Leading high performance teams - GESS Education

Leading High Performance Teams – Building Trust

Recently I was asked a question on what I thought “high performance” meant to me and how I would define it.

I was aware of the High-Performance Learning (HPL) framework founded by Professor Deborah Eyre but decided to take some time to reflect on this term.

Working for a company based in Finland, it was interesting to ask my Finnish colleagues how they would define the term. The word ‘performance’ has a narrower meaning in Finland and implied a certain level of competition to my colleagues. The term ‘success’ is preferred. And since there's no official competition between K-12 schools in Finland, success is measured as a collaborative effort of how the country is succeeding as a whole in its approach to education and society in general.

If we look at the dictionary definition of high performance, we see terms such as better, faster, or more efficient emerging or ‘to be able to operate to a high standard and at high speed’ (Cambridge Dictionary). To define it, we also need to look at the context of what we might be measuring. We may have high performing technology or cars but in education, we tend to look at areas such as teams, achievement, and learning. However, in education, this needs further refinement in terms of factors we want to influence the most. For example, higher levels of achievement in terms of grades do not necessarily lead to higher happiness and well-being. Actually, it often leads to lower satisfaction.

There is a common thread that runs through all high-performance definitions and that is that we need to create the optimum conditions and assemble the right ‘parts’ to enable high performance to thrive. At the company I work for, New Nordic School, we have given this a lot of thought and want all of our students to be equipped with the skills they need to shape their own future. We provide the ‘right conditions’ by enabling purposeful and personal growth for all students, teachers, and leadership, whatever their starting point.

Building high performing teams

If you would have asked me what types of leadership are effective to build a high-performance culture a year ago, I may have answered it differently. Gone are the days of a five-year strategy and detailed operational planning when we don’t know what the future of work will look like in the next six months. I have learnt that during this time of change, a good leader leads by a set of rules, however, a better leader also knows when to break them and change direction. The importance of wellbeing has come to the forefront, not only to build a high-performance culture but also to ensure individuals’ needs are being taken care of at this time.

From a practical and research point of view, I have previously used well-known models such as McKinsey 7S or Kotters when implementing change in my leadership. During these times of unpredictable times, I believe we need to challenge the proven models or adapt them to our current needs.

I’m currently working in a start-up culture that is very different from a more traditional, more established company culture. Our culture is driven by everyone but as senior leaders, we need to model the behaviors, ethics, values and performance which forms the culture desired. This is so important, as the culture of any organization is determined by the worst behaviors the leaders are prepared to tolerate. Accountability between team members is also crucial, as it allows them to drive increased performance towards the shared goal.

So, to foster high performance in our team, we work daily towards a culture which empowers individuals, supports innovation and creative thinking, encourages risk-taking, understands that we all make mistakes (with a learning mindset), and provides all team members with a clear vision and a way to measure achievement towards their goals. Deliverables should be agile and flexible during this time, and performance should be acknowledged and regarded as this recognition supports the vision and goals of the organization.

Simply put, building high-performance teams is about building a culture that fosters a common vision, goals, and collaboration, and one which holds each other accountable. At the heart of building this culture for high-performance teams is the necessity, particularly in these challenging times, to build trust.

To trust or not to trust

In Finland, in order to transform education, there is a large emphasis placed on trust, right from the top leadership, to the classroom. From the government to the schools, the schools to the leaders, leaders to the teachers and ultimately teachers to the students. The level of autonomy given to each stakeholder is key to the school’s success and building of trust.

It would be quite a challenge for us to change a society of a country so our focus as a company and for leadership in any school is to develop trust within the school or organization that you or we work or partner with. The good news is that trust isn’t curriculum specific but cultural and largely intrinsic for people.

Some external factors affect levels of trust. External reviews and quality assurance can be good as it gives a strong sense of purpose, and if used positively can drive forwards school improvement. However too often I see external reviews driving activities in the school rather than schools and leadership driving school improvement that leads to improved external evaluation. I also think the pressure on school principals is unrelenting and this pressure is often unconsciously passed down into the schools. It becomes difficult to build a culture of trust and if it is often replaced by fear. So, within the confines of an organization, not society (control what you can control), I think that the building of trust and autonomy begins at the school owner level and permeates down.

When you see a phrase ‘a company you can trust’ do you believe it? How does it make you feel? There is also a business case for trust. Without trust, we do not collaborate, instead, we coordinate or at best cooperate. It is the trust that turns a group of people into a team. Without trust, it is better to work alone which I have seen only too often in schools and organizations over the years.

Trust is also very intrinsic. What glasses are you wearing? Blind trust or distrust. As Stephen Covey said, ‘Trust is like an emotional bank account you have to make regular deposits to see the benefits, the result but one withdrawal can close down a bank account forever’.

Building smart trust is key, which enables leaders to operate high trust in a low trust world to build high performing teams. Leaders need to start with yourself to develop trust, declare your intent, do what you say and then lead out in extending that trust. Try to fulfil your promises or commitments. One of the fastest ways to build trust is to focus on your behaviours.  We judge ourselves on our intentions, but others judge us on our actions. Talk straight, create transparency, clarify expectations and keep commitments.

In summary, leading high performance is about doing more good things, more often. If you can’t trust people who can you trust?