HIGH PERFORMING TEAMS: How Great Leaders Build Them, Part 1

leadership team development Mar 19, 2021



At Thrive with Strengths, we are passionate about helping busy leaders reduce friction in their teams while getting better results and building a healthy, positive culture.

In our series Healthy Teams, Thriving Not Striving, we talk to seasoned leaders about what it takes to build and lead healthy, high performing teams. They share their insights, best practices, and occasional missteps, so that we can all become better leader of leaders.

Recently, we sat down with Scot Crismon, the Executive Vice President of Aumentum Technologies at Harris Computer. He has been leading teams  for decades in the IT and software industry, always with the emphasis on delivering results and developing people.

TWS: Welcome, Scot. You do know a lot about building and leading teams. Let’s start off by chatting about why you think teams matter.

SC: I don't think it's any secret that you can always do a lot more with a collection of individuals that are cohesive and working together, than those individuals doing things on their own. It’s the same number of individuals but teams can just get it done.

“Teams just get it done!”

I mean, we've seen that in sports, and we've seen that in all aspects of life. Think about it, families are teams. They can be dysfunctional or they can be just amazing. It’s the same in corporate life. It's true there as well. If teams are not cohesive and not working together, it can cost a company a lot of money and eventually we could lose the company.

TWS: You brought up the difference between a group of people who might be disjointed at first vs. a cohesive team. In your experience, how can a team leader help a team transform from a disjointed group to a cohesive team?

SC: It typically starts with looking at the team that you have and ensuring that you have the right people in the right slots. I’m not even saying that if you don't, then you need to let people go. That may be the case. But I am saying that sometimes it's good to move folks around into roles that they’re going to be more successful in.

That’s really the mark of a good leader - recognizing people's skills, recognizing what they're good at, and what they're not good at, and being honest with yourself and with them that some individuals on your team just actually might not be good at something. Therefore, you’re going to burn a lot of energy with them being in that wrong spot. Life is short. If somebody is unhappy because they’re not being successful in a job, sometimes the kindest thing is to let them go.

“Life is short. If somebody is unhappy because they’re not being successful in a job, sometimes the kindest thing is to let them go.”

It really starts with looking at the landscape of what you're trying to do and making sure you’ve got the right team. Those who may not have a ton of experience in a certain area, well that's okay! A part of building a great team means that you're allowing for growth and you recognize the potential.

There’s difference between somebody who is struggling to do a job that they're not well suited for and somebody who has the potential and can grow into that position. Good leaders can see that. Good leaders can sense that somebody just needs a little bit of time to grow into a position or a role within their position.

Then, of course we’re all familiar with forming, storming, norming, and performing. As a manager, you need to recognize what phase your team is in and coach them. You need to be incredibly effective in leading your team through these very difficult challenges. This year has-been a storming year for me and my team.

TWS: You bring a sense of calm to others with your leadership style. Tell me more about how you think your leadership style helps your team pivot during a time of change

SC: In my mind, during the times of storming it's important that you as a leader have full control over your emotional capabilities. I’ll put it that way. You as a leader must have a strong sense of clarity about the direction that you're going as a group. But bring that sense of clarity in a very calm way. There are times when an emotion should be deployed by a leader. I do it in specific moments when I know that it's going to produce the right kind of reaction. As a leader, you've got to take complete control over how you feel even though you know sometimes you may not feel so hot. Check it at the door. Come into a meeting and provide a strong sense of calm, a strong sense of community, a strong sense of collaboration and show everybody how to move forward during these times of storming

TWS: A few minutes ago, you mentioned something about discovering what it is that makes your team members tick, what's strong about them, and what gaps they might have. Share with me how you align yourself with them and help them align with each other?

SC: About a year ago I took on a new team of executives, so I’m managing a team of people who are experienced in the areas that they’re being asked to do. I think one of the important things as a leader is to come to a position like that with lot of humility. Do not try to be the super person in the room because one of the most important things that you can do as a leader is to express respect for your team.

“I think one of the important things as a leader is to come to a position like that with lot of humility. Do not try to be the super person in the room…”

Sometimes you can short circuit that expression of respect by trying to be all things, by trying to be the uber leader, by trying to be the know-it-all, and it’s almost often the opposite that takes place. There's deference involved when you're allowing others to speak, you’re allowing others to make decisions, you’re empowering your team to be as effective as they can. The important thing is that it reciprocates as they begin to respect you. Having respect as a leader is critical in that the role, especially if you're in a very difficult situation. Everybody needs to know that you’re there for them and you've got their back.  You need to be respected as a leader if you’re going to make it through.

TWS: One of the bigger challenges of any team leader is keeping an eye on results and at the same time giving the the team room to fail. And you seem to be very good at it. How do you let your people fail?

SC: That’s a great topic. There's a lot of different styles of leadership that people deploy when it comes to accountability. I start by holding myself accountable. What I mean by that is that I’m quick to apologize or I’m quick to own up to maybe a mistake or an area that didn’t quite hit the mark.

There's been many times this year where maybe I stepped out of line or I said some things in a meeting I shouldn't have said. I had to take somebody aside and say, “I want to apologize, it won't happen again.” Taking that kind of ownership and accountability is foundational because if you're going to expect that of your team, you must be able to model it. If you're going to hold your team accountable and you want to have the powerful foundation of effectively calling out behavior or actions,  you must be willing to do that yourself. Don’t try to be the uber person or the super person.

We improve by recognizing our failures and deciding that we're going to do things differently. That’s ultimately what it's all about,  right? We recognize what took place and we recognize the adjustments needed to be made. This is a very common concept that’s in the software industry, called agile development.

“We improve by recognizing our failures and deciding that we're going to do things differently.”

In agile development, there's a phrase called “fail small” and it's all about it's okay to fail! As you release features into your software, you release them quickly and in smaller amounts so that they can be validated. If it's not quite hitting the mark, then you take it back to development and you make some adjustments. This agile type of philosophy is now taking the industry by storm because the principle is a good one. That principle is to constantly examine and constantly adjust and improve. That means that  as a leader, you need to allow your team to make mistakes and don't punish them for those mistakes. Instead, let’s talk about it,  let’s dig in deep, and let’s talk about changes.

TWS: I feel like we’re naturally shifting into the topic of communication. Let’s start off with praise and recognition, and feedback.

SC: I tend to focus on the things that need to be fixed. However, what I have learned over the years is the absolute importance of constantly identifying where we're succeeding, where we are doing things right, and where we are making a difference. And it’s important to call it out, and not just at the team level, but also at the individual level.

I do quarterly Town Halls. A huge part of our Town Halls is calling out people by name, calling out teams by names, and rewarding people for certain behaviors that we really like. People really respond to it. People love to see others recognized and they certainly love to be recognized themselves. It has such an emotional impact. It has such a feeding impact. I know this is true of me. When my superiors or those outside my organization have no idea what good things are going on with me and my team, it affects me in a sort of a dampening way. The opposite is true when someone calls it out and someone says way to go! It has a tremendous emotional high effect. And it can reciprocate itself and lead to better productivity overall.

TWS: I know you are famous for your Town Halls. Let’s talk some more about praise and recognition. What do you think stands in the way of leaders doing praise and recognition well?

SC: There’s the organic style and there's the more formal framework that people can put in place. I think you need to do both. I especially need the framework to help me remember to do this but at the same time, I also need to constantly remind myself to do it organically. What I mean by that is that when I’m in a meeting and I recognize somebody has said something amazing, I need to say it, “that's amazing!” I must constantly coach myself to do that because I have a tendency to be more in tuned with the things I need to fix.

As leaders we must coach ourselves to do that organically but then there's the framework, the things that we put in place. For example, let's have quarterly Town Halls and let's just do this. This year, I have set myself a goal to send out five emails a week to just anybody and thanking them.

In Harris, the CEO at the very top of the ladder has a program where if we send him an email and we put in a name of somebody in a team and what they did well, he will then reciprocate and write a handwritten letter to this person. Today, it's been 2,500 handwritten letters that he has sent throughout the entire company so far.

TWS: Thanks for sharing that very specific example because I know that others can steal that idea and put it into practice. Okay, right along with praise and recognition, we have giving feedback on a regular basis or at least that's the idea. Tell me about some principles that you live by when it comes to giving feedback to your people.

SC: I know that a lot of people don't like having those kinds of discussions. Most people are averse to conflict. I find that if we have the right kind of relationship and I’ve been honest about myself, it’s much easier for me to not wait when it's time to just talk about an area that needs improvement. This is where I must be careful about emotions because I can get animated. I know if something is affecting the business, and when I mean the business, we’re talking over 300 employees, you’re doing something that could potentially affect the livelihood of 300 plus employees.

TWS: Yes, I agree. It goes back to trust and mutual respect. So, here's a question for you. Conflict and collaboration - are those two mutually exclusive or do they go hand in hand well?

SC: Do you have a family, Joanna? I mean any of us who have been in families, know that conflict and collaboration are a part of any team that comes together. The healthiest teams that you will find are the ones where there there's a lot of diversity of thought and the diversity is open enough where different opinions will arise quickly, and people will need to learn how to deal with that. And that's okay!

“The healthiest teams that you will find are the ones where there there's a lot of diversity of thought…”

There is a difference between unity and agreement. I don’t necessarily want agreement. In other words, I want to hear everything. We can disagree with each other, we can banter, we can debate but at the end of the day, we’re going to decide and then we’re all going to go with it. That’s unity!

TWS: What are some things that you as a team leader do to help increase healthy collaboration within your team?

SC: I told you I was new in this role about a year ago, and we decided that we were going to establish weekly cadence of team meetings. That was more than I’ve had in the past, but I felt like there was just too much going on where we needed to get together. We discovered that we could fill up two hours a week if we wanted. We’re starting to scale that back and we're going to time box it. What can happen is you can over-meet. You need to figure out what that sweet spot is in your organization.

I also have weekly one-on-ones. Find that smallest amount of time where you feel that you can meet your goals.

So, that’s the meeting aspect. But there is also a goals aspect, right? Meetings are more about how you connect personally and how you make sure that there’s a good flow of communication between you and the team members. The goals aspect is important.

Every year we establish goals at the beginning of the year. That’s not unusual. We assess those along the way. We used to establish goals at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year we looked at whether we hit them. Now, we're looking at them on a quarterly basis because that’s a better cadence for us. Back to the “fail small” concept of being more agile. Do we need to add some? Do we need to subtract some goals? The goals need to align with your overarching vision. Sometimes, when you go to establish your goals, you just throw everything in there that you could think of and you create so much noise that you have no direction, you have no vision.

I love to hike the Grand Canyon and I use the example of hiking. When you’re hiking, you're looking from cairn to cairn. Cairn is a pile of rocks on the trails. When you come to a cairn, the first thing you do is look at where the next pile of rocks is. You're searching either up or down for it but the whole time you’re seeing a long-term vision. I’m going way down there. In fact, I know I can see the bottom of the Canyon. I can see exactly where we're headed, and I will know if I’m off track. That’s an important aspect in team dynamics, keeping track of the short-term goals and do those short-term goals put us in the right direction in fulfilling the long-term goals. That’s the vision!

TWS: That’s a great metaphor. One final question. What is one tip that you can give to a team leader who's just stepping into leading a team?

SC: Be willing to be vulnerable! As a leader, dive into your competency and being strong where you're strong, and don’t try to oversell who you are to your team. People typically see that; they see through it.

“Be willing to be vulnerable!”

People love confidence, so be confident. Be confident where you're strong and then ask tons of questions. Be very curious. I think it starts with being able to be vulnerable and be willing to be very open about who you are as a person and a leader.


If you’re looking for more ideas around getting the most out of your team, download a copy of the Executive Guide to Healthy Teams.

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