The science of building teams that run at full power. Originally published in Psychology Today on 4/17/2023.
What is the first thing you do on a Monday morning?
Do you wake up early, take a cold plunge, and drink coffee with olive oil for an energy boost? Or do you dive straight into responding to emails? Or do you use your first minutes of the week more strategically?
I cannot comment on the value of cold plunges or special coffee. But my colleagues and I at ghSMART, the global leadership advisory, education, and analytics firm, have collected data on 3,052 leaders and their teams over a decade. We found a surprising conclusion about what predicts team success, with the statistical help of professors and research team collaborators at the University of Chicago, UCLA, and Columbia University.
Of all the variables that could have mattered, we isolated three things that matter most. Leaders with teams that were rated as “strong” at these three things (by professional evaluators using structured in-depth interviews with high inter-rater reliability) were 20 times more likely to report successful outcomes than teams that were not strong at all three things. Think of this pattern like a triathlon—you have to be great at swimming, biking, and running to win a triathlon.
Following these research implications, consider reflecting on these three questions every Monday morning. We call them the three PWR (pronounced “power”) questions:
- Priorities: Do we have the right priorities?
Only 24% of leaders are strong at prioritizing. And 90% of the time when they struggle with this leadership skill, it’s because they lack the analysis skills and decisiveness to narrow their team’s priorities down from a long list to a short list. To illustrate, I had lunch yesterday with a large company business leader who was telling me a story about turning around a team that was failing to achieve its mission or goals. He said, “The problem was that team was focusing on way too many products, geographies, and customer strategies all at once. And when you have too many priorities, you don’t really have any priorities. Energy is wasted.”
- Who: Do we have the right people?
Only 14% of leaders are skilled at hiring and developing talented teams. This is the most common weakness we observe in leaders and their teams. Flawed hiring methods yield a 50% hiring mistake rate versus research-based methods that produce a 90% hiring success rate (e.g., having a consistent set of criteria to rate candidates, unbiased structured past-oriented interviews, reference validation, etc.). A software entrepreneur was recently lamenting a poor hiring success rate and told me that they were tempted to take the drastic measure of selling their company because the “revolving door of talent” was so distracting and frustrating.
- Relationships: Do we have the right relationships?
About 47% of leaders achieve good relationships with people within and outside their teams. “Trust” typically gets a lot of attention as a variable that predicts or even defines relationship quality, but our database suggests that 91% of leaders behave in a trustworthy fashion. Therefore, while important, it is not rare for a leader to build trust. Instead, the “special sauce” in building successful relationships in a professional context is to create relationships that are focused on achieving win-win results. It’s the mutually beneficial results that matter in forming and maintaining productive professional relationships, not just feelings of trust or empathy. I recall a large not-for-profit organization’s struggle to upgrade its information technology (IT) infrastructure. The chief technology officer who had spent too much time glad-handing, giving speeches, and trying to “inspire” the team ultimately left under a cloud of dysfunction. Later, the successor took a different approach, and she achieved far better outcomes for constituents by focusing the team members on the results they were expected to achieve together.
At a minimum, answer the three PWR questions by yourself. Even better, have a PWR conversation with your team on a regular basis to take stock of where you are and what actions are necessary to achieve success. Even better than that, track your PWR scores quantitatively throughout your organization to have an early-warning indicator of teams that are on a path to successful versus unsuccessful performance.
If you want to build a team that runs at full power, for the good of your teammates as well as the constituents you serve, consider spending a few moments on Monday morning asking, “Do we have the right priorities? Do we have the right people? Do we have the right relationships?” You may find that by asking these PWR questions, you and your teammates will become able to take targeted actions that put your team more firmly on a path to success.
For more data-driven insights on this topic, see the Wall Street Journal bestseller Power Score: Your Formula for Leadership Success (by Geoff Smart, Randy Street, and Alan Foster).