In today's quickly changing marketplace, teamwork is essential to company growth and innovation. It helps leaders understand the importance of change, including the challenges of remaining relevant. How we handle change plays an important role in shaping our growth--and the key term here is "our."

When you value teamwork, you get insanely curious about what it takes to build high-performing teams. A team-oriented approach to work allows massively challenging projects to be realized. Innovation simply couldn't happen without great teams.

Building high-performing teams

Excellence doesn't come from haphazard strategies. Forming a team without a plan is sure to lead to less-than-optimal results. One company that's renowned for its growth and innovation is Cisco Systems. Cisco develops and manufactures networking hardware, telecommunications equipment, and other high-tech products. It's one of the largest telecom equipment manufacturing companies in the world, with revenue of nearly $50 billion.

As with Cisco, teams are the backbone of our organizations. We have teams tackling tough projects within departments, as well as cross-functional teams with diverse skills. High-performing teams have the stamina to endure more to achieve results. In 2009, researchers at Oxford University discovered that team players could tolerate twice as much pain as those working alone.

The high-performance habits of 297 teams

Cisco wanted to know what factors defined the best teams. In 2016, the company concluded its analysis of the success factors of 297 teams. The experimental group of 97 high-performance teams was compared to a control group of 200 teams. The one factor Cisco looked at was each team's ability to tackle business and technology challenges.

Cisco's overall goal was to identify the characteristics of innovative, high-performing teams. I talked with Francine Katsoudas, chief people officer for Cisco, to understand the evolution of work around teams. Katsoudas says, "Sure enough, we could see a difference, and honestly, we didn't know if that would be the case or not."

The study found there are three key areas that distinguish the best teams:

1. Teammates play to their strengths.

Many challenges that teams set out to address require various skill sets. Cisco found that the best teams form with teammates playing to their strengths. This means they're using the very best of themselves in collaboration with the very best of others. The ideas developed are more profound when everyone is thinking in their zones of genius.

Besides, team productivity is higher when teammates are in their wheelhouse. This may seem obvious, but it's not always leveraged. In my work, you sometimes see teams forming based on who's available, not who's best suited to do the work.

The key here is predicting and assessing teammates' strengths, as well as the required strengths for a given project. From my experience, team members perform better when they have a clear understanding of their teammates' strengths.

2. Teammates feel safe to share new ideas.

Innovation rarely comes when teammates feel judged for the quality of their idea. We have to go beyond what works now to find breakthroughs. High-performing teams have high levels of trust and safety. This parallels a team study performed by Google in 2012 called Project Aristotle, which found one of the critical factors of great teams is a sense of psychological safety.

Katsoudas explains, "On teams where teammates feel like 'Hey, my teammates have my back,' there is a big difference from a safety and trust perspective that is incredibly important for growth and innovation."

One unique strategy Cisco employed to improve leadership was the use of actors in leadership training. Katsoudas shared with me one of the examples with situational leadership: "We have brought actors into a leadership class, and we have had the actors hand the leader a card that says, 'Your employee is talking over everyone in a team meeting. Go,' and leaders have a conversation about what is going on." This is an excellent example of how far Cisco is willing to go to develop its leaders.

After working with many high-growth companies in the Inc. 5000, I often see that the "hard stuff" of leadership is the soft stuff. These soft skills can make or break team performance.

3. Teammates are aligned on values.

Just as core values are essential to your company culture, so are the values on your team. When teams share a sense of "how they can win together," they not only get more done, but they're also more creative in their output. Katsoudas says, "Teams with shared values in where they are going perform better."

When you form teams, you want to play to people's strengths, give them psychological safety, and find value alignment. Without those three things, you may still achieve your goals--but you won't be nearly as high-performing as you could be.

Published on: Mar 26, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.