Jul 13, 2017

What Makes a High-Performing Team?

As a Bay Area sports fan, 2017 has been a year of highs and lows. The Golden State Warriors clinched their second NBA championship in 3 years, and they continue to improve their roster through free agency. Meanwhile, the 3-time champion San Francisco Giants are struggling through what has now become a “rebuilding year.” Sports teams track individual and team performance and regularly “watch film” as they prepare for future games.

For the 99.9% of us that don’t play on a professional sports team, we are generally members of other teams. And these teams can consume a large portion of our waking hours. We are rewarded for our contributions, and higher performance can result in improved compensation and career advancement, even in the absence of lucrative endorsements and eye-popping free-agency contracts. And some teams are just more fun than others. A highly engaging environment with great colleagues tends to produce better outcomes and better work. Think of the freestyle, unselfish team play of the Warriors, and their dominance on the way to a title.

Over the past 10 years, two years have stood out as my most enjoyable years as well as my most productive: 2008 at PayCycle and 2014 at Intuit QuickBooks. In both cases, I belonged to a high-performing team with my peers and manager, and I also led a high-performing team with my direct reports. In both years, these teams achieved significant business outcomes and career growth for their members. We worked incredibly hard, and the work was rewarding and fun. You could say those were my championship years from a career perspective.

These high-performing teams exhibited the following distinguishing traits:
  • Great results: The teams delivered significant business outcomes against aggressive goals.
  • Work was fun: People worked hard and remained highly engaged, as measured by quantitative employee surveys.
  • Career growth: Everyone learned and grew as part of the experience, and we experienced career growth over the coming years. 

So what makes a high-performing team?
  • Purpose and mission
  • Exceptional talent and team chemistry
  • Strategic focus and executional rigor

Purpose and Mission

Both teams had clear mission statements: “Be America’s #1 online payroll provider” and “Fuel small business success.” They also had clear top-level business goals in terms of customer base, revenue, and lifetime value. In turn, each functional team tracked their own detailed metrics weekly and shared the results broadly and transparently— the good results as well as the bad results. The detailed analytics let us know how we were doing, where we were over-achieving, and where we needed to improve. In addition to the stats, we were “hungry to succeed.” We had aggressive goals and formidable competition. And we responded with our best team performances.  

Exceptional Talent and Team Chemistry

When I think back to my peers and my direct reports on those teams, each and every member was an “A” player. They excelled at their functional roles, and they took the time to teach and mentor others. Now, these teams did not magically appear with high-performing rosters. They had gone through rebuilding phases with turnover and personnel changes to fill key roles or bring new skills. The leader for each team took an active role in talent development and recruiting with internal mobility and external hires.

But as any sports fan knows, team chemistry can separate teams with comparable rosters and talent. The Warriors are known for their great team chemistry, unselfishly passing the ball, and their enjoyment of the game. Team chemistry plays a similar role in working teams. In great teams, team members excel at their functional role, they contribute across the team wherever help is needed, and they help their colleagues. The team’s overall goals are a higher priority than individual goals.

Strategic Focus and Executional Rigor

In 2008 and 2014, our business success hinged on some big, strategic bets that also required significant technology investment. In 2008, PayCycle redesigned the user interface (UI) and developed a new product line beyond payroll. The UI redesign introduced a change in technology from JSP & Servlet to JavaScript with micro services; and developing the new product line required a change in development methodology to Agile Scrum. In 2014, Intuit was investing heavily in the global growth QuickBooks Online with expansion to the UK, Canada, Australia, and India along with a new streamlined experience across the small business portfolio. To deliver both initiatives, we internationalized the technology stack from UI through database, switched to JavaScript for the UI, and introduced a services architecture.

PayCycle and Intuit QuickBooks are SaaS businesses that acquire new customers weekly and allow customers to “pay as they go” with monthly subscription plans. As a result, customer acquisition and retention are key business drivers. Dissatisfied customers can leave at any time, and they will generally tell their friends and the Internet on social media. So executional rigor matters on the business side and the technology. Engineering paid attention to business metrics as well as operational metrics which included conversion, customer growth in each market, performance of key work flows, availability, and recovery time.

Lasting Contribution 

In both cases, the teamwork from those years paved the way for great outcomes as a team and as individuals. PayCycle grew significantly during the 2008 tech recession, was acquired by Intuit in 2009, and has delivered significant revenue contributions post acquisition. QuickBooks became Intuit’s flagship offering and has helped drive growth in revenue and market capitalization. All of the individuals from those teams have experienced career growth in the following years. The members of that original PayCycle team have moved into bigger roles at Intuit and other tech companies. The members of that QuickBooks team from 2014 have taken on significant leadership roles. One thing in common, though, all of these leaders have developed their own playbooks and are investing in their own high-performing teams. 

As you think about your next season, what investments can you make to build a higher performing team?

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