The notion of creating ‘high-performing teams’ permeates organisational language and literature. Clients often request it at the start of a team coaching engagement.

And yet…I find the term hollow, inward-focused and an idealistic cliché at odds with the complexity of modern working life. Few can verbalise what ‘high-performing’ looks like for their team; the term ‘performance’ often leads to internally focused goals and it generally feels more an aspirational, than achievable, premise.

Reading Professor Peter Hawkins “Leadership Team Coaching” (2021, 4th ed), my experiences suddenly made sense. Writes Hawkins, “The term high-performing team…is problematic…[and] an outdated paradigm.” He cites it as being excessively focused on efficiency over actual value created; emphasising ‘local teams’ over the wider organisation; a ‘tick-box exercise’ and unduly attributing success to team members, rather than the wider ecosystem of which that team is a part.

Instead, he proposes a focus on “High-value creating teams, that continuously co-create value with, and for, all their stakeholders”. “The purpose creates the team; the team does not create the purpose” is how he views it.

I have since shifted from a ‘high-performance’ approach to using his definition, helping client teams to identify the multiple stakeholders they serve. Sitting in these stakeholders’ shoes (and sometimes in consultation with them), we identify the multiple purposes of their team, both within and outside the organisation.

Where the ‘high-performing’ model would typically produce a singular, inward-looking purpose (e.g. maximise revenue, great customer experience, etc.), this approach generates multiple stakeholder purposes that more accurately reflect the teams’ ‘systemic reality’. This ‘systemic reality’ places the team as an adaptive entity, continually responding and adjusting to the shifting needs of other teams, clients, partners, society, etc.

An anonymised example of these multiple purposes from a professional services leadership team I worked with:

  • Creating the conditions for exceptional consultancy and client service (the ‘obvious’ one)
  • Developing future leaders and thinkers to serve the whole business
  • Supporting each other tactically and emotionally as senior leaders
  • Being a great collaborator to other internal teams, suppliers, and partner organisations

So many leadership teams focus their efforts and metrics excessively on the 1st (client) purpose above. And then wonder why in the mid/long-term they are burnt out; people aren’t taking the responsibility they hoped for; teams are always ‘busy’ and firefighting; ‘silo’ working and stagnancy of ideas are reported.

Truly effective teams must engage all stakeholders in meeting their mutual needs and co-creating solutions. So if your team wants to get clearer on their purposes and deliverables, move the focus from ‘performance’ to ‘value creation’ and see how the conversation shifts. 

Duncan Lewin