How to Build a High Performance Team (HPT)

Posted On: May 25

Recently I had the pleasure of teaching a High-Performance Team (HPT) class for one of my favorite clients. When I deliver this workshop I use an HPT competency model that I developed after more than a dozen years of teaching teamwork to companies all over the world. Here it is:

John Spence HPT Competency Model

  • Shared Direction: although someone from above may set the ultimate direction for the team, on an HPT the members of the team have some sort of input and control over the shared direction they all create together for the team.
  • Measurable Goals: on a true HPT the vision is supported by a set of clear, specific, quantifiable… and binary measurements. The measurements must be unambiguous. You either achieved it or you didn’t. Black or white/yes or no/zero or one – hence the reason I use the term “binary.”
  • Competence: You want the best people you can possibly get on your team. Bright, sharp, creative, high integrity people with strong core values.
  • Communication: the hallmark of an HPT is high levels of open, honest, robust and most importantly transparent communication. The key to success on HPT is total access to as much information as you can possibly give and get. Knowledge is not power on HPT – sharing knowledge is power.
  • Mutual Accountability: this is the fulcrum point between a workgroup, team and a true high-performance team. On a successful HPT everyone on the team – regardless of rank, title, seniority, experience – holds each other and themselves 100% mutually accountable for achieving the clear, specific, measurable, and binary goals. This is why it is so important to put clear and unambiguous measures in place, because that allows you to take personality and emotion out of the equation – and simply focus on performance. If you say to someone on the team “I don’t feel like you’re doing a good job,” or “I don’t think you actually accomplish that goal,” it is an invitation for conflict. But if the goals are unambiguous, no guessing, 100% binary… then you can look at the person and say “you and I are good teammates and I really like you a lot, but it is clear that the goal was to increase sales by 83% and we have only increase sales by 63%, what do you intend to do to close the gap?” In this way it is members of the team against the measurable goals – not against each other.
  • Discipline: lastly an HPT has the discipline to keep all of these team factors at the front of their mind at all times – they bake it into the culture of their team and make sure that they never forget about measurable goals, competence, communication, shared direction and best people, the foundational elements of a successful HPT.

At the end of the session, after we had done several workshops and some reading, I asked the participants to create an HPT competency model specifically for their organization. I thought that you would find value in what this group of employees and executives developed:

  • Trust: honesty, integrity, a culture of safety where you can express your ideas and opinions without fear.
  • Respect: listen, realize that all team members contribute, everyone on the team adds value.
  • Clear Goals: specific, realistic and clear expectations with the tools to get them achieved and clear prioritization of the goals.
  • Appreciation: catch people doing things right, celebrate the big and small wins.
  • Positive Attitude: be nice, smile, embrace change as a positive.
  • Leaders Must Model The Way: in order to lead a team you must be competent at the work of the team and understand enough about what your employees/team members are doing in order to manage and lead them effectively.
  • Clear Communication: open to new ideas, listening, and empathetic.
  • Strong Commitment: alignment with the organization and full commitment to the team and to the goals.

This list came from a group of more than 50 employees and senior leaders at a very large multibillion-dollar organization. However, I would venture a guess that regardless of the size of your organization, these high-performance team competencies that both I, and this client listed, are likely very similar to the skills and characteristics that would be needed to create a high-performance team in your company. So I recommend that you reread both those lists again and think about how you can make sure that those things are happening in your organization every single day.

I hope you found this helpful – I very much look forward to your feedback and comments on this article. Take good care – my very best to you – John Spence

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  1. Another brilliant article John. Your model is an excellent one to set a team or indeed an entire organisation along the path to ultimate success in their chosen endeavours.

    It is interesting that the team involved did not include any statement around the competence element in their own model. Where they such competent beings that this was not a consideration for them moving forward?

    I have added this article to the collection at as I believe it is definitely a keeper for future readers.

    Keep up the great writing.

  2. Another excellent blog, John. Great time meeting with you last month in Gainesville! Thanks for all the advice and help you have given my soon Jim. Hope to see you again soon.

  3. John-
    I’m a recent addition to your readers. My experiences don’t always agree with your observations – which doesn’t mean that we aren’t both right.

    I’d add two things to your characteristics:
    1. Pick the right people: Simple but hard. A lot of the characteristics listed are hard to train into people – in particular maintaining the passion if their plan isn’t the one that moves forward. Smart, competent people have egos, which is actually good, as long as the ego identifies more with the collective success rather than trying to push the second best solution to be the one acted upon by the team. The combination of ego and lack of egomania is harder to find than competence in my opinion.

    2. Lumberjacking: At some point, a team has to cut dead wood without it ruining the team. A team has to have the willingness to (either overtly or covertly) cut nonproductive/counterproductive members without making the rest of the team defensive or insecure – and without losing productivity. Addition by subtraction works more often than I have thought it would in the past.

    3. Acceptance of noncongruent roles: Team influences shift a lot. In a technical environment, sometimes a marketing person’s opinion will matter more than a technical person. Or an accountant’s. Or a lawyer’s. Or a vendor’s. Just a few words from an expert – even if they are only a sporadic member of a team – can change things radically. Sometimes the best observations come from those who aren’t grinding it out – how well a team accepts being told that there’s a problem, or why they should be excited about the idea they almost forgot about can determine their success. Especially if it’s from a well-intentioned outsider.

  4. good material here, but i think there’s something missing. i’m thinking about something as boring as infrastructure. space. white boards. i work at a university (and write on my blog about leadership at universities) and getting people physically moved together when they have a joint project is a challenge that genuinely impedes team building. i wrote a few words about this yesterday in a posting: From the lab to the loo:
    carry on!

  5. Excellent post highlighting the characteristics of High Performing Teams.

    Good to see that you have included both the the factors that contribute to productivity and positivity on teams.

    Duncan Brodie

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