How to Build a High Performing Team

By Patty Azzarello

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What do you do about those nice, loyal employees, who are not capable of stepping up as your business challenges grow? You can’t fire them for poor performance because they are not problem employees, but you also know they are not what you need to deliver the business outcomes you are on the hook to deliver.

They can’t help you enough to get where you need to go. So, what do you do?

This is a very common situation, and as a leader you have two choices: 1) Be an average leader and let it ride; waiting until you can hire an new person, who is a top performer into the new role you need filled; or 2) Exhibit stand-out leadership behavior and change your organization.

To help figure things out, draw the ideal, blank-sheet org chart. Start with the desired outcome for the business and be very clear about what business outcomes the company needs and what the role IT needs to play in driving them. Understand and clearly articulate the specific work, strategic problem solving, and outcomes that your team, and the individuals on your team, need to deliver to drive those business outcomes, not just now but in the future.

Next draw your ideal IT org chart. Start with a blank sheet of paper. Don’t consider the current roles or who you already have on the team at all. Just think about what the business needs, what outcomes you are on the hook for, and what the ideal team would be to make sure you can do it. Create a picture of that team―the one that can do what you really need done.

From there create and clearly define the specific new roles. When you define the new roles, focus on outcomes, objectives and deliverables, not just “responsibilities”. List the long term objectives and short term work for each role on your ideal team. Articulate the level of skills for decision making, strategic thinking, communicating, leadership, influence, and support which are required of someone in the role.

Once this is done, you have just created a clear and actionable picture of your goal. It is your job to make that picture a reality. It is likely that your current team does not quite fit into that structure. It is your job to change your team over time so it does.

Two things will likely become clear at this point: some of your current people will obviously map into the new roles so put them there; and you will end up with some empty boxes and some extra people.

The Hard Part

The real leadership comes in when you need to fill the empty boxes, and deal with the extra people. This is a straightforward and business focused way to move average or unmotivated performers off your team when you can’t fire them for being poor performers. You make it clear what the business needs, what the new roles are, and what the requirements are for those roles.

Remember, it’s not personal. It’s not like you are removing them from their role personally. Their role does not exist any more. The roles that do exist are new and different, and bigger. They are welcome to interview. If they don’t make the cut, either give them a new role a level down in your organization, move them to another organization, or lay them off.

Your job is not to take care of people who cannot do what you need done. Your job is to build a team that can deliver on the critical IT strategies and objectives to drive the right business outcomes.

Sure, you can look around and see lots of average performance and other leaders not acting on this and not doing what it takes to build the right, top-performing team. There can be a wide-spread tolerance for mediocrity in your company. Maybe you won’t lose your job if you just tolerate average performance and muscle through most of the hard stuff personally. But, just to be clear, maintaining the status quo is not stand out, high value leadership. This is not the kind of leadership experience that will help you advance.

If you have to eliminate jobs to build a stronger team, that doesn’t prevent you from helping people you let go get into their next job―especially if it wasn’t a performance issue. You needed different roles and this person was no longer a fit. You are still in a position to help and provide referrals. I have found that when people are struggling in the wrong roles and not doing well, taking them out of the role gives them a new opportunity to go where they can thrive and excel. After getting over the initial shock and disappointment, they are often happier.

I know that right now is not a great time to be putting people out of work, but you can’t let that keep you from building the right team. But, the other way to look at it, is you may be putting your whole team and your own job at risk by not doing what the business needs. When the world changes the way it has in the last year or so, the lower performing your team is, the more you put them all at risk if you don’t enhance the whole team's performance.

Patty Azzarello is the CEO of Azzarello Group, a unique services organization that helps companies develop and motivate their top performers, execute their strategies, and grow their business, through talent management programs, leadership workshops, online products & public speaking.