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Getting the best out of teams

Posted by Ann Caluori | Mon, 15/02/2021 - 16:19


Guest blog by Will Jefferson, Founder of Performance Catalyst Ltd.


Before I became a coach and created my own company, Performance Catalyst, I was a professional cricketer. I played for the England A team and three professional counties, Essex, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. It was in my former life that I have learned my most precious coaching lessons.


Team sports like cricket illustrate the true power of well-aligned teams. They make it clear that success is a group effort. High-performing sport teams need players with very different skill sets who work together at a high level of cohesion and are driven by a common goal. A brilliant individual performance rarely wins a game on its own.  


At Performance Catalyst, we specialise in transforming teams. Teamwork has remained my greatest passion. In order to really get people to put their teams first, and to do what is good for their organisations rather than for them personally, we have to highlight what they have to gain by doing so. We show teams how they can become infinitely greater than the sum of their parts. This is, after all, in everybody’s interest.


Over the years, we have developed three core catalysts for generating this crucial mindshift-change in the teams with whom we work. Creating clarity is the first step. Without clarity about the unique gifts we bring to our teams, and how our different skills are distributed within them, we can’t become the best we can be. Self-knowledge about our strengths, weaknesses and natural preferences are key in this process. A clear division of labour and a shared sense of purpose are also needed so that teams can align behind a common goal.


When I played for Leicestershire in 2011, our team prepared for the country’s premier short form competition, T20. Winning it was our priority that season. We had a strong game plan, a clear strategy, and each of us knew exactly what our roles and strengths were and how to maximise them. We were all united behind an urgent desire to serve our club and its membership with pride and passion. When we played in other competitions that season, we just couldn’t replicate anywhere near the same intensity. The difference between our performance in T20 and in the other formats was astonishing. Other performances were unfocused, lacked desire and motivation - our heart just wasn’t in it. In the T20, we were sharp, driven and powerfully aligned, like a well-oiled machine. We won the competition that year. This has shown me what a dramatic difference clarity on strengths, roles and a strong common purpose can make to our performance.


The second step to becoming a high-performing team is to strengthen our connections. In order to become truly aligned, we need to build environments of trust, in which people feel able to be open and vulnerable, freely exchange ideas, make mistakes and learn from them. In such an environment, we also hold each other accountable.


In 2006, playing for the England A team in Bangladesh, trust levels in our team were so high that we almost made our coaches redundant. We constantly analysed our own performance, in a spirit that was mutually supportive. We owned our mistakes and figured out how to overcome our weaknesses together. It just felt OK to be vulnerable in that way, because we all did it together. We grew so much stronger as a team as a result. A double-winning series followed - a sure sign of our collective potential having been realised then.


Finally, we show teams how to activate their collective intelligence. Collective intelligence is about learning how to benefit from completely diverse skill sets, ways of thinking, personality types and sense-making strategies. If a cricket team were composed only of excellent individuals who do not know how to combine their skills it could never win.


We teach teams how to turn cognitive difference into a strength. If everybody thinks the same, and looks at a problem from the same angle, it is likely that a team will have huge blind spots. Even if it is made up of very smart people, if they are all smart in the same way, the overall team can become blinkered. However, if we give everyone a voice and learn how to integrate different perspectives, our problem solving and decision making will become much richer and more effective.


A final important point is simply a reminder to celebrate our successes together, to understand them as co-created, and truly to acknowledge that everyone had a part in it – no matter how small or big their contribution. Winning is a team effort. Again we know that well in cricket!