Insights > Leading High Performance
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Looking for improved organisational performance? Start with leadership…

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This month we are focusing on performance. In this article, I’m going to reflect on what I consider to be the most fundamental driver of performance for each team and every organisation I’ve encountered in my career. Great leadership is the number one attribute of high-performance teams.

In discussing performancehere, I’ll primarily reflect on my own experiences and observations. As we go forward this month, we will citefurther references and studies which explore the role of the leader as the fundamental driver of performance.

From my very earliest days in the workplace, one thing became very clear to me. When the leader changed, the performance changed. My performance, the team’s performance, the performance our customer’s experienced, the performance we delivered to each other as colleagues, and of course our team contribution the performance of the organisation as a whole–all were influenced more significantly by the leader than any other variable.

From my earliest days in the workplace, one thing became very clear…

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My first paid job, aged 16-21, was as a lifeguard at a public pool complex. I took my work seriously, I was safeguarding lives after all, so did most of my colleagues. We had fun too. We interacted both professionally and socially, made deep bonds (which outlasted most of our employment tenures), and, above all, performed very highly as a team. In the 5 years I worked there, we had no serious incidents.

What did highly vary however, was how close we came to having serious incidents occur. The shifts in performance was most especially felt when the team leadership changed. This happened shift by shift as Managers and Supervisors rotated around the pool and the overall facility. I felt the change perceptibly, and observed the different leader’s variances in style and behaviour, how they projected authority and the way they engaged with their team. All of these elements compounded to drive, or reduce, performance of the team.

My next job was in a small family owned hotel. Two couples owned and operated the hotel, dividing the week between them. One of the pair oversaw operations Monday-Thursday, the other on Friday and through the weekend. Both were equally engaged, hands-on,and presented to the team in the same manner throughout the workday. Where the change came was in their contrasting leadership styles, which impacted significantly on the performance of the team. The team itself was relatively constant throughout the week, especially the team leaders and key staff. However, the performance of the team as a unit varied dramatically under the influence of different leaders, especially in relation to stress response during busy periods.

Working in a major global corporation with consistent processes, I was surprised by how widely the performance and outputs varied…

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This comparison continued when at 23, I entered the white-collar workplace as a young graduate. Working in a major global corporation with a rigorous, process-orientated workflow with consistent procedures clear weekly KPIs and incentivised quarterly targets, I was surprised how widely the performance and outputs would change depending on the leader. This was true for myself and the teams I worked in, depending on who was leading.

Leaders would come and go due to promotion, rotation or under-performance. Each time they did, the team’s performance would shift significantly. The same people, same processes, same customers, same services delivered very different outcomes depending on the behaviours, capabilities and style of the leader.

“Up to 70% of a team’s performance is directly related to the team leader” Performance Climate Systems, 2018.

I saw this up close in relation to my own leadership, when at 26 I took on my first major leadership role. What I walked into had been a high-performing team, one of the best in the country. I had been promoted from leading a small team that I had built from the ground up, to lead a far larger, established team. I’d been a high-performer myself prior to leading teams, and felt I had a successful approach to leadership based on what had worked for me. However, I failed both that what worked for me wouldn’t apply for everyone in my new team, and also to appreciate how different my approach was to that of my predecessor.  It took around 3 months for the team and I to find our way, both them shaping around me and me to them. After around 6 months in total the outputs began to return to anything like their previous levels.

During the years I was in this role, my performance was also significantly impacted by changes of leadership above me. I had 4 bosses in 3 years, including both the worst and best direct leadersI had during my time in corporate leadership roles. My performance varied significantly in direct correlation to the capability of the leader to whom I directly reported.

The decisive role of the Founder…

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I experienced the decisive role of the Founder during both my last two roles in corporate. In one, the Founder’s reduced contributions as they focused on building theAustralian business overseas. In doing so, they passed the baton to a senior partner, changing their incentives to orientate them towards leadership. This shift led to a rupturing of a very successful collaborative culture, which in turn led to a dramatic change in outputs of a previously high-performing team.

The most effective leaders combine interpersonal skills with results-driven focus – only 13% of leaders fit this profile.” – William Craig writing in Forbes, 2018.

In my next company, the return of the Founder to the business unit he had opened 20 years previously, replacing a highly entrepreneurial General Manager. This move completely deflated the team. In contrast to the GM, the Founder had a very firm approach – his way had worked, or at least until the market disruption impacted business as usual. With the loss of autonomy and empowerment we were not able to adjust to the business changes that was needed. Therefore, one by one all of our team took our talents elsewhere and the team into terminal decline.

Again and again, the common factor of team performance was a change in leadership. When a new person with a different approach, or when a new incentive or motivation package impacts the existing leader’s behaviours, these changes translate through the leader and transfer’s to team, invoking an often radical change in performance.

I see this in our daily work at 4iLeadership. The leader is the major lever for enhancing or diminishing team performance, and in turn the performance of the organisation overall.

This is why I work with leaders. This is why I have built a team of leaders, all of whom strive to help others who want to lead to their fullest potential, be the best they can be, and whom live and lead to make a better world.