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How to Build a High-Performing Team


I’m really excited to be writing this article for my utility family. I enjoyed all 33 of my years working in the industry. Now, as a leadership consultant, I have the privilege of using my knowledge, experience and passion to help the utility industry improve. My goal is to provide you with proven tools that will enable you to lead your team to their highest level of performance – where each of your team members will be able to consistently perform at their top potential every day, in every task. It is at that level where zero accidents and zero injuries occur on a consistent basis, and that’s what we want and need in our workplaces. It is no secret that our industry is still among the most hazardous. The penalty for making a mistake can be life-threatening. While I was still working in the industry, it was the love I had for my team that made me want to do all I could to protect them. And that love translated into success throughout my career, during which I created a number of high-performing teams. I want to tell you a little more about that in these pages.

“Treat a person the way that you want them to be and you will make them great” is wisdom that John Maxwell – a best-selling author on the topic of leadership – states in his book “Becoming a Person of Influence: How to Positively Impact the Lives of Others.” College football analyst and retired coach Lou Holtz has said, “If you get people to believe in themselves, they will set higher goals.” I’ve long respected both John and Lou as leaders, so during my working years at utilities, I absorbed what they said and tried putting it into action. As I mentioned earlier, all of my success in my previous industry career was the result of investing and believing in people. In total, I was able to build high-performing teams eight times throughout that career. The process is complex, but it starts with one brief question: Why build a high-performing team? The answer is, because a high-performing team will do everything at an exceptional level. They will meet or exceed all of their goals. They will perform excellent pre-job briefings. They will be highly attentive and participatory. They will have a strong ability to recognize and mitigate hazards. They will follow each job plan with the understanding that if anyone on the team sees something wrong or senses that something is wrong, they can stop the job and ask a question without upsetting other team members. A high-performing team uses the safest work methods, and its members reflect great leadership combined with a culture that supports an error-free workplace.

Begin with Leadership
So, once you’ve decided you want to build a high-performing team, how do you begin? With leadership! Leaders have to realize that they must keep improving their leadership craft. When leaders don’t grow, they keep the team stagnant, and a team will never outperform their leader. It almost goes without saying that leaders hold a role of great responsibility. Their company has entrusted them with leading teams to meet challenges to the best of their abilities in all measurable categories. I encourage leaders to adopt a vision of high performance, such as “If better is possible, good is no longer an option” or “Good is the enemy of great.” These adages are energy-builders that let the team know that, as a group, we will never settle or rest on our laurels, that we will always strive to do and be our best.

It’s important for leaders to recognize that they must provide an environment in which high-performing teams can flourish. They have to truly believe that such an environment can be achieved – and sustained. Leaders must be willing to improve their leadership capabilities, and willing to connect with people and build relationships. It’s also essential that they believe in and follow a set of proven leadership principles that will be the foundation on which to build a high-performing team.

Leadership Principles
So, what are some of those leadership principles I referred to? Perhaps the most critical one is to treat the members of your team well. Leaders must not only like people, but they also must realize they can’t achieve their goals alone. And the fact is, you can’t treat people any old way and expect them to do and be their best for you. According to Lou Holtz, team members have three questions for every leader, and leaders must answer yes to all three of the questions to tap into people’s greatest level of effort:

  • Can I trust you?
  • Are you committed?
  • Do you care about me?

In short, leaders must value everyone on the team. It is particularly important that the leader has great relationships with all team members and is the driving force in expecting each team member to have great working relationships with the other members of the team. If you’re wondering what facilitates a great working relationship between co-workers, remember, how we treat people matters. If you make people feel valued, loved, happy, respected, engaged, appreciated, understood and supported, they will be great team members who can become high-performers. When people know that you value them more than any job, and when they know you’re not going to let them hurt themselves, they will go the extra mile for you and every other member of the team. They become willing to do what it takes to meet or exceed all challenges.

There are a couple of other leadership principles that, when applied, will help you to fully develop a high-performing team. One of the most powerful is believing in your team – and ensuring team members know you believe in them. Tell them positive things that build them up. Find team members doing things the right way and praise them for it. Don’t play favorites; get to know all of your team members, help all of them to succeed and give all of them opportunities to shine. In addition, do whatever you can to help improve the team members’ working lives. For example, when I was the general manager of fleet services for one of my previous employers, many of the company’s old garages had been neglected. The leadership team was routinely told there was no money, and they had stopped asking. They thought they simply had to live with the situation. Prior to becoming the general manager, I was the distribution regional vice president for this company. I knew the money was out there, and I fought for it. I also took the time to visit all of the garage locations so that I could see them with my own eyes, meet the fleet technicians and talk to their customers. Every fleet technician at every garage I visited deserved an office/garage that was of the same quality found in larger locations. Eventually I found the money, and we started on a journey of facilities improvement.

Finally, I want to discuss why it is so important to provide your team members with an environment of encouragement – another leadership principle. According to James Reason, an expert in the study of human error, “People achieve high levels of performance based largely on encouragement and reinforcement received from leaders and peers.” John Maxwell has stated, “People work best for those who make them feel good about themselves.” When I first read these quotes, I couldn’t believe it was so simple. I couldn’t get my head around the idea that, if I wanted my team members to be high-performing people, all I needed to do was encourage them and make them feel good about themselves. But then I remembered that when I performed my best in sports and other areas of my life, I felt as though the people who were leading me at those times truly believed in me. So, I knew I had to give it a try in my own leadership career. Do you know what I found out? It really is that simple. The hard part for me was getting other leaders in my company to buy into the idea, as well as getting all of the team members to treat each other well. However, when I turned the leadership principles into expectations, stood strong in my convictions and continued to treat everyone well, those actions became contagious. I discovered that if I took two steps toward the team, they took four steps my way. The more I demonstrated the leadership attributes of making others feel valued, loved, happy, respected, engaged, appreciated, understood and supported, the more team members got on board over time. We created movement. Do you know what else happened? That positive movement shined a spotlight on those people with negative attitudes. For some, the situation helped to change their hearts. As for those who were not willing to make the necessary changes, eventually they were pushed out of the group because there was no room for poor attitudes and behavior.

In closing, I hope this article helped someone. I wish all the best for you, and if you’re attending the iP Utility Safety Conference & Expo November 6-8 in Orlando, Florida, come see me and sit in on my session, where I’ll discuss more about this topic.

About the Author: Bob McCall is president of Inspire High Performance LLC ( He can be reached at 910-520-7371.

Leadership Development