How Leaders Build High-Performing Teams

Great teams don’t just spring out of thin air; they are the product of careful nurturing by inspirational leaders that keep their focus on the task at hand, reduce obstacles to success, and ensure that the lines of communication - both horizontal and vertical - remain open and energized by lively debate.

Here are some ways that you can lead a high-performing team to a successful outcome:

  • Understand your role. As a leader, you are responsible for setting the tone, attitude, and culture for the team. You serve as a role model for appropriate behavior and create an environment for open, honest communication among members. Your first order of business is recruiting team members for your high-performing team.

    “The most important factor is creating a group with complementary skills, experience, knowledge, perspective, and talent,” says Kurt Andre, a leadership coach and senior partner with TAG Consulting, Fairfax, VA. “It’s not about who is interested or available.” Andre also suggests that high-performing teams are generally small, optimally six to eight members, but as few as four. Initially, you’re likely to be involved on a day-to-day basis, defining and clarifying roles, providing direction, and participating in decision-making. Once the team moves into execution, your focus should turn outward, clearing any obstacles that come to pass and paving the way for delivery of the solution.
  • Create a vision. It’s easy to give “the vision thing” short shrift, especially if you pride yourself on your practicality. But only by providing a clear vision of desired outcomes - a measurable metric - can you motivate team members to strive toward that vision and, more importantly, hold one another accountable for achieving it.

    “You’ve got to have a metric,” Andre says. “What are we going to celebrate, to accomplish?” Your vision should be strategic rather than tactical; it should define a problem rather than propose a specific solution.
  • Use influence, not authority. “Authority is like soap,” Andre explains. “The more you use it, the less you have left. But influence doesn’t diminish the same way.” Translation: reserve your decision-making authority for when it’s absolutely required. By guiding the discussion toward a decisive conclusion and helping to provide clarity, you give high-performing team members ownership of the solution. This is not to be confused with leading by consensus, Andre cautions, which results in lowest-common-denominator outcomes. Rather, it is encouraging give-and-take to develop not the most widely acceptable solution, but the most thoroughly and successfully challenged one.
  • Open the conversation. It makes sense that a newly formed team will look to its leader to guide the conversation, but your goal should be to foster communication among members rather than simply between you and them. Andre posits a three-step process: dialogue, discussion, and decision. The purpose of dialogue is simply to listen to one another and make sure that you understand their position.

    “Until I can reflect back to you exactly what you meant to tell me, we’re not done,” he says. While dialogue depends largely on advocating one position or another, discussion breaks down those boundaries with open inquiry. “It’s poking holes, kicking ideas around, challenging assumptions,” Andre says. Once that phase is complete, the group comes to a decision. “Over and over I’ve seen people willing to go in a direction they disagree with because they’ve been listened to and understood,” he says. “They have ownership of the final decision.”

And that leads to two significant characteristics of high-performing teams: they are decisive and self-sustaining. In fact, the clearest measure of successful leadership is to create a team capable, with your guidance, of leading itself.


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