High-Performing Teams at the Center of Company ReBuilding

Regarding a Healthy Mix of Diversity and Complementarity
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High-performing teams outdo “normal” teams and structures by miles in terms of their ability to perform and are a major factor for success in the digital age. So high-performing teams play a decisive role especially in the context of Company ReBuilding and form the nucleus of a new ecosystem.

I had the opportunity to engage in an intense dialog on the subject of high-performing teams and leadership with Professor Bernd Vogel of Henley University. As the founder of the Henley Center for Leadership, he is concerned with questions relating to the topics of new leadership, organizational energy, and New Work. He recently joined up with us and Telekom for the publication of the study “Work 2028 – Trends, Dilemmas, and Choice”.

Here are some of the more important issues that Bernd and I had a chance to discuss.

Marc: The term “high-performing team” has been a popular buzzword for years now and plays a key role for us especially during Company ReBuilding. One of the tenets of our approach is that a high-performing team is at the nucleus of every cell. You intensely examine the subjects of leadership and team constellations. What is a high-performing team, and where do you see the differences between this and a “normal” team?

I like to distinguish between two aspects of this question. First of all, there is the matter of the people on high-performing teams of this type. Second, there are process elements that set these teams apart. If we look at the first aspect, we determine that high-performing teams frequently do not act as one-man shows. While there are very strong personalities who enjoy taking the initiative in determining the direction of high-performing teams, there is not one single dominant person. The different people on high-performing teams contribute diversity as well as complementarity of expertise, skills, and mindsets. This is also where the second aspect immediately comes into play, however. High-performing teams have viable processes for blending complementary movements, thereby avoiding fragmentation and the formation of subgroups. The decisive points here can be the motivation of each person to achieve further personal development and a radical openness for new or differing positions.

You speak of a healthy mix of diversity and complementarity. How can efficient and diverse teams be created, especially in large organizations? How can the right candidates be identified? Our observation is that classic management assessment methods are ineffective here because they seek out more of the same.

It is important here to see what criteria are chosen. During assessments, we often look at what has been successful in the past and use these criteria for an analysis of what will be successful in the future as well. Carrying such findings forward, which is what we also see in the use of benchmarks, is no longer appropriate in a world where change happens every day. Moreover, the way we work together on teams has undergone drastic transformation. It will not be possible to avoid a situation in which some criteria are in contradiction to others. On the one hand, we want to have successful people oriented to development and eager to take the initiative; on the other hand, their successes should not be pursued as an end in themselves, but must keep in mind the objective of the department, the company, or the community. Reconciling this dichotomy is of critical importance when putting together a team. In the case of diversity, I would choose a more radical approach. There are a number of questions I ask. How complex are the core tasks of such teams? And how can “clones” of a single person manage all the partial tasks? When you ask this question, you quickly see that not all capabilities can be bundled in one single person. The selection criteria must in part be turned around. Away from simply carrying on as before and proportional thinking and in the direction of future-driven selection of skills.

So diversity and complementarity must be driven much more strongly in the future. To what extent must the candidates’ potential for development be considered?

Ultimately, it is a question of economics. There are a lot of processes in companies that function with relatively little friction when the issue is one of various functions and skills on teams. We still shy away, however, from applying criteria that are unfamiliar to us such as the divergence of thought patterns and development potential – and then in the next step to practice new team processes.

You have already mentioned that the dominance of individuals must be restrained on teams. How do I realize this on management teams where, according to studies, the greatest number of egocentric people is to be found?

Many managers are aware that their performance and the performance of their units are dependent on others because they cannot do the job alone. That is the fundamental reason why teams are created. The situation in which a larger number of egocentric people are found in management is a consequence of the company’s decision to permit such career paths and to promote this type of person. People who want to demonstrate dominance are more likely to stand out in the company. But there are many talented people with successful careers who live out their enjoyment in creating structures and who are working in completely different ways even today. We must find these people and give them enough room to blossom. This is the only way we can make people more conscious of these role models and pave their way to the top management level.

So it has a lot to do with executives practicing what they want to see their employees doing.

Absolutely. Practicing what they preach is one of the few ways possible for executives to influence people, but it is a powerful one. Employees take their cue from executives, and they do not simply do so out of blind obedience, of course, but as an opportunity to learn and grow. Managers embody the principles and values of a company, which is one of the pillars of your Company ReBuilding approach. In many cases, that can be exploited even more strongly. But that means that a company must have the courage to instill new management and team models that are outside the norm.

In the debate about New Work, democratic structures are often equated with enhanced performance. To what extent is that compatible with the topic of high-performing teams?

It is compatible because all of the influencers in the company have only limited capabilities. That is why people in various constellations must be able to participate in the preparation as well as the making of decisions. This is apparent on high-performing teams as well. Mechanisms that ultimately lead to decisions being made are of tremendous importance! Companies fear that the democratization will cause actions to slow down even more – and that is indeed frequently the case. However, democratization can also lead to a substantial acceleration of the implementation because many more people are convinced that the right decision has been made. In the long run, the topic of “democratization” is a balancing act, and it is especially important to make sure that the decisions that are made do not fall victim to a tendency toward mediocre compromises.

You mention the risk that teams will become fragmented and generate corrosive energy because their members work against one another. What factors do you believe lead to this risk, and how can it be avoided?

The situation becomes difficult when antagonisms arise from the formation of particular groups. Then people lose sight of the specialization and the common goal and deliberately begin to work against one another. The delicate touch of the person in charge of the team is demanded during this transition. To be honest, however, it is also clearly up to every single management team member to stay on course because they know precisely when they are driving harmful fragmentation, and they know what they are doing. As a matter of fact, companies today perform successfully solely if the departments cooperate with one another across the boundaries between them. A fragmentation that begins to drive itself, on the other hand, is a danger.

We have described changing constellations in our Company ReBuilding approach as well. We no longer have overhead functions such as Finance and HR in the form of departments, but instead define them as roles that are assigned to various employees. Do you regard this type of role distribution with rotation as a means of avoiding negative fragmentation?

Rotation has various consequences. People who rotate are constantly confronted with the varying realities in the company. That opens their eyes to the way the complex entity we call a company functions. Moreover, a rotation in team responsibility heightens awareness of responsibility. In addition, the creation of silos and silo-like definitions and process worlds is prevented, ensuring that the company can orient its activities in the direction of its customers.

How do I generate an appealing and attractive vision if team members and talented people want to make a visible contribution?

In our study “Work 2028. Trends, Dilemmas, and Choice” conducted by Deutsche Telekom, Detecon International, and us at the Henley Center for Leadership, the question of sustained social meaning of companies is a fundamental trend. Many go so far as to claim that a deeper social contribution of the company will decide whether a company and its business model survive the next 10 years or not. The key leadership task of generating emotional and intellectual enthusiasm for the topic of vision is therefore all the more critical today. The other task is to convince employees that the long-term purpose and meaningfulness of the company is truly viewed as a serious objective. We often see negative basic attitudes and forms of conduct that executives and employees have learned and practiced; their driving of a vision is only superficial and has not really been “internalized.” Employees see through this very quickly. This is where a sustained effort over the long term and the intense and visible practice of the culture are required. On the other hand, finances in particular play an enormous role as a symbolic activity. To put it simply: if money is invested in the realization of the long-term vision, employees and executives see that the topic is truly of long-term importance for the company.

Let’s return to the topic of the high-performing team. What characterizes the culture of these teams? What must I imagine the internal view on a team to be like?

An early indicator of high performance is the level of commitment the team members bring with them and how much energy they experience together on the team. The foundation is laid by values, principles, radical openness, and a strong drive to perform – in the ideal case, many of the members will consistently display these factors. Yet it must be clear to all of them that it is not only a question of each person him- or herself and his or her own career, but that the focus is on the common goal. Their common success will automatically be ascribed to the members of the team – or the wrong person is leading the team. Moreover, the cooperation with one another must generate a high level of joy and inspiration and must not be limited to the orientation to financial results alone. Finally, groups must maintain the development capability of the collective and of the individuals. This is becoming increasingly important because the parameters defining success of the work are constantly changing and must be questioned repeatedly.

Taking the last two points – how do I maintain this joy in my work and this unceasing willingness to perform?

People continue to develop by pushing beyond their own limits and experiencing the (ongoing) development in themselves and their fellow team members. In a certain way, this is infectious and leads to a collective experience. The second point is the interpretation of success and the management of stress, just as we find in elite sports. On the one hand, people want to repeat their success – this is an enormous motivator for future high performance. If, on the other hand, high performance becomes the norm, there may be a decline in the desire to make an effort. Success today then inevitably leads to less success in the future. People become sluggish and “arrogant in their success.” Many high-performing teams know, of course, that it is not possible to perform at a high level all year long. That is not an intuitive thought for many companies, however, because they want to demand high performance over longer periods of time. But unless they have dedicated phases for regeneration, high-performing teams will not function. A managing director once described this very vividly to me years ago: “Business is like diving – at some point you have to come up for more oxygen!”

Thank you for the discussion and the great ideas!



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