Great Business Teams

By: Howard Guttman



According to Howard M. Guttman, we can be sure of one thing in business: Great teams make great organisations. Whilst good and average teams meet deadlines and stay in budget, they still maintain the status quo. They do not push the envelope. They make good and average organisations.

So what makes great business teams stand apart and how can they be replicated throughout an organisation? Guttman believes great business teams are high-performing, horizontal teams that operate as a whole to achieve the highest levels of results. With work and recognition you too can achieve such standout performance. Join us for the next ten minutes to find out how.

Great Teams Lesson 1

Guttman suggest it starts at the top. Great business teams are led by high-performance Leaders. Leaders who are in a hurry. Leaders who are impatient with the status quo.

While many business leaders are visionaries, high-performance leaders have a unique vision. They have an architect’s flair: able to see the whole game — the blueprint, not just the vision — for creating a great business organisation.

Most organisations function on a hub-and-spoke model, with decisions radiating from a central base of power. They’re not built for high performance and speed. To generate standout performance high-performance leaders have broken the traditional hierarchical model and replaced it with a “flat,” horizontal one. Central to this model is their recognition that they can’t do it alone. High-performance leaders believe they are more powerful and effective in the presence of high-performing teams.

High performance leaders do not need their ego massaged. It is not their way or the highway. They encourage team members to make decisions and produce results, but more importantly hold them accountable for doing so. In doing so, Guttman suggests a high-performing team is not a leaderless team, but a team of leaders. Consequently, great team members think of themselves as accountable not only for their own performance, but for that of their colleagues — even those who do not report to them.

Great Teams Lesson 2

A great business team leaves nothing to chance. They spend time crafting hard-and-fast protocols and living by them. Great business teams are crystal clear about what decisions they need to make, who will make them, and how.

A great business team operates according to a clearly defined set of decision-making protocols, where people understand what they are accountable for and then own the results. In great teams, employees are given the opportunity and skills to decide who needs to be involved in solving problems, making decisions, dividing responsibilities, and taking the necessary actions to allow people to implement bringing it all together through the sharing of common alignment.

Guttman says that when an organisation is properly aligned, its component parts move in sync to achieve results. Scarce human, financial, and capital resources are deployed effectively, value is created quickly, consistently, and cost effectively.

Alignment exists in five key areas:

  1. A shared and understood business strategy
  2. Identifiable and allocated business deliverables coming from the strategy
  3. Defined, relevant roles and responsibilities at individual and functional levels
  4. Rigorous protocols for decision making and conflict resolution
  5. Strong, collaborative business/interpersonal relationships and interdependencies

Great Teams Lesson 3

To be a great business team, Guttman believes openness is king. If you have a point of view, you are free to express it. If there is conflict, you can resolve it without kick-back. If you have feedback, you can give it, provided it is de-personalised and fact-based. The horizontal organisation turns traditional hierarchical accountability on its side. Horizontal accountability puts equal emphasis on peer-to-peer accountability, as well as peer-to-leader accountability.

Great team leaders know that for horizontal accountability to take hold, they must lead by example. It is not only permissible, but expected, for team members to hold the leader accountable for business results, for observing agreed-upon protocols, and for their interpersonal behaviour.

Great Teams Lesson 4

According to Guttman, one of the characteristics of all great business teams is that they continually raise the performance bar. Like professional golfers who continually strive to shave a few strokes off their handicap, the best teams continually look for ways to improve.

To do this, high-performance leaders consider two factors: the person’s level of engagement — the degree of commitment to being a team player— and the person’s skills — the knowledge and experience they bring to the table.

For those with a low level of engagement or skills, the leader will need to be direct with instruction. For those with a low level of engagement the leader assumes a coaching role. Those with a moderately high level of engagement will respond to collaborating with the leader and finally those with a high level of engagement can be left alone, empowered by the leader to get on with it.

Great Teams Lesson 5

So what are the characteristics and behaviours that form the “price of admission” for membership on a high-performing team? Guttman gives us a few pointers.

Think Like a Director
The members of great teams think like members of a board of directors. They keep their eye on the overarching goal: the results the company needs to achieve to stay on top of the competition. They are interested in the health of the company as a whole, not in any one area or function, and are committed to maximising ROI with every decision.

Put Team First, Function Second
Members of high-performing teams are team members first and functional representatives second. They contribute their technical expertise across functions when it is needed and don’t hesitate to help elsewhere when they sense problems.

Embrace Accountability
Great team members tackle problems head-on and find their own solutions, without seeking permission from above. They are confident that their superiors not only give them permission to do so but are clearly expected to.

Guttman suggests, that on any team, players require three types of skills: technical, strategic, and leadership. Technical skills are most important at the first level of management and below, and strategic skills increase in importance as individuals rise through the ranks of management. But, as a member of a team of leaders, every player on every great team needs the same degree of proficiency in leadership skills, including the ability to influence others.

Great Teams Lesson 6

...When a team is clear and committed to a common direction

...When it focuses on business deliverables developed from that direction

...when it is clear about its roles and responsibilities

...when decision-making protocols are in place

...when business relationships are open and silo free

….then it acquires new performance muscle and the will to win.

This is what he calls “getting aligned.”

Aligning a business team is a process that moves along a path from identifying the “as is” of its behaviour, to rebuilding its architecture and behaviour, moving to high performance, and, finally, to making that higher level of performance the future “as is.” Guttman tells us that alignment process is made up of two phases: Making the Diagnosis and Gaining Agreement.

Phase 1: Making the Diagnosis
The stimulus to create a great business team starts with the leader and their need to address a business challenge. That challenge often prompts the leader to reflect on the team’s readiness to respond. What would the high performing team look like? What would it be able to accomplish? What goals would it be able to reach? What barriers would no longer exist? What problems would be solved?

Next, no matter how it is made, the message from the leader that “We need to up the performance bar” is implicitly disquieting. The leader must communicate with team members, allay their fears, secure buy-in, and generate excitement for the new world order.

To succeed, the alignment process is a team effort. Do team members share the leader’s view of the situation? Do they share the same sense of urgency and a similar assessment of the barriers to high performance? The leader and team need to work together to consensus recognising and working on feedback. This is an important learning moment for the leader. He or she must understand that accepting such feedback, however disturbing the news, is essential for progress.

Phase 2: Gaining Agreement
At this point in the alignment process, the players are aware of their personal strengths and weaknesses. They are aware of the behavioural changes they need to make and the skills they need to hone. They know exactly which issues they need to resolve and with whom, and have come up with tangible agreements for moving forward. They have assumed responsibility for their transformation.

To move forward, a concrete action plan for progress is necessary before the team members retrench. Guttman suggest the plan should include activities addressing the following:

Organisation barriers: Have any impediments to higher performance been identified during the alignment?

  • Skills: Schedule formal skill-development workshops to address the skill gaps.
  • Individual coaching: Assign individual coaches to players who need extra help.
  • Team coaching: Develop a plan for process coaching of the entire team in its interactions going forward.

Future business opportunities: Identify additional opportunities to begin following the high-performance model to address existing business issues.

To close, a dose of reality: high-performing teams are not always so. The real world is full of twists and turns — a new team leader, new staff in team membership, restructuring, a strategic shift, an economic downturn, etc. It is unrealistic to expect on-going perfection from a team. When the leader or players feel that they are backsliding, it is time to recalibrate. However, by following Guttman’s principles: horizontal, alignment, transparency, accountability, and self-sacrifice, great teams can rise again.