Building and developing a high-performing team

Teams are a powerful asset for any organisation. However, unlike a sports team, in the “real world” we rarely spend time practicing being a team or getting match ready. Rather, we want them to function at a high level every day of the week with little, if any, practice.

Time to read: 6 mins

Few organisations rate their leadership team as “very effective”, according to the global non-profit Centre for Creative Leadership. And yet, while most organisations can acknowledge the positive impact of an effective team, particularly in leadership, few create a plan to make this happen. Looking at how your team is assembled and structured, how it functions, its strengths, blind spots and developmental requirements could be the single best thing you do for the success of your business this year.

What is a team?

How a team is defined is a useful start. A work group is not a team. The latter will have three or more people and share common goals, outcomes, and leadership. If you are wanting to build a high performing team, its members need to know that this is their primary team. This can be difficult for leadership teams to grasp if they each manage their own team because they tend to think of that collective as their primary. But their commitment and aligned focus must be to the primary team, particularly as to direction, goals, and strategy. This approach will facilitate the breaking down of silos in an organisation.

Where to start

It’s important to consider the size of your team. While leadership collaborations like to be inclusive, they can be too big to be effective. A team with more than ten members can suffer from efficiency, effectiveness and alignment problems, whereas smaller groups will ensure strong relationships, healthy debate and actioned decisions.

The bad news is there is no algorithm for putting different people together in the complex roles required in a top team, so design and development are critical. If the CEO can successfully play the role of developer, the leadership team will function more effectively. Members will also learn to think differently, both individually and together.

Some managers intuitively understand that the right mix of people in terms of skills, experience and personality is key to ensuring a productive team. Getting that wrong, even by just one individual, can have far-reaching impacts. Too often, we promote people who are technically strong in their own roles but put little thought into a team’s collective capability.

Get the diagnosis right

To improve performance, it is crucial to understand the current team state. Awareness is a must-have for every individual, team and organisation. To develop effectively, we must all be able to self-reflect, as masters of our strengths and weaknesses – including knowing what our blind spots and gaps are. We all bring preferences, past experiences and biases to our roles.

Developing your team’s ability to introspect individually and as a team is essential – to have awareness of its composition and any missing or blind spots, both individual and collective.

Likewise, the CEO needs to understand what makes members of the team tick individually and what makes them work (or not) as a group. Having insight into their potential fracture lines and openly talking about this can be incredibly insightful. It is also useful for a team to be aware of their shared responses under pressure – do they pull back, agitate or over-acquiesce?

Use of a diagnostic tool is helpful here. Options can include assessment tools such as personality type or a team 360 survey to provide insight. Having this map and understanding will highlight strengths and also identify performance improvement areas to focus on.

Commonality versus diversity

Truly understanding the skills and characteristics needed for a cohesive team will ensure a balance of traits – too much commonality is not a good thing. Diversity of thinking and the ability to have ear different “hats’’ around the table is important. This will ensure that members complement one another and when this is done well, it will create a high functioning team.

There are two types of roles a person can play within a team – a functional role (their technical role as defined by the position title) and psychological roles. The latter are the informal roles individuals gravitate towards based on their personality. There are several psychological roles consistently identified by researchers and practitioners: Someone who oversees the group and drives them towards results, someone who focus on relationships, someone with a focus on process, tasks and structure; someone focused on innovation/change, and lastly, someone who will be the enforcer – the pragmatist.

A high preforming team has a balance of people in these roles. Too much of the same thing and the team can miss leading the organisation in the right direction. Here lies the dichotomy – a successful team needs diversity to span the various roles needed for successful functioning, but it also needs commonality regarding purpose and values to bind members together and align organisational culture.

Keys for a high performing team

A research piece by leadership specialists Winsborough found key characteristics that effective leadership teams have in common. These included:

  • Focus – Having a shared and clear brief/objective of goals. As such, members should spend time and energy to establish vision and set the focus.
  • Development – As outlined above, having a conscious reflection on the team’s performance with time invested in development and improvement – this includes understanding that improving team dynamics and processes is not a secondary priority to running the business.
  • Norms and decision making – Having a clear process for decisions with no hidden agendas. Consensus among members was achieved, but constructive debate still occurred.
  • Trust and healthy conflict – Teams that trust their colleagues will face conflict and admit to mistakes. A clear process for decision making will make conflict easier and minimise hidden agendas, further enhancing trust.

Often teams can be conflict averse, believing it is a sign of non-effectiveness, but at a senior leadership level, the ability to be transparent, give constructive feedback and address team dynamics is crucial for success. A good team needs to be able to debate issues, give opinions, challenge other opinions and even hold each other to account.

Lack of conflict can lead to artificial harmony – where it all looks agreeable, but players are subtly not in agreement. This creates silos and is one of the core dysfunctions highlighted in Patrick Lencioni’s research and book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”.

A lack of conflict can be just as damaging on team morale as harsh and direct disputes. A good team will debate issues, but then back and commit to the agreed decision/action. This is unity, where the conflict occurs then consensus is achieved. However, a team is not a democracy – while everyone may be heard, the leader then gets the deciding vote. Remember, good conflict requires a foundation of trust and if this is lacking in your team, developing trust needs to be your starting point. 

  • Contribution to team - By participating, holding up their end of the role and adding value, members can create a more effective leadership team. Lencioni refers to this as commitment followed by accountability.


Building and developing a team is a process that never ends. It requires ongoing commitment and investment of time and energy, but the advantages are great and the rewards are plentiful.

– If you want to know more about how to map and develop your team, please contact Andrea Stevenson at

DISCLAIMER No liability is assumed by Baker Tilly Staples Rodway for any losses suffered by any person relying directly or indirectly upon any article within this website. It is recommended that you consult your advisor before acting on this information.

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