Five Months From Disaster to Distinction: Ten Markers of High Performing Teams

Train_wreck_at_Montparnasse_1895It was January of 1997 and I was the new commander of an Air Force deployable communications unit.  We were about five months away from a major evaluation of our operational capability.  I was still getting to know my team, our capabilities and our issues.

We were clearly not ready.  Had the evaluation occurred at that time, we would surely have failed. The implications of a failure were huge.  These evaluations were serious business, and our existence as a unit would have been seriously threatened if we failed.

Over the next several months we went from being woefully unprepared, to being conscious of our issues, to being very committed to a positive outcome, and to resolving our major deficits.  At the end of the evaluation, we had demonstrated that we were fully mission capable, and just shy of an exemplary rating.   We had passed by a substantial margin.

Thinking back to those 5 months, I watched things happen within our team that took us from being sure losers to very capable winners.

In this month’s post, we’ll I’ll review what research tells us about ten markers of highly effective teamsten things you can assess and improve as you work with your own teams.

I’ll use our near-catastrophe experience to list the ten markers and describe how they factored into our ultimate success.

1. The team understands and commits to its purpose

 Understanding our mission was easy.  These evaluations were crystal clear around the mission and performance standards.

Building the commitment to attack and overcome our myriad organizational issues was much more difficult and it didn’t happen over night.  Over a span of several months, focus, reinforcement, and some early successes helped us develop this and then take advantage of it.

2. Team members respect and trust each other

Most of my fondest memories come from this one.  As our confidence grew, people saw each other stepping up to challenges, and they took pride in each others’ stretch achievements.  90 pound females were throwing 200 pound males on their back and hauling them to medical care in emergency drills.  The more we stretched, the more confident all of us got.

3. No individual is more important than the team

As we gained confidence, there was less need for traditional military rank structure to drive decisions.  The command team had largely “checked their rank at the door”.  Communications within the team were direct and unfiltered. When external communication was necessary, we considered who we were communicating with, and we put the best person forward to handle that.

4. Leadership of the team shifts from time to time, as appropriate to drive results

Because we were making decisions at speed, we began asking the question, “Who on our team is closest to this issue?”  Their input became the first one we sought, and often the only one.  Some decisions did require more consideration and debate, but in most cases, the person most suited made the call and the rest of us moved on it.

5. Communications are frank and open, within as as well outside the team

One of our problems starting out was that there had some serious silos in place.  People were addressing their own organization’s goals first.  We broke down most of the misalignments between our sections’ goals and our unit goals.  People stopped protecting their turf and began figuring out ways to work together and get the job done.

6. The team focuses on and holds itself accountable to the targeted business results

Our leaders helped every one see the implications of failure and the reward of success down to the individual airman.  The downside was pretty scary and that provided plenty of motivation.

On balance, though, I think more people responded to their personal pride and their innate desire to succeed.  Once we began to move in a positive direction, that motivation fed on itself and the drive to ace this evaluation went through the roof.

 7. Everyone knows what is expected of them, and they carry their weight

The leadership function of a combat unit is executed by a small and dynamic team.  Roles must be clear, as there is no time for duplicated effort or unclear roles.  We defined our individual roles and expectation and practiced them at speed.

An interesting thing happened.  The one person best positioned organizationally to be our single point of communication with our remote elements had a devastating stutter.  We considered filling his role with another team member, but no one had the integrated view of our dispersed teams that he had.   He was the person we needed in that role and we all agreed he should play it.  He stepped up to the task, knowing that we as a team had affirmed that this role was his.  Much to our delight, under the pressure of the combat simulation, he completely lost the stutter and played the role flawlessly.  That was critical to our success!

 8. Disagreement is seen as positive, energizing

During our final field rehearsal, we had several days of continuous severe thunderstorms moving through our location.  We were constantly pulling our people out of the field for safety reasons, and moving them back to our quarters.  As disruptive as that was, it had the unintended consequence that we were able to use the down time to go over the last field situation, debug it, and rehearse it.  We had the urgency of our situation motivating us, but we also were feeling the team coming together.  We enjoyed the back and forth, even when it was contentious.  It gave us the chance to think and practice.  The team was gelling.

Our time sequestered waiting for the current storm cell to pass was the perfect stage for rehearsal.  We were getting fast and smooth.

9. Teams make decisions quickly and appropriately

The pressure of the combat situation would not permit us to over-analyze.  We got better at making the best possible decision quickly and then executing.  If it was wrong, we made a quick course correction.  Yet, most of our gut decisions were right, and we steadily gained confidence in our ability to make them.

 10.  Once a decision is made, the team falls in line behind it, and commits

 In the early going, we realized that after every meeting, there was a second (or, third, or fourth… ) meeting to discuss and reinterpret the decision.  We were wasting huge amounts of effort and creating serious confusion.  Because there was a lack of trust in some senior leaders, we couldn’t hold a course of action. After two or three of us noticed it and validated that this was consistent behavior by one leader, we made the difficult decision to pull him off the team.  Things settled down.


This experience was a great case study of the key elements of high performing teams.  More importantly to me personally, it was at the heart of the most satisfying professional year of my life.