3 Things You Must Do To Build A High Performing Team

3 Things You Must Do To Build A High Performing Team

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You, the leader, must have a clear purpose and mission. You have to know why you’re in it and what IT is. High performing teams aren’t constructed based on pure logic or reason. They need an emotional oomp – a genuine reason for existing. Something big to take a collective aim at.

I’ve been married to the same woman – my one and only – for over 45 years. We began dating when we were 18. We fell in love because at 18 I had a great career, a nice house, a strong investment portfolio and a new car. Hashtag NOT. I had school, a car, no house, no investments and a fairly nice car. But those rational or physical things didn’t matter. She worked at The Waffle House and was going to college. She lived with her large family in modest little frame house. And it was an 11 hour drive away from where I lived. Those things didn’t matter.

Imagine trying to fall in love, or get somebody to fall in love, with you because of those logical things. Love has nothing to do with those things and high performing teams work the same way.

High performers, or would-be high performers, aren’t going to be attracted to organizations who can pay the most and offer the best benefits. If that were the case, those large organizations that historically can offer those things would have the lock on high performers, but we can find high performers in all sorts of places that sometimes are no where near the top of the pay ladder. So there’s something more in play.

My wife and I fell in love because we had a connection. Our personalities, experiences and views resonated with each other. In short, we GOT one another and from that connection we felt safe with one another. We loved each other because together we were something far better than whatever we were by ourselves. Being a couple not only felt wonderful…the thought of not being a couple was incomprehensible. High performing teams experience a similar feeling.

It begins with a leader who has a vision so clear they know that the most passionate recruits matter. Without passionate teammates, the leader knows the ideal outcome is beyond reach.


You, the leader, must be fanatical to find folks who get it. Not just anybody can be part of your team. Not if you want a high performing team. Only people who see what you see make the cut.

Just now I suppose some of you are thinking how impractical that is. Can I challenge you to see a different viewpoint?

Let’s suppose this is impractical. Let’s suppose it’s too difficult. So we don’t hold this standard and we begin to hire folks who don’t get it. We justify it by telling ourselves how desperately we need people. We start adjusting our expectations – down.

Let’s stick with my marriage metaphor. I know they’re not the same, but they’re more similar than you think. And your high performing team is important enough to avoid compromising. If it’s not important enough to avoid compromise, then it’s not important enough to even be thinking about creating a high performing team. What difference does it make? Go ahead and build a mediocre team and call it a day.

So my wife or I could have thought, “You know…this person is okay. I like them well enough. They’re not ideal, but they’ll do.” Is that a great basis for a love affair? For a marriage?

Then why do we say those exact words when we interview people to become part of our team?

Because we’re lazy and don’t want to put in the hard work to find the ideal people. Because we want to accept the excuses others commonly use. Because it’s too hard.

Well, DUH – if it weren’t hard, everybody would do it. That’s why most organizations aren’t high performing. Most, aren’t even close.

Nevermind that I’ve always followed the advice, “When everybody is zigging, zag!”

Mark Twain said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

General Electric, General Motors, IBM, Disney, FedEx, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard were all founded during an economic depression. Maybe during tough times it’s easier to find folks willing to become part of something much bigger than themselves. There are many variables to the origin stories of such companies, but it’s not lost on me how powerful beginnings can solidify the foundation of great organizations.

Hopefully we’re not foolish enough to marry any person that comes along. My wife and I dated for over 2-and-a-half years before we got married. By that point, we were certain. How certain are you about your team members? How certain are you about that next person you’re thinking of inviting to join your team? No, we’re not going to take 2-and-a-half years to figure that out, but we’re not going to just say YES to every applicant either. Take your time to find the people who get it the way you get it. People with whom you resonate and people who resonate with you and what you’re pursuing. We need people who want to go where we’re headed because our purpose is congruent with their purpose.


High standards, higher accountability. People who are high performers and those who are learning to be thrive in being part of something unavailable to those unwilling to pay the price. The exclusivity isn’t based on our value as people, but rather on our willingness to commit and do the work. There will be some good humans who don’t belong on your team because of it. Yes, Virginia, there are some bad humans, but nobody wants bad people on their team. High performing teams are very discriminating to only accept the people most ideal to contribute the mission. That’s why you hear so much talk about FIT. Not everybody is fit for your high performing team.

Every branch of our military has rigorous early training designed to build in the conformity necessary for troop survival. But it’s also designed to eliminate those unfit for the service. The more advance – high performing – the team – the more rigorous the process to eliminate those who don’t belong. In short, the more elite the group, the more high performing they are. The more high performing they are, the most discriminating they are. That’s why only 1% of Navy personnel are Navy Seals. It’s not for everybody. You have to be special.

How special do people have to be to join your team? The less discriminating you can be the lower the performance you can accept. The more discriminating you are, the higher the performance you’ll require to join and to remain.

Do you think Navy Seals have a higher degree of pride and commitment than the other 99% of the U.S. Navy? Of course they do. They know how special they are. They know the expectations on them are significantly higher. They thrive on that higher accountability. It would all be wrecked if the Seals decided to lower their standards. Lowering your standards and accountability will kill your high performing culture.


High performing teams aren’t ordinary. Or average. Almost every leader thinks they have a high performing team, but most of them are deceived. Most organizations and teams are average or below. They just don’t think they are. 

Saying it doesn’t make it so. Every organization crows about how special they are, but most are only crowing about it. They’re not doing it. It’s not real, it’s just talk. Real is rare. Real high performing organizations are rare. Real high performing people are rare. You can’t have a high performing organization without high performing people, but you can be a high performing person stuck inside an average performing organization. So that’s how I’d like to wrap up today’s show — by encouraging you, the individual, to become as high performing as possible. Never mind if your team or organization is average. Be superior. Do outstanding work. Get used to holding yourself accountable to a standard much higher than the ones your boss holds you to. Don’t waste time judging co-workers who refuse to join you. Just do your thing and become the highest value person possible. Serve and contribute to make others better. Help everybody around you shine, if they’ll let you. If they won’t let you, forget it and stay focused on doing the best work of your life. And keep dating other organizations as you look for a team where everybody is like you. You’ll find it, but only if you’re searching for it consistently. So you have to accept that you’ve got two full-time passions: doing the best work of your life and searching for a home where you can better thrive. It’s all about growing great and where you’re planted matters so get busy looking for better soil. 

If your team isn’t high performing and you want to change it, then begin by subtracting. Start expecting more. Better. Don’t accept what you’ve always accepted. When performance doesn’t match your new standard, do something about it. Coach it. Correct it. If that fails, then show it the door. Replace it with only the ideal fit. People who ideally fit a high performing culture will produce the ideal outcome. Never forget that average or below average performers will never achieve the ideal outcome. And you want to achieve your ideal outcome while you give every member of your team the best opportunity to achieve their ideal outcome, too.

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

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Grow Great a public sector leadership podcastAbout the hosts: Randy Cantrell brings over 4 decades of experience as a business leader and organization builder. Lisa Norris brings almost 3 decades of experience in HR and all things "people." Their shared passion for leadership and developing high-performing cultures provoked them to focus the Grow Great podcast on city government leadership.

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