How Do You Create a High Performing Leadership Team?

Begin by hiring A-Players for all critical positions. This means that you better have or develop good interviewing skills.  A good read is Topgrading by Bradford Smart. A somewhat easier book to read is Who by Geoff Smart (Bradford’s son). If you aren’t good at hiring the best people, then you need someone on your team who is. Many leaders, especially those who are scientists or engineers in technical companies, are very smart analytically but aren’t very good at reading people. This is why so many large companies have a Chief People Officer who is a core member of the leadership team rather than treating human resources as a lower-level function.  


My definition of A-Players is someone who doesn't need to be managed and they are better at their job than you are, so you can trust their judgment completely and don’t need to second guess or micromanage them. Working with your A-Players should give you and other team members energy and not leave you feeling depleted and exhausted. They’ll always strive to meet or exceed goals and will only fail to do so when you give them too much to do or when the goals aren’t clear. A-Players need clear goals, clear metrics, clear rewards and adequate resources to do their job. Your role as CEO is to provide the clarity described above and to be available to provide a sounding board and thought-partner when they ask for support. 

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The Ideal Number of Leaders on a Team 

The ideal number of leaders on a team is 6 to 8. When teams get much larger, they’re hard to manage. Note, that any time a new leader is added to the leadership team, the dynamics of the entire group change. So add and subtract people thoughtfully.  My general rule is to hire slowly and fire quickly. Most A-Players show you their stuff very quickly. If you wouldn’t enthusiastically rehire a member of your team to do the job you hired them to do after 3 months, you’ve probably made a mistake. If you feel that way after 6 months, you have definitely made a mistake and you should let them go. They may be a good person who is miscast, but they aren’t the right person for the job you hired them for. 

Many leaders make the mistake of holding on to poor performers for years. This turns out to be very expensive and destructive to the organization because it says that poor performance is acceptable and it lowers the standards that everyone is held to. As a leader, you’ill get whatever you tolerate. Your job as the leader is to set and enforce the standards of acceptable performance and to keep raising the bar.  A-Players don’t want to work with B or C players. They want to be surrounded by other A Players, so holding on to bad team members may result in you losing some of your A-Players. Remember, everyone wants A-Players, so your job is to recruit them, hold on to them and motivate them to do their best for your organization.  

Now that you have A-Players on your team, you need to help them work together effectively. High-performance teams begin with high trust. This means that all team members respect each other and appreciate their different points of view. It helps to use assessment tools such as DISC or Predictive Index to help team members better understand each other. These tools also provide self-insight to team members. When the team meets, you want to encourage healthy debate on all issues with the understanding that the goal is to surface all points of view, arrive at the best decision and commit to that decision as a team. 

A good book for all teams to read and discuss is the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. In his book, he says that trust is the foundation of all healthy teams and that in the absence of trust, people won’t say what they really think and engage in healthy debate. In the absence of healthy debate/conflict, they leave the meeting feeling like they weren’t heard and the decisions made weren’t ones they can get behind and execute. Healthy conflict focuses on surfacing all points of view on the issues and doesn’t make people wrong or stupid for disagreeing. 

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Your job as CEO is to mine for conflict and make sure all team members get to express their opinions. This means doing a lot of listening in team meetings and very little talking. If you are talking more than 20% of the time in team meetings, you are talking too much!

When healthy debate has taken place and team members commit to a decision, you get a commitment from team members to execute their part of the decision. In the absence of commitment, you can’t hold people accountable. In my book Inspire Accountability, I describe the seven reasons why people aren’t accountable and why they don’t do what you expect of them. All of these reasons start with the leader. So if accountability is an issue in your organization, read my book! 

After The Team is Built What’s Next?

Once you have a team of A-Players who trust each other, and respect each other’s expertise and difference of opinions and are willing to engage in healthy debate about the issues, now you need to create a rhythm of team meetings to keep information flowing rapidly throughout your organization.  In the book Scaling Up by Verne Harnish, he advocates daily huddles, weekly meetings, monthly meetings, quarterly meetings and annual strategic planning meetings.  These meetings should be scheduled a year in advance so everyone knows when they will take place and can plan their travel and vacations accordingly. As a Certified Scaling Up Coach, I teach this material to all my mid-market business clients and make this standard operating procedure for their leadership teams.


Then ask who will facilitate the company’s planning session? You can facilitate this yourself or get an external person to do it, like me. If it’s you who facilitates, you need to understand the pitfalls and challenges, plus the planning component. Essentially, you may not be able to get your people to have a healthy debate when they’re complicit with you - and they’re inherently complicit with you as the CEO. 


On the other hand, a facilitator will come in and encourage healthy debate and ask questions that challenge the team. You want to look for “disagree and commit” i.e, “we may disagree but we all commit to a healthy execution.” And while as CEO, you often know the most about the business and you may be the smartest person in the room, you don’t need to be the one who gets into the abstract white-space of creatively solving problems. You want your team to solve the problems and a facilitator can help your team do this.


Quick Recap 

  • Hire A-Players and get the C Players off your team quickly

  • Build trust among the team

  • Encourage healthy conflict

  • Create a consistent rhythm of daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual team meetings and set the dates in advance so everyone can attend

  • Be ready to facilitate and plan the monthly, quarterly and annual off-site strategy sessions and urge differing opinions, or hire a facilitator who can do this for you.


About Ken Estridge

Ken is a Certified Scaling Up Coach and a Certified Executive Coach who has coached the leadership teams of hundreds of mid-market companies and more than 25 Fortune 500 companies over the past 25 years. Ken has a DBA from Harvard Business School and an MS from MIT Sloan School. He is the author of Inspire Accountability.