Scaling high performance teams

Building High Performance Teams blog by Andy BryarsGuest blog by Andy Bryars, Customer Success Leader

Executive Summary

The purpose of this essay on scaling high performance teams is to share an approach which lends itself to motivating people through a leadership style that empowers individuals and uses the strength of the team. The content is based on my personal experiences. The intent is that hopefully you can take a few of the lessons I learnt and apply these to how you turn up for your organisation every day.

After seven years of building a high-performing customer success team, growing this from three to thirty-five people, with extremely low attrition, I wanted to take time to reflect and share some of the lessons learnt. I also wanted to consider some of the fundamental building blocks which in my opinion are essential in developing a strong, unified team.

Key Learnings

  1. Communication style is paramount – it is vital to manage ambiguity with an open transparent and inclusive style
  2. Create a North Star – a team mission statement is crucial to guide the day to day so that everyone can operate with simple and clear priorities
  3. Having a mindset of simplification is the most impactful method to improve performance
  4. The culture of the business needs to be woven into the recruitment process to ensure that everyone fits well together right from the start
  5. Having a Team first approach and building high levels of trust will unlock the combined power of a united team
  6. Having a growth mindset, a learning culture and a desire to go above and beyond propels personal and team growth and fuels the reputation of the brand
  7. A final multiplier for the icing on the cake – continuous mentoring and coaching

This essay is designed to allow you to take the learnings from my experience and embed these into your own leadership style.

The ethos: leaders versus managers

After nearly thirty years in the IT industry, it took me twenty-three years to become a people manager. When initially asked, I turned down the opportunity twice, thinking my career path was destined for an individual contributor role.

On reflection, I realised that I was always helping to motivate individuals but never in a formal capacity. It reminds me of the age-old saying that you don’t need to be a manager to be a leader. An internet Google search provides this succinct definition: a manager tends to focus on controlling resources and optimising processes, while a leader focuses on inspiring and empowering people to work together towards a common goal.

The background: managing through change

I was lucky enough to work for a software-as-a-service (SaaS) organisation which was experiencing hyper growth. For the first five of the seven years, the business was expanding rapidly with year-on-year growth of over fifty percent. In one way it was easy to provide growth opportunities for the team since we had so many new roles opening. Keeping ahead of recruiting and finding the right talent in a timely manner was the primary challenge.

Work from homeOn 23rd March 2020, we had the unprecedented situation of a lock-down in the UK. Managing through a global pandemic was a learning experience. The team at the time were dispersed across Europe, but with a core number in the UK. It turned out to be a leveller, in that everyone joined the virtual team meeting on common ground. Pre-pandemic we had half the people in the office and others joining remotely. In hindsight it wasn’t always as inclusive for the remote participants as it should have been.

We were extremely lucky that our business allowed people to work securely from anytime, anyplace and anywhere. Therefore, the business accelerated during the pandemic. Keeping the culture and one-team approach when people are not physically meeting was an interesting challenge. In addition, identifying the right talent and fit for your team, when all this is done virtually, becomes a learned technique.

This essay provides some of the fundamental building blocks which I used to support the growth of the team throughout this period.

Coming out of the global pandemic in March 2022 we were already seeing other turbulent events impacting global markets. The Ukraine and Russian conflict had escalated in 2021 with Russian troops entering Ukraine. This compounded the financial situation, uncertainty abound, forcing higher oil and gas prices. This had a knock-on effect resulting in a global cost-of-living crisis, all this driving high inflation and low growth.  From 1994 through to 2020 we had experienced unprecedented low inflation so as UK inflation peaked at eight percent in 2023 this certainly had an unsettling effect on both individuals and the overall economy.

This global uncertainty had a particularly detrimental impact on the SaaS industry. The concept of Rule of 40[1] was broken. No longer could SaaS organisations grow at a rate in excess of forty percent and consequently controlling costs became their number one priority, striving to make profit. The investors reduced their focus in the SaaS sector from late 2022 and into 2023. The result was pretty much widespread shedding of jobs, redundancies and recruitment freezes in the tech sector.  Running a SaaS business in this environment proved a very challenging time, especially with the backdrop of stability and growth over the previous sixteen years.

Managing a diverse team certainly helped gain a balanced perspective. Of a team of thirty-five, ages ranged from people in their mid-twenties through to their sixties. If you were under the age of fifty, you were unlikely to remember the interest rate of seventeen percent in 1979! We had one member who recalled his experience of working in the 1980’s. The interest rates spiked one day following further fiscal controls by the Government at the time. He could no longer afford his monthly mortgage payments and defaulted overnight. He handed over his house keys back to the mortgage company the following day. Half of the team had only ever experienced a working life where mortgage rates were at an unprecedented low rate of one to three percent.

Scaling high performance teams quote on transparencyFrom a practical perspective we had to make redundancies. Promotions and salary increases were frozen and individual workload inevitably increased. This obviously impacted the work environment significantly. We had to work hard to ensure people had a safe space to express their opinions and concerns.

During this period communication became paramount. Outside of the bi-monthly team meeting where we brought everyone together, I decided to send out short three-minute videos. People digest information in different ways and as the business grew, we had a huge amount of updates through email and lengthy recorded meetings. My concept was specific bite-size videos which made the content punchy and easy to digest. This offered an alternative and personalised way of getting information across to the team. In addition, I started to share my thoughts on the state of the business.

It was important not to over promise or speculate, but focus on transparency, honesty and highlight bright spots where we could. Offering my own assessment as a leader and allowing genuine debate over what we were observing in the wider business was impactful. It provided a vent for people to share their concerns and frustrations. More importantly it allowed us to debate and agree on a mutual course of direction, which as far as possible was under our control. Navigating through ambiguity is an essential skill as you lead your team, since many of the circumstances are external to your group and outside of your control.

Team building blocks

So, what are the fundamental elements which allowed us to scale from three to thirty-five team members in seven years and only have one person leave of their own accord? In this section I have outlined what I believe to be the most important aspects.

Think of these building blocks not in sequential order, but as parallel entities. They will continue to evolve over time and should be frequently utilised. I always think of these building blocks like muscles you build by going to the gym.

You need to continue to exercise frequently in order to build and maintain them. I also learned that if these foundations are in place, you can use them as a positive tool for recruiting new talent to your team. These building blocks are the DNA of your team.

Team mission statement

All companies have a mission statement and core values which define how they operate. It’s important that your team jointly creates their own mission statement and aligns with a common set of agreed values. This creates a team identity. It’s critical that the team is actively involved in debating and agreeing this. To ensure this is separated by the operational aspects which are typically driven by key performance indicators (KPIs), try answering the question of “what motivates your team to come to work every day?”

As an example, in my last role it took our team of around twenty-five members at the time, at least two sessions over sixty minutes each, to come up with the following mission statement. “We enjoy making a positive impact by building personal bridges between people and technology. We are proud of what we achieve together”.

This should become the north star for the team. As you can quickly be inundated by operational work and competing business priorities, this mission statement, (along with your KPIs) should act as your compass to help you prioritise where you spend your time to make the most impact.

In a well-motivated team, you will find the intrinsic motivation of individuals and instil this into your mission statement and values. It’s not about money, (although salary is obviously important) but about how individuals can be empowered to be successful in their role.

In addition, the concept of a mission statement can also be developed and used by your various sub teams. This is a very effective way of creating strong group dynamics within teams and provides internal alignment across your group.

The mission statement should be shared with the wider business which helps build the brand of the team.

Simplification: the most impactful method to improve performance

Striving for simplicity is harder to justify than working within the standard complexity that modern day businesses expect. We’ve been conditioned to believe that complex equates to more advanced or more intelligent solutions. Therefore, many business leaders are more comfortable in environments that are complex.

Moreover, as a business grows or faces new challenges, complexities tend to accumulate. Instead of revisiting and simplifying existing processes, adding new layers might seem like the quickest fix. This can create a cycle where complexity begets more complexity.

Keeping things simple in business can be a game-changer. It’s like having a clear roadmap instead of a maze. Simplifying processes, communication, and strategies can often lead to better efficiency, easier adaptation to changes, and a clearer focus on what truly matters.

As a leader one of my key learnings was the power simplification had on both a) my ability to report upwards in the management chain and keep focus on the salient points and b) the impact simplification had on the team’s ability to execute.

By fostering a culture that values simplicity and providing the necessary support, guidance, and incentives, you can encourage your team to prioritise simplification in their work. The mission statement is a great starting point. We then continued the theme through agreeing a small number of key actions that needed to be executed in a timely manner. The key was ensuring we are communicating the value of these actions and where they fit into the overall direction of travel.

Culture starts at the recruitment process

Richard Branson once opened up a single job opportunity and had over 1000 applicants. It was a post-graduate opportunity and many of the candidates were new to the job market. He made sure his recruitment team provided constructive feedback to everyone who applied. Why did he do this? In his mind, and due to the expanse of his Virgin business portfolio, these were in essence one thousand potential future customers.

Candidate experience is defined as the “perception of a job seeker about an employer, based on the interaction during the complete recruitment process”. Just like organisations focus on customer experience we have a responsibility to nurture employee experience.

Building a strong culture becomes the foundation to this, and like the mission statement which is companywide but can be applied to your team, the same applies to culture and employee experience.

The beginning of the journey is having a clear job description, based on a set of core competencies you are looking for in the candidate, along with a defined interview process. This process is your opportunity to ensure the candidate is the right fit, but also that they have the opportunity to see if you are the right fit for them. It is your opportunity to share your ideas on the culture you are developing and how it’s the responsibility of everyone to maintain this.

These core competencies, combined with the ability to demonstrate them through hands-on experience should flow through the career ladder, into regular appraisals and onwards into growth opportunities. (Refer to the personal growth section for more information on this).

Communication style is important

Everyone has a natural communication style. Everyone is different, there is no right or wrong. When we engage with our customers, we look to deliver information in such a way that the customer can best take onboard the information we want to share. Working with a team is no different. Therefore, one of the building blocks I have found invaluable is a personality self-assessment tool.

My preference is DiSC since it is simple to use. Myers-Briggs and Facet5 are similar frameworks which could be used. DiSC aims to predict job performance by categorising individuals into four personality traits: dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance. The analysis identifies your natural tendency. Everyone in the team should complete this and it should be shared.

The power of this tool is the conscious effort of taking time to recognise people are different, the ability to self-assess how you operate and more importantly how you should consider changing your natural style to better accommodate your team members.

Your DiSC style can change over time but it’s normally sufficient to undertake this just once, as part of the employee onboarding process.

Scaling high performance teams quote on how you like to operateLike all exercises of this nature, I like the concept of holding ourselves accountable and ensuring this knowledge becomes part of the operational team cadence. To ensure this was top of mind, not only did we publish this, but also encouraged individuals to create their own Haynes Manual. The concept is that you produce a one-page manual on how you operate: your likes, dislikes, preferred hours of work, some personal information about your hobbies and work aspirations. This again should be published to the wider organisation.

The personal value gained here was that it forced you to take time to consider important aspects of how you operate and document these for public consumption. The team also used these as a refresher on how to best engage with others. I also found new starters within the business would typically review this document before having an introductory call with me.

These types of activities helped set the scene around the importance of self-awareness, personal development and team work.

Team first approach

So how do you take the initial building blocks we have described previously and turn the focus  on collaboration and teamwork?

The impactful multiplier you have is that of the team. Rather than having one cheer leader you have many. This only works if you build on a strong culture of transparency which leads to trust.

To bring the team approach to life I invested in Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. It’s described as a “definitive tool for leaders and managers looking to make their teams more cohesive and effective.”

Through a series of workshops facilitated by consultant practitioners Amplified Group the team engaged and understood the importance of the model. This starts with building on the foundation of trust, which leads to the team having the confidence to debate, challenge and provide healthy conflict. Following this comes commitment, accountability and at the top of the triangle high performance results.

Again, the power of this framework is two-fold. Firstly, the active engagement as a team to go through this journey and a common language and understanding to baseline from. As new team members joined, we ensured they underwent similar exercises, so they understood the importance and cultural value to the ethos of team first.

A powerful resource is building trust and as a leader a great way of demonstrating this is through showing your own vulnerability. Sharing your own experiences and having the capacity to let the team know when you made mistakes or that you don’t have all the answers are all natural ways to highlight this.

A perfect exercise to undertake as a team is the “origins story”. If you have a large team, I recommend you break up into smaller groups. Each person within every group would prepare a twenty-to-thirty-minute dialogue to share their journey, both personal and professional, which has led them from birth to where they are today. As a small team you highlight some of the unique stories and also some of the commonalities. As you come back together in the wider group, you can then share these findings with the entire audience. This exercise is such a good way to break down barriers and provide an opportunity to learn who people really are.

Undertaking the exercise has value in itself. But as you go back to your operational duties how do you ensure accountability around the behaviours which you have learned? Working with Amplified Group they introduced the concept of a Speed Check. This was a quick but effective way of measuring how your team is doing in relation to purpose, trust, clarity and simplicity which provides a benchmark of where your team sits at a cross-industry level.

Personal growth: building personal brands, increases the reputation of your team

Often employees think of personal growth purely in terms of promotions. The reality is that personal growth involves so much more than this. Richard Kiyosaki in his book Rich Dad Poor Dad best sums this up. He expressed a concept of, “Work to learn not just to earn”. At this point in his career, he wanted to learn to become an outstanding salesperson. At the time, Xerox was one of the most respected companies for developing sales talent. He went to work there, not because it paid him the most money, but so that he could learn a new skill from the best in the industry.

During a period of hypergrowth promotions and opportunities came at a relatively fast pace. However, it was during the period when growth was stunted and promotions frozen that I learnt the importance of how to really develop personal growth of team members

It’s our duty to provide an environment to harness and develop talent. The essence of this is to provide opportunities which enable the individual to learn, develop and refine new skills. We need to do this in such a way that it continues to encourage and motivate the individual. Therefore, it’s soScaling high performance teams quote on trust important that we have the foundation of trust in place. An essential element for this to work is to let the team know it’s okay to make mistakes. I make mistakes every day! The key message is let’s learn and grow from our mistakes and aim to improve.

This is why in the modern workplace we are constantly searching for a diverse range of candidates with a growth mindset and those who are natural team players.

Conceptually, I like to explain the following to my team as they are interviewed or onboarded. My expectations for their personal development can be visualised as a triangle. At the base of the triangle is the job description. This includes their roles and responsibilities. This is what the organisation expects of them and why they get paid to do their job. But that’s not the reason they come to work! In a customer success role, people’s intrinsic motivation often comes from the desire to collaborate, to make a difference to customer experiences and customer outcomes.

Think of this activity as the middle of the triangle. At the top of the triangle is what the person can do over and above their day job to make a difference. These activities are the ones that help develop their growth and also build their personal brand. As their brand develops, it not only helps them personally, but it also helps promote the brand of the wider team.

As leaders we have a responsibility for providing the right environment for the team to thrive.  This comes in the form of creating the right culture, ensuring we have the right core competencies in place and embedding these in the recruiting process, onboarding and through to our ongoing progression in the form of a career ladder. The responsibility of the individual is to own their Individual Development Plan (IDP). This should be reviewed on a regular basis (I recommend monthly) and provide a level of accountability around the focus areas important to their personal growth. This also ensures annual appraisals are a mere formality since you are having regular check points.

A final multiplier: mentoring and coaching

Coaching and mentoring are commonly used by businesses to enhance employee performance and facilitate smooth transitions into new roles. This is essential to personal growth within your team.

By offering coaching and mentoring programs, organisations can help their employees grow and reach their career goals.

Coaching is often provided to a person on a one-on-one basis by a qualified coach. A knowledgeable coach will be able to provide tools, training, advice, and feedback, generally through a structured program.

Mentoring involves a nurturing relationship where a more experienced individual, known as the mentor, provides guidance, advice, and support to a less experienced individual, known as the mentee. The mentor-mentee relationship should be based on mutual trust, respect, and open communication. Mentoring can have a lasting and positive impact on the mentee’s career. Unlike coaching, mentoring is a longer-term, relationship-based, and highly personalised approach that focuses on the overall career and personal growth of the mentee.

In establishing links within the organisation (and outside for mentoring programs) you are providing yet another tool in your armoury to facilitate collaboration and opportunities for personal growth, whilst improving the performance of your team. My recommendation would be to set up a formal mentoring programme where people have the option to sign-up and also a more informal shadowing programme, where you have senior team members help develop the more up and coming talent. As the team grows you will find opportunities to cross-fertilise all sorts of skills and growth opportunities through these methods.

Summary

It would be amiss of me not to recognise and thank two very important influences in the last seven years, which have helped shape my leadership style.

The first is the amazing Okta customer success team that I worked with, and within that my management team, who all supported me throughout this journey and held me accountable. We spend a large proportion of our time at work, so my ethos is that everyone needs to enjoy our time at work. It is important for the long-term health of the team that a safe environment is fostered. One in which we can learn from our mistakes, be challenged and grow.

The second is Amplified Group. They introduced me to the building blocks which I have described, but more importantly empowered my team to not just learn about these in a static training environment but bring them to life in our everyday activities and actions.

As I look to build my next high-performing team, I will be looking to leverage many of the tools I outlined in this essay and can’t wait to get started.

[1] The Rule of 40 is a SaaS financial ratio which states that a healthy SaaS company has a combined growth rate and profit margin of 40% or more. This measure gives businesses a quick snapshot of business performance by comparing revenue growth to profitability.

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