Firing on All Cylinders

by Dave Meldahl

Dennis is one of those friends that, at times, speaks to me in a foreign language. If it were Norwegian, that’d be ok because I can actually speak a bit of that. The problem is that he speaks to me in gear-head-ese. He’s a car guy, and he has a very cool set of wheels called a Pantera. He took me on a ride through the back roads to Big Sky one time, and that was exciting to put it mildly. If I had hair, it would have been either blown back by the speed or standing on end from the fear coursing through my body. Truth be told, it was a really fun ride.

One reason that drive was fun was because of the exceptional performance of Dennis’ Pantera. I may not know a whole lot about cars, but I do know that – if you want them to perform at their optimum – it’s important to ensure they are well maintained and “firing on all cylinders”. Anything less and you’re settling for subpar performance. And that just won’t do for Dennis. He will invest the time and resources needed to get that car performing up to its potential.

How about you? Not with your car (you’ll have to talk to Dennis about that), but with the team you are a part of at work. Are you, as owner/leader/team member, ensuring that your team is “firing on all cylinders”? Like cars (but more importantly so), teams need to be cared for to ensure optimum performance. So often as leaders it seems that we assume that the teams we put together will perform well simply because we call them a “team”. That’s no more likely to happen than Dennis’ Pantera winning a race with me as his chief mechanic. Once we get past the fundamental of putting gas in the tank, I’d be lost.

To perform at their best, teams require five essential cylinders to be in place and firing consistently. I don’t think these are ground-breaking. In fact, they will probably seem like basic common-sense. And guess what? They are just good common-sense. Unfortunately, in the midst of the hectic pace of our days and the need to produce NOW, it is sometimes the basics that get neglected or taken for granted. By reminding ourselves of these team fundamentals we can give our teams a five-point tune up.

At the top of the list is VALUES. The degree of alignment between your personal values, the values of your teammates and those of the broader organization plays a critical role in the effectiveness of one’s team. If there is a significant disconnect between your values and those lived out by your teammates, not only will conflict ensue (a natural and to-be-expected occurrence within teams), but trust may deteriorate to an unrecoverable level. And, without trust, a team will sputter and die.

It’s normal to have some divergence of values (e.g. you value adventure and I value security), but if your consistent behavior (e.g. working independently without consideration for the team) violates a core value of mine (collaboration), then we’ve got some serious work to do together. Establishing team norms (or “promises to one another”) about how we’ll operate as a team, and doing so early in the team’s development is critical preventative maintenance. Another step is to have each team member complete a values clarification exercise and then share the results with each other in a team meeting, including the “why” behind the choices. This can help build trust and foster a better understanding and appreciation for what’s important to one another.

The second cylinder is what I call PURPOSE. This includes the team’s vision (what we ultimately are trying to become, do, or be known for), mission (why we exist) and goals (the measureable milestones along the way). For a team to perform exceptionally, it’s essential that its purpose be seen by each team member as worthy of their individual and collective best efforts. If it’s not, then you’ll get compliant, go-through-the-motions behavior. Alternatively, a compelling and values-aligned purpose will generate true engagement and top productivity. Clarity of purpose also helps team members hold one another accountable.

The third cylinder is PROCESS. This cylinder includes some elements internal to the team and others that are more organizational. Internal processes include roles and responsibilities, decision-making, meeting management, and feedback. Organizational processes that impact the team include budgeting, performance management, compensation and information systems. The key action for the process cylinder is for the team to be very intentional regarding its internal processes and disciplined in executing them.

The fourth cylinder is SKILLS. This includes the functional or technical skills needed by each team member to fulfill their role. These are often a given (though unfortunately, not always). What is not a given are the interpersonal skills needed to perform well within a team. These skills include leadership, communication, emotional competence, problem-solving and conflict-proficiency. Much of my work involves helping teams and leaders build these people-related skills that are so essential to team productivity.

The final cylinder is actually outside the team. It is the ENVIRONMENT within which the team operates. This includes the broader organization of which the team is a part, as well as the external world (customers, competitors, community, government, economic factors, etc.). The key here is for the team to be aware of what’s going on outside itself, and to be able to seize opportunities and adapt as needed.

Ok.  I’ll grant you this: these cylinders are not nearly as exciting as Dennis’ Pantera. And yet, I’ll bet that you would enjoy the return-on-investment of a high-performing team just as much as a fast ride with Dennis. And you could keep your hair to boot! So, go get that tune-up and help your team win.

Reach out here if you would like to improve any of these cylinders!

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