How to Build High-Performing Teams

Leaders who focus on building engagement among their people increase the chances of building sustainable high performance.

Teams putting hands together

Although many factors contribute to an organization’s success, statistical research demonstrates that organizations with high engagement tend to deliver better results across a range of financial, customer, and employee measures. And while high engagement sometimes is itself the result of high performance, an organization that consistently attracts and retains high performers — and provides an emotionally engaging environment in which they can thrive — is likely to outperform competitors over time.

Leaders who focus on building engagement among their people, therefore, increase the chances of building sustainable high performance — as well as giving them the personal satisfaction of knowing that they have been able to positively impact other people’s lives.

The Leadership Star Framework

The Leadership Star — five key points, each starting with C — reminds leaders of the key actions they need to take to build and sustain engagement over time. These five points are: Care, Provide Context, Give Clarity, Clear the Way, and Celebrate.

  1. Care

Genuine Care is the foundation of high engagement. Highly engaging leaders manifest that Care in several ways. They show they Care for the individual as a human being: rather than treating people as collective ‘human resources.’ Great leaders strive to treat each person in their organization as a valued individual.  They also recognize that ‘care’ is an action word, by:

Acknowledging their humanity: taking an interest in them as people and showing that you value each person for who they are

Demonstrating empathy and compassion

Helping meet their individual needs or constraints, adjusting expectations when possible

Understanding people’s abilities and aspirations

Giving honest feedback and advice

investing in training and development resources

Taking risks on people

Caring about results: people need to know that their leaders are committed to excellence and delivering results. Leaders need to set high standards, offering encouragement where possible, and delivering tough love where necessary. This is because success breeds success: a team that consistently achieves stretching goals is more likely to feel proud and confident in its capabilities, and as a consequence to become highly engaged.

  1. Provide Context

Highly engaging leaders help people find meaning in what they do, by explaining the higher purpose of the organization and helping people connect that purpose to their own values and daily work. To do this, engaging leaders:

Define and explain the organization’s purpose (in other words, the ‘why’ of the organization): what outcomes does the organization seek to deliver, and for whom?

Define and explain the organization’s priorities as it seeks to deliver on its purpose

Demonstrate their own personal commitment to that purpose and the organization’s priorities

Help people see how their individual roles link to and support the purpose and priorities, and ideally how their work aligns with their own personal values

Constantly communicate and reinforce the purpose and priorities, especially when making key decisions.

  1. Give Clarity

To build and sustain engagement, leaders need to ensure people know what’s expected of them in several respects:

Role Clarity: people need to understand the purpose of their role and how they are expected to contribute as team members. Good leaders make a point of clarifying their expectations for each role in detail so that people are more likely to spend their time on the right things and to work effectively with their colleagues to deliver high-quality results.

Goal Clarity: for each performance period, individuals need to know what outcomes are expected — what ‘good’ looks like and what ‘great’ looks like. Practical goal setting means choosing a small but impactful set of stretch objectives, clarifying the difference between lead and lag indicators, and encouraging people to adopt a ‘growth mindset’ in their approach to meeting their objectives.

Behavioral Clarity: in a highly engaged culture, everyone is clear on the organization’s values and understands how those values translate into what behavior is expected and what behavior isn’t acceptable.

Regular feedback: great leaders ensure that people get regular formal and informal feedback on their performance and behavior, reinforcing good results and allowing people to course-correct where they’re off track. Ideally that feedback allows people to understand both absolute performance — how they have performed against their goals — and relative performance — how their outcomes stack up in the broader organization.

Consequences: highly engaged organizations make sure that individuals are both recognized and held to account for their performance, whether in terms of goal delivery or behavior. Where consequences relate to breaches of behavioral standards, it’s important that these steps are sufficiently public that the organization recognizes the leader’s commitment to their avowed standards.

  1. Clear the Way

Once people are clear on what’s expected of them, leaders must be proactive in helping knock down the barriers that hold people back. This means:

Asking what’s getting in the way — physical constraints, financial or resource limitations, lack of knowledge, emotional or cultural barriers, or political issues can all affect performance and engagement. Leaders need to personally look for barriers that employees may not see or recognize by talking to customers, suppliers, and employees and by digging into the details of processes.

Take action to remove those barriers, whether through direct decisions and resource allocation or techniques to quickly surface and resolve barriers to success.

  1. Celebrate

The final step in sustaining engagement is recognizing individual contributions and success, creating a powerful feedback loop for performance and engagement. In highly engaged organizations, recognition is embedded as a fundamental aspect of the culture and operates at several levels:

Frequent and periodic: leaders make a point of frequently recognizing the value of day-to-day efforts while also stepping back from time to time to celebrate significant milestones such as the achievement of quarterly or annual results.

Top-down and bottom-up: rather than a purely senior leader–driven effort, highly engaged organizations use peer and team-leader recognition programs to reinforce gratitude and pride among employees at all levels and strengthen the emotional bonds within and among teams.

Informal and formal: while formal financial (e.g., performance pay) and nonfinancial (e.g., awards nights) recognition programs play an essential part in recognition, the best leaders use a wide variety of informal approaches to create recognition that has emotional impact. From ‘thank you’ notes to gifts to new development opportunities, the range of approaches is limited only by the leader’s creativity — so long as the recognition is delivered in an authentic, relevant, and personalized manner to the individual in question.

Individual and team: to maximize engagement, recognition programs need to celebrate team performance and individual achievement. In most organizations, there are many ‘unsung heroes’ whose roles may not allow them to stand out as individual achievers but whose experience and efforts are nevertheless critical to the organization’s success.

Focused and fair: who gets recognized — and for what — sends important messages to the organization about what matters to the leaders. Likewise, employees look closely at the signals embedded in recognition programs: the relative value provided for performance versus behavior and the actions that are taken (or not taken) on people who fall short.

Brian Hartzer is the author of THE LEADERSHIP STAR: A Practical Guide To Building Engagement, and served as CEO of the Westpac Banking Group from 2015 to 2019. Earlier, he spent 15 years in senior executive roles at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group and ANZ Banking Group. Hartzer has also worked as a financial services strategy consultant at First Manhattan Consulting Group in New York, San Francisco, and Melbourne. He is currently Chairman of Beforepay and an advisor and investor to several Sydney-based startups and technology firms, including Quantium, a data-science company. Hartzer, who graduated from Princeton University and is a Chartered Financial Analyst, holds dual U.S. and Australian citizenship. He currently resides in Sydney, Australia.