Building a High Performance Team (Part 1)

Addressing the Lagos team at an all-team retreat
“High-performance teams (HPTs) is a concept within organization development referring to teams, organizations, or virtual groups that are highly focused on their goals and that achieve superior business results. High-performance teams outperform all other similar teams and they outperform expectations given their composition.”
-Katzenbach et al.: The Wisdom of Teams, HarperBusiness, 2003

When I joined the Nigeria team at Andela in 2016, one of my key objectives was to build a high performing cross-functional support team from Operations and Finance to People & Culture (think HR 2.0). This team is broadly responsible for the systems, processes, policies and management of Andela’s growth. In these two years, we have grown from just over 100 employees to nearly 500.

During this journey, I often pause to reflect on how I gained the trust of my inherited team and infused a culture of high performance while making the journey exciting and motivating. I hope that these practical insights will help many leaders of other organizations as they transition into new leadership roles, or look to create a high performance culture in their current teams.

  1. Gain trust early through active listening and empathy

During my first two weeks at Andela, I simply listened. I attended several dozen meetings where I refrained from sharing my opinions or improvements. Instead, I kept a small yellow notebook where I jotted down my observations, insights and thoughts around what was working well and what needed to improve.

Many leaders feel pressure to immediately begin making changes during their first days on the job. While acting quickly gives your higher-ups the confidence that you are capable of adding value from day one, it frequently creates barriers and blockers further down the road. This desire to act swiftly, while in good faith, often communicates a lack of regard for existing structures, and tells your team that you don’t think they are smart enough to have thought through their prior decisions and actions. In my experience, this is one of the fastest ways to lose trust and put team members on the defensive, creating an unnecessary need to save face, and making it harder for new leaders to gain the support of their teams when they begin implementing required changes.

When people see their leader show up with an open mind, and respect for all the work that has been done, they feel more comfortable buying into the recommended changes.

2. Create a clear purpose that will inspire people

The idea that purposeful companies are usually more successful should not be a surprise to anyone; yet, in interacting with business leaders, I am constantly reminded that it has not become conventional wisdom.

A strong purpose fuels the passion of your employees, and propels them out of bed every morning, excited about the work ahead. No matter what your organization does, there is a higher-level raison d’être that can activate employees to understand how critical it is that you succeed. Without your organization, hundreds, thousands or millions of people would endure unnecessary challenges that make life less gratifying. If you don’t have a clear purpose, then keep asking yourself why your organization matters until you can articulate a very high level problem that your customers, their customers, or the world would face if you ceased to exist.

Andelans believe that opportunity should transcend race, gender and nationality. By proving that brilliance is evenly distributed, and that highly specialized skills (e.g. software development) can be mastered and commercialized by Africa’s youngest and smartest, we hope to catalyze a wave of unprecedented human capital investment in Africa, to achieve the purpose of making the world more equitable and prosperous.

3. Establish a clear strategy and plan, and communicate it often

A survey conducted in 2012 by William Shiemann revealed that only 14% of employees know their company’s strategy and direction. This is appalling, because it means that all the employees at your organization may be rowing in different directions and putting in significant amounts of energy without heading in the right direction. Or worse, without moving at all.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to ensure that your entire organization knows your purpose, strategy, and how you plan to get there. Employees also need to know their department’s strategy and plans, and understand what success means.

At the start of the year, each department at Andela Nigeria presents their strategy to all our employees at a town hall meeting, and then proceeds to give updates at subsequent monthly town hall meetings; in-between, we have optional smaller bi-weekly team meetings to review progress. This is an opportunity for employees to ask questions, clarify the organization’s goals and progress, and ultimately reconnect to the strategy and plan. I never pass up on an opportunity to reinforce the organization’s plan through emails, company offsites, Q&A channels on Slack, Medium posts, and other available channels.

While this may sound like excessive communication, the reality is that organizations naturally entropy as employees lose sight of the goal and direction. Therefore, leaders must continuously combat that natural drift towards chaos by over-communicating.

4. Develop clear and measurable indicators of success

What does success mean for your organization, and how will you know when you have met your goals? As business leaders, we often mistake effort for results. You need to define the 3–5 specific things that serve as indicators that your organization has successfully met its objectives (or goals) and plan, in support of your purpose.

When I joined Andela, I realized that some of our new hires had to wait days before they received their laptops, company IDs and other required work tools. I instituted a goal of providing all required worktools for 100% of our employees on day 1. With this clear and measurable indicator of success, our operations manager began requesting a list of all new hires weeks ahead of their first day, and ensuring that their worktools were ready. Within a few months, we started doing this several months in advance, and began making bulk purchases to accommodate our typical hiring volume. Our employees are now productive right from their first day, and they get a clear signal that the organization has been preparing for their arrival.

With clear goals for the organization, you have an objective way of measuring how quickly you are advancing towards achieving the organization’s purpose. More importantly, you can identify a deviation from your plan and quickly reorient your teams before problems arise.

5. Ensure that every individual has clear responsibilities and performance expectations

A pilot’s key objectives are to ensure a safe take-off, flight operations, and landing. There are several specific activities tied to each of those three key objectives, and each of those activities is intrinsically tied to a successful flight. The maintenance engineers also have a set of key objectives, which are tied to specific activities. The same can be said of the ground operations teams, the air traffic controllers, and everyone else involved in the aviation sector. Without clarity and accountability for these main tasks and responsibilities, any aviation ecosystem would experience a large number of accidents. Most organizations are no different.

Every employee should know exactly what they are responsible for, what their objectives are, and how their performance will be measured. When it comes to performance, surprises are not cute. Yet every year, many employees walk into performance reviews unclear about what to expect. This signals a failure on the part of leadership to set clear responsibilities and performance expectations, or a failure to give adequate feedback. At best, this means that employees do not know whether they have been meeting their objectives for several months. At worst, it means that your organization has missed its goals by allowing employees to keep doing the wrong thing without course-correcting them.

Twice a year, at the start and mid-way, I sit with my direct reports to agree on their team’s objectives, their individual objectives, and how we will measure performance. Every month, I provide them with feedback on how they are doing based on these objectives and performance measures. When I get this cadence right, I am able to catch problems before they arise, or address them very quickly when they do. Over time, my team members have become more accountable to themselves, and as a byproduct, require less of my input to meet their objectives.

More broadly, when people have clarity that achieving their objectives directly impacts the organization’s advancement towards its purpose, the dopamine-inspired feeling of achievement creates a virtuous cycle that motivates them towards high performance.

The process of defining an organization’s purpose, and translating that into a plan and set of objectives that cascade to each employee, is one of the most important roles of its leaders. Getting these right, positions organizations to outperform and achieve sustained levels of high performance. In part two of this post, I will focus on how the values, social and psychological dynamics within an organization can materially impact the performance culture.