July 2017 | 

Leading High-Performance Teams: Cultivate Talent, and Get Out of the Way

Leading High Performance Teams

We often think of great ideas and innovations as the products of the ah-ha moments of individuals. But in his book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, biographer Water Issacson explores how some of the most brilliant innovators became even more creative by working with each other. According to Issacson, we have few tales about collaborative creativity. “The tale of their teamwork is important,” he says, “because we don’t often focus on how central that skill is to innovation…. [It’s] important in understanding how today’s technology revolution was fashioned.”

Not every team is charged with revolutionizing their industry or developing their company’s latest breakthrough. But the principles behind their success are the same, says Wharton Senior Fellow Rodrigo Jordan, who teaches in Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams. Jordan developed his insights into high-performing teams in part while leading teams that summited Mount Everest, K2, and Lhotse. He says anyone charged with creating these teams has to follow two key principles: first, choose your talent wisely; and second, give them the experiences they need to grow and develop.

For the first, he says, “You need resilient people who can manage themselves, including their frustrations and their creativity. Look for three sets of skills: technical, interpersonal, and personal. You can judge the technical knowledge ahead of time, but you can’t tell the other two from interviews alone.”

When Jordan is selecting teams of mountaineers, he takes them out on week-long expeditions, and generates a challenge. “We might ‘forget’ the tents, or lose our way. I get to see how people deal with it. Do they blame someone? How long does it take to get into problem-solving mode? Can they collaborate and cooperate with others? The only way to know that is by working with them.”

For business teams, that might mean working on a smaller trial project first, or taking on members on a trial basis to evaluate their skills. “You won’t get anywhere by giving a good idea to a mediocre team,” says Jordan. “Getting the right people is more important than starting with the right idea. As Ed Catmull says in his book Creativity Inc., chemistry is more important.”

Because it’s so important to have the right team members, Jordan stresses that every leader of high-performing teams ideally must be able not only to select members, but “deselect” them as well. “I used to believe there was no situation you couldn’t fix. I was a radical optimist. I thought if you had a good conversation, and gave people time and good information, they would improve and become good leaders and team members. But I have learned that sometimes you just have to let people go.” He says it’s especially important to have that power when you have to lead a preexisting team. “It’s not that you will necessarily use it, but you need to have that authority.”

Once the team is assembled, Jordan says it is up to the leader to take a step back and allow members to develop. It’s not as simple as it sounds, though; it’s much easier to lead from the front. “I used to tie a rope, run up, and you would follow me. That was my idea of guiding — getting you up whatever peak you want, literally pulling you up. After many years [and a PhD in Organizational Administration from Oxford University], I turned it around. I am behind you. You make the decisions. The climb is now about you experiencing leadership.”

In business, Jordan tells participants in Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams that instead of providing solutions, they need to turn their challenges over to the team. “Give them the space, physically and emotionally, to figure it out. Stay out of the way, but also make sure all voices are heard. Inevitably, some tension will build up. Some members might want you to give them answers and direction. Allow that tension to build, but don’t let it go too far. If you have the right team assembled, they will work past it and meet the challenge.”

Ultimately, it is the ability to bring together and develop a team that separates exceptional team leaders from the others. “Many think they are leading to achieve a goal,” says Jordan. “Whether it’s getting to the summit or producing some outcome. I am not against it, but that is not the whole story. It’s not all about outcomes. As a leader, it is your job to build a team. That’s a different kind of achievement.”