January 8, 2019
Years ago, presentation trainer and executive coach Toni Louw told me, “Illustrate, don’t explain.” So when it comes to painting a picture of what a high-performing team in the business world looks like, I’ll illustrate and then explain. Let me start by sharing a concrete example.
It’s been about a decade since I worked at Boston-based advertising agency Mullen (now MullenLowe). It’s an agency with a relentless commitment to creating excellent work for its clients. I saw firsthand that if you don’t share that commitment to excellence, you don’t belong on the team. The agency’s logo (an octopus wearing boxing gloves) is as indicative of the company’s culture as it is of the work itself. You’ll see why shortly.
MullenLowe people are dedicated to their craft and committed to producing award-winning advertising that drives their clients’ business. That alone, however, doesn’t make for a great team. Beyond their commitment to the work is an unyielding dedication to one’s co-workers, involving a level of mutual respect and trust that drives everyone’s individual preparation and performance.
For example, let’s say the agency wants to create a new campaign for an existing client or prospect. The creative director would gather about 20 people from various disciplines to come up with ideas for a new campaign. Everyone on the team comes well prepared regarding the client’s business, competitors, market, strategy, and so on. No one would consider showing up to such a gathering otherwise.
The ideas start flying. Everyone has their boxing gloves on—not to fight against one another, but to fight for the best idea. As the framework of a campaign comes to light, the team takes it as far as they can with that many people in the room. Then, they take a precious moment to sit back and collectively celebrate their genius—only briefly, of course, because they know it’s time to start from scratch and come up with another campaign. The group will repeat the process four or five times in a relentless pursuit of another right answer.
Here’s the best part: On all the occasions that I ever participated in such an exercise, the first campaign—which everyone celebrated with such great enthusiasm—didn’t make the cut to show the client. It’s what happens when you have a team of people who trust and respect one another enough to go to battle for the best idea.
Whether it’s sports or business, one of the most powerful constants for high-performing teams is a culture of accountability—not only to the leader but, even more important, among colleagues. Members of these teams understand that their currency rests in the ability to bring their A game every day. They trust that while they all have different roles, they know they are standing shoulder to shoulder with people who have a powerful combination of talent, grit, and commitment to excellence.
If this is what your team looks like, then you probably have a high-performing team. If it doesn’t, you probably don’t.
If you’re wondering how to build a team like this, start by hiring people who want to be great teammates. Hire people who understand that no matter how great they may be at their craft, the team is capable of achieving a higher level of excellence than any individual. If they don’t understand this fundamental tenet, then no matter how talented they are, they don’t get to play on your team.