A leading academic in the study of organisational behaviour, a ballet great, a former All Blacks mental skills coach, and one of Australia’s most in demand non-executive directors gathered recently to help $35 billion industry super fund Sunsuper understand what makes a great team.

More than half of business teams are dysfunctional and only 10 per cent are high performing, said affiliate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD Ian Woodward, who was speaking at the Sunsuper’s Game Changers event in Sydney last Friday, February 24.

“Teams are either on the way to being a high performer or dysfunctional, not in the middle,” Woodward says. “The key to high-performing teams is not getting there, but staying there. To do this, you need clarity of goals, accountability and appropriate team members, processes for communication, mutual respect, passion and purpose. The number one thing for sustaining high performance is goal clarity and commitment.”

Woodward was speaking as part of a panel on what it takes to lead high-performing teams. The panel included All Blacks leadership manager Gilbert Enoka, Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin, and Sam Mostyn, one of Australia’s most prominent non-executive directors.

Bold vision, sure of purpose

Mostyn, who sits on the boards of Virgin Australia, Transurban, Mirvac, Citibank Australia and Cover-More, said high-performing companies and teams have “nailed what they stand for”.

“Understand the purpose of what you’re doing and set goals to meet that purpose,” she explained. Dysfunctional teams are where people are not themselves with each other; you need authenticity.”

The All Blacks’ Enoka, who is responsible for the mental wellness of the team, said the vision has to be bold.

“Not enough people break the mould and make that vision beyond their frame,” he said. “Set the vision very high, then come back to your reality and unless there’s a significant gap you won’t set in motion. The language we think in is “you’ve never arrived”. You need to move yourself from the back of the chair to the front of the chair. It needs to be uncomfortable.”

Never stop pushing

Li, whose autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer, documents his defection from China, said passion is the most important ingredient to drive team members.

“Then my job is to keep challenging them…I need to keep pushing them further.”

As a dancer, Li gave more than 2000 performances, but not once did he think, “I’m there,” he said.

Mostyn said leaders of high-performing entities bring their own sense of self.

“When diversity and inclusion and flexibility are embraced, you get more high performance, because you’re drawing on more people and possibilities in the interests of the whole,” she said.

Typically, high performers already have a strong mindset and exceptional skills, so what’s needed, Enoka says, is structure.

This includes performance goals, but also development goals and a process for feedback and continual learning.

“Complacency must be addressed,” Mostyn confirmed. “You need to celebrate, but never rest on your laurels. If you think you’ve got there, then you need a new bar that has stretch in it.”

Woodward believes complacency, hubris and arrogance are the serial killers of high performance.

“People start believing their own greatness,” he said.

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