Houston We Have a Problem: Building a High Performance Team

In this series we are focusing on six factors critical to success for founders of startups within a larger organization. So far, we have discussed: gaining and maintain latitude/autonomy, honoring sacred cows, putting out a BOLO on the larger organization, building grass roots support, and adopting a distinct fiduciary approach. In this and future posts I want to comment on what may be the most critical factor for success—building a high-performance team.

High performance teams offer the ability to accomplish a great deal with very few resources. Often resembling an elite Special Forces team, they move with a level of alacrity, speed and agility to execute strategic goals with dispatch. All while making it look effortless.

Unfortunately, high-performance teams are as rare as the northern spotted owl. In a subsequent post I will offer my thoughts as to why they are so rare. The reasons may surprise you.   For now, I want to offer guidelines for putting a team in place.

Developing a high-performing team is imperative if you want to build something quickly that is meaningful and sustainable. The approach used will differ based on whether your team is “inherited” or is built from scratch. While the checklist is similar for both, my focus here will be when starting from scratch.

Simply put, the addition of each new team member must be deliberate in order to ensure a strategic fit. While this concept seems obvious, it is seldom well executed. Because time is of the essence, the temptation is to staff up quickly. Often, the first action a new leader takes is to develop an organization chart, then immediately hire to fill the prescribed positions. The belief is that taking this all-hands-on-deck approach spreads the workload and allows for speed of execution. The leader may recognize that some of the hires will be a bad fit, so will be quick to fire members that don’t work out. This approach has a number of flaws. I will offer just a few.

  1. Eliminating a member of the team steals precious time that would be better spent strategizing and building the new venture.
  2. When new hires are quickly let go, it has a destabilizing effect on the entire team. Other team members aren’t given time to evaluate whether or not the termination was warranted, leaving them uncertain of their own security.
  3. It is largely ineffective to develop an organization chart this early in the build process. Even though we often need to include one as part of a funding request, it is absurd to act on it until the business model has been tested, modified and more fully proven. Keep in mind that proposals and business plans are always wrong. To believe yours is otherwise is either naïve or egotistical. Developing a precise business plan does not make it right.  I merely means it will be more precisely wrong.

Instead, the leader should add each new team member based on immediate need and strategic fit. For example, if the leader scores higher on discovery skills than delivery skills, he might look for someone who excels at program development and execution, and possesses strong project management skills.

If you are building a new venture from within a larger organization, your co-founders must demonstrate excellent 360-degree communication skills; have strong interpersonal skills and an excellent reputation within the larger organization. It is also very helpful if the co-founder has experience in the domain you will occupy.

This process will take time. It is important that the leader exercise the necessary patience to choose wisely, have the courage to handle activities during while searching, and faith that the process will yield positive results.

Once the semblance of a team in place, it is important to create a culture and atmosphere that allows for the highest level of performance. I will expand on this in the next post.

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