No bad teams, just bad leaders – the intersection of discipline and elegance

We’ve lost sight of what it means to be a real leader, writes Martin Moore. Here are five solid steps to getting the most out of your team (and to making sure your team gets the most out of you).

This article originally appeared in The Nurture Issue, Marketing‘s current print issue.

Martin Moore 150 BWI don’t know exactly when this happened, but over the last several years the dialogue around leadership has degenerated into a fluffy, abstract conversation about desirable leadership attributes. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy ruminating over highly theoretical propositions: ‘are humble leaders the best leaders?’ or ‘is transparency the most important leadership attribute?’

We seem to have lost sight of the primary objective of a leader, which is to create value for the organisation. Simple. The difficult part is working out how to yield the greatest value with the resources you are gifted, and it all starts with building the right team.

I’d love a dollar for every resume I’ve read or candidate I’ve interviewed who has claimed to have built a high performing team. However, it requires only a cursory challenge to establish that most of these leaders can’t describe what a high performing team looks like, much less understand how to put one together.

The marketing discipline lends itself elegantly to high performing teams; marketing is, by its nature, customer-focused, deadline-oriented and value-driven – some of the key prerequisites of high performance. So this begs the question, if you were to set out to build the elusive ‘high performing team’ that consistently delivered strong, results-focused marketing campaigns, what would you need to do?

Get the best people

A high-performing team is populated by high-performing individuals. To use an old adage, it’s a lot easier to rein in a stallion than it is to flog a donkey! As a leader, you have to be incredibly driven to hire the best people that you can afford, and then retain them.

Many leaders ‘make do with what they’ve got’, both in their own teams and the marketing agencies they work with. They neither set nor enforce high standards of performance at the individual level, and this has a dilutive effect on the whole team.

First thing’s first: having the mindset of a professional leader who lives the mantra of ‘respect before popularity’. If you are focused on what people think of you, rather than getting the right results for the company, you will never have the discipline and will to do the work of building a high performing team.

Without single-minded focus on performance, rationalisation creeps in, and it will be all too easy to convince yourself that you should tolerate and accept the people you have, irrespective of their behaviour and performance.  

Provide context

Make it abundantly clear to your people what you are trying to achieve and, more importantly, why. If people understand the context in which they are operating, the impact they are potentially able to make and the value that they can create for every stakeholder, they will be much more inclined to offer their discretionary effort.  

Spend enough time with each of your direct reports to ensure that they not only understand the purpose and strategy of the organisation, but more importantly, how they contribute to these outcomes. I like to call this the ‘class photo principle’: people aren’t able to see the big picture until they have worked out where they fit into it. 

In multi-layered teams, and teams that work with external marketing agencies, you will rely on your leaders to provide context for the people below them – this is most effective when strong, simple, direct communication can be replicated through the layers of management.  

Set challenging objectives

As a leader, you set the tone, the pace and the standard for your team. Without challenging and difficult objectives, you will never be able to get the best out of your people. They need to know what’s expected of them, and they need to know that you have a strong belief in their ability to achieve any objective. 

The Yerkes-Dodson principle is instructive: increased stress improves performance up to a point, then performance declines as stress becomes excessive. People perform at their best when the challenge is set to harnesses the productive benefits of stress. Optimal performance lives at the point of intersection between boredom and anxiety. Stretching people to their limits is positive for their performance.

Achieving challenging but realistic goals is fundamental to building your employees’ confidence and self-esteem, a key driver of job satisfaction. Don’t be afraid to push your people to achieve tough goals – they will be happier for it. Challenge, coach and confront them to bring out their best.     

Create a strong culture of accountability

High performing teams deliver results, first and foremost. The number one driver of successful execution is a culture of accountability. Your people know what outcomes they have to deliver, and are held accountable for this. Too often, leaders foster weak accountability cultures and performance is impaired.

Weak accountability is characterised by lots of talk, little action. The culture becomes one of decision making by consensus and management by committee. Everyone feels as though they have a right to have their opinion heard, even to the point where some exercise power of veto.

The remedy is simple: a single accountable person for every major deliverable. One head to pat, one arse to kick! Execution of any initiative is faster, more effective and reinforces the concept of agility that is so critical for today’s break-neck pace of business.

Place the weight of individual accountability on your people, then give them the support, empowerment and resources to control their own destiny. You may be surprised at the results.    

Harness the power of diversity

Once the groundwork is done, a culture of constructive challenge is required to maximise the opportunity of the diverse thinking styles, experiences and capabilities in your team. This is more difficult than it would appear as most people are reluctant to express their views openly, particularly in group settings.

As a leader, there must be an expectation that everyone contributes to the best of their ability and brings their unique contribution to the table, putting aside their fear of failure. A ‘no blame/no excuses’ culture that rewards excellence over perfection is the ultimate objective, and a great leader creates a safe environment for people to contribute, without fear of punishment or ridicule.

The caution here is that an inclusive culture that enables people to freely contribute their views and opinions cannot be at the expense of the decision making rights of the accountable person. Accountability should always be the driving force, and consideration needs to be given to striking the subtle balance between inclusion and accountability.

A culture in which ‘everyone gets their say, but not everyone gets their way’ will enable an appropriate decision making tempo, while not sacrificing the quality of inputs into the process.

Bringing this all together, building a high performing team relies upon a wide range of leadership skills and capabilities to bring the best people together and unleash their potential, both individually and collectively. This requires a leader with discipline, commitment and a primary focus on the team.

Once you have witnessed the positive effects of high performance, not just on your organisation but on every individual who is part of the team, you will realise that it is genuinely worth the effort. 

Martin Moore is founder of Your CEO Mentor

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