A good product or service is wonderful, but great talent is your life force.
You’ve taken the plunge and started a business. You’ve never done anything so exciting — or difficult — but customers are rolling in, and the business is starting to grow.
You’re now building out what’s arguably the most important asset you’ll ever have: your team.
After all, a good product or service is wonderful, but great talent is your life force.
Studies show that an engaged workforce leads to increased productivity and decreased turnover — and can spell the difference between a business’s success or failure. Every minute your people spend feeling unclear, unfocused or unhappy is a moment that could otherwise be devoted to customers.
It doesn’t happen by accident. I know this from having built and nurtured teams (sometimes from scratch) at many companies, including several startups as well as OpenTable, Upwork and Amazon.
Here are some lessons I learned about how to craft high-performance teams:
1. Know what you stand for. Articulate it often.
If you were to ask everyone at your company what word they’d use to describe the culture, would they all choose the same word? Is it the word you want? It’s never too late to proactively define your culture and give it purpose.
At my startup, NakedPoppy, we’ve explicitly chosen to build a culture of joy. Part of this is because, in my long career, I’ve consistently seen that when team members feel upbeat and cared for, they dig deep and do their best work. The other part is because it’s authentic; my co-founder and I both love to be happy. And our brand is all about injecting joy into customers’ lives.
It isn’t easy to serve customers so well that they’d credit us with bringing them joy. So, this cultural value plays another important role: It sets a high bar for attitude and for performance.
2. Master the art of motivational goal setting.
Start by painting an inspiring vision and then communicate how each person has an impact. For example, if you are running a chain of blow-dry bars, you might tell your team that they’re empowering women and giving them confidence, one beautiful hairstyle at a time.
Follow up with written goals for each team member. The act of writing forces you to work out any kinks in your thinking and to be crisp. It leaves no room for ambiguity, so they can focus on results, not on second-guessing what you mean.
Finally, don’t forget to spell out the behaviors you value. When people see concrete guidelines like “exudes positive energy,” “goes the extra mile for customers” or “is respected as a team player,” they have a way of adopting those behaviors.
3. Model your obsession with customers.
This one doesn’t need much elaboration. People follow their leaders. If you’re constantly listening to your customers, learning from them and going to the ends of the earth for them, your team will too.
4. Turn mistakes into opportunities.
It goes without saying that you should celebrate exceptional work. If the appreciation is genuine, the team can tell, and it begets even more good work.
But what about those mistakes? Those terrible mistakes that make people swing between feeling upset, defensive and demoralized?
One way to make the situation is worse is to tell them what they did wrong, especially when you’re frustrated.
Instead, collect yourself and ask, “What did we learn?” You might offer time to reflect before responding. By putting your team members in charge of their own learning, you have empowered them, respected them and freed them to get better. It’s a rare person who will not feel grateful and work harder as a result.
5. Do the tough stuff swiftly.
You can create a wonderful culture, but not everyone will shine. Preserve it by nipping problems in the bud.
If someone tends to dominate, take credit for other people’s work or behave in other ways that damage the culture, for example, confront them privately. Give them a chance to improve, but keep a close eye. Trust me, the team senses it all.
And if, despite every effort, someone doesn’t improve their performance, don’t delay. The kindest thing you can do is to gently move them along. It’s better for everyone — and your team will also understand that their excellent performance is truly valued.
Letting go of a poor match is also often better for the team member in question. A few years ago, I had a talented employee who seemed incapable of bringing her full self to work every day. After a couple of weeks that began with asking her how she was feeling about her job, it was no surprise when I asked her to move on. Her small team was pleased to get a new supervisor. And, she got a clean start at another job where she’s now very successful.
6. Make use of the two most empowering words in a manager’s vocabulary: “You decide.”
This does not mean you never step in, especially when stakes are high. In general, though, if you err on the side of giving people your trust and confidence, they will feel empowered, learn more rapidly and do their best work.
7. Stay calm.
This matters. Every business has those uh oh — we’re dead moments. A competitor makes a threatening announcement. A product falls short. You’ve been there, right? Well, keep your doubts to yourself.
Productivity can be lost during these storms. Either you can join the distraction, or you can show a steady hand. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems. A great team can turn a challenge into an even better business — and go on to win.
How can you be sure you’ve created a high-performing team? One litmus test is what happens when you’re not there. Do they slow down? Await your instructions? Or do they power ahead, and perhaps do an even better job than you would?
The reality is when people know what they’re striving for, feel motivated, empowered, respected and valued, you free them up to do the best work of their lives. And you know you’ve created something truly extraordinary if you ever hear them say, “It doesn’t feel like work!”