basis, which resulted in him working harder but his leaders working in silos. He talked about the need to increase scale and productivity, but his actions missed out on the opportunity to share the load with his leaders and elevate their individual and collective ownership, effectiveness and productivity at such a critical time.

Any organization is a reflection of its leadership team. The culture of your organization will only be as strong as the culture, behaviors, attitudes, and dynamics within your senior team. If you want to build a high-performance team in your organization start by modeling this behavior and dynamic with your senior leaders.

When it comes to ownership and commitment within the senior leadership team of your organization, don’t give your leaders discounts; the team is either all in or they are not in at all!