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How Leaders Can Foster High-Performing Teams

A leader can act as a coach, provide opportunities for ownership, and find out what motivates people to foster high performing teams. It also helps teams if leaders have powerful and meaningful conversations with team members and give vocal feedback face to face to team members.

InfoQ attended Stretch 2020, a leadership and management conference that took place on February 13 and 14 in Budapest, Hungary. InfoQ interviewed several speakers from this conference to explore what leaders can do to foster high-performing teams.

Ivett Ördög, a senior software engineer and creator of lean poker, suggested to start by defining what we actually mean when we talk about high-performing teams:

For me the more important question is what we mean by a high-performing team, and what we mean by "the team"? When a company struggles to deliver value, it’s rarely because the development team couldn’t churn out code faster.

She continued by explaining who should be on the team and what we should expect from high-performing teams:

For a high performing team, the team should include everyone from product to engineering and they should all work towards a single well-defined goal: what is the next small product increment that brings the most value within the next 1 or 2 weeks?

To lead high-performing teams, leadership qualities like being able to coach people and give feedback can make a difference, as Amy Tez, a communications trainer and speaker, explained:

A leader is a coach. That doesn’t mean they have to be nice, but they have to be truthful and constructive and kind so they help people forward - to help the company forward. And give regular constructive insight and coaching and vocal feedback. So that people feel heard and supported towards a common goal. People are still too anxious to talk face to face about whatever elephant is in the room. So problems continue to fester and grow - and before long, people lose motivation and resentment brews. Teams disintegrate and people leave.

Amber Vandenburg, director of human resources at Paradigm Shift, mentioned the importance of ownership for high-performing teams:

Leaders can foster high performing teams by providing more opportunities for ownership. Opportunities for ownership provide more space for innovation, creativity, experiments, and conversation, rather than complacency. I believe that in every industry and team there are opportunities for ownership in our processes, methods, projects, or roles. It is only when we trust our teams and empower them to take ownership that they can truly perform at their highest level.

Teams consist of individuals who can be motivated in different ways. Jurgen Appelo, CEO at Happy Melly, and Kate Wardin, Sr. engineering manager at Target & founder of Developer First leadership, both explained why understanding such differences matters for leaders:

Jurgen Appelo: Leaders should figure out what motivates people and makes them happy. Engaged and satisfied team members are more productive, more eager to solve problems, and more creative at finding innovative solutions.

Kate Wardin: As leaders, we need to work to understand how each individual on our team derives meaning from their work. This enables us to effectively motivate and inspire team members and the collective team to reach their full potential. I also believe that diverse and inclusive teams are essential to the productivity and happiness of a team

Appelo suggested that leaders should be an example for their teams and take action to increase motivation:

Literally thousands of practices are available to achieve motivation and happiness. It doesn’t matter where you begin. Just do something and lead by example. I started by inviting teams to my home for collaborative cooking, by sharing vacation photos with each other during lunch breaks, and by always being open and honest about what was great and what sucked and needed improvement. When team members see leaders actually lead, they will follow.

In this digital era, communication is being done more and more using chat tools or collaboration environments. Tez reminded us that leaders should also remain in direct contact with their employees:

Leaders need to start having much more powerful and meaningful conversations with everyone in the room. Move away from that computer, stop the incessant digital conversation, and actually talk to people face to face - have meaningful conversations. Ask your employees open questions, find out what’s working and what problems they have - individually and as a team. And attack the problem, never the person.

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