PART 3 – How to build a high-performing team from scratch

PART 3 – How to build a high-performing team from scratch

In previous posts, we discussed the first and second of three principles that I’ve found to be essential for building a high-performing team. This time, we’ll cover the last one.

1. Attract and hire the right people, then set them up for success.
2. Cultivate an inspiring culture that maximizes individual and team performance.
3. Demonstrate servant leadership daily.

Principle #3. Demonstrate servant leadership daily.

A famous incident in the Gospel of Mark involves two brothers, James and John, who ask Jesus for positions of power in God’s kingdom. In response, Jesus tells his team of twelve, including the two brothers, “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must become last.”

A leader who wants to build and sustain a high-performing team must put the team first. In practice, this can manifest in a myriad of ways. I will highlight a few from my experience.

Whether you are ready to hire, looking for more information about hiring or just want some advice, one of our team of friendly specialists will get in touch within 24hrs. Click here to contact us!

Help the team to shine.

I once had a great manager who gave me high visibility projects that put my strengths on display, even when they were areas of weakness for himself. He was not afraid of being outshined by me because he was confident in his own strengths, and he wanted the best for my career. Knowing this made me even more invested in doing great work for him.

As a leader, I have taken a similar approach. When a team member was invited to facilitate a discussion at our EVP’s staff meeting with her division Presidents (a big deal!), I helped him cut through the complexity of the topic to distill the overarching thrust and connect his key messages to larger themes in the organization. The discussion was a fruitful one and his star has since risen in the organization. In other instances when my direct reports have had major presentations to senior management, I have scheduled multiple dry runs so that when they did take center stage, they spoke with passion, confidence, and clarity. After one such occasion, a senior executive told me that my team member’s presentation was the most engaging during a multi-hour meeting.

Leaders foster not only high performance but also loyalty when we invest energy behind the scenes to help our people do their best work and get recognized for it. And when it is time for our team members to move on to bigger roles (because great leaders create more leaders), they will make the transition a smooth one. Because when we’ve got our team’s back, they will have ours too.

Be human.

Life is short. Those of us who work outside the home often spend more time with our colleagues than our families. As leaders, we can create environments where work relationships are transactional, or we can create more meaningful ones where our people feel a sense of connection and belonging. I choose the latter.

Below are some tactics that have worked for me:

  • Respect that work isn’t and shouldn’t be our employees’ highest priority. This may seem counterproductive in an article about high-performing teams but here’s why it’s not. When leaders have hired the right people and set them up for success (article 1) and cultivated an inspiring culture (article 2), then recognizing what matters to our employees outside of work will only strengthen their commitment and performance. My team knows that health and family always come first. If there is an issue on either front, they know they can share openly with me, and I’ll work with the rest of the team to provide cover while they’re out. In one business book, the author writes that “you can’t create value at work when you’re destroying value at home.” If we want our employees
    to create superior value at work, then we must support them in creating value in the rest of their lives.
  • Model vulnerability. Performing at a high level requires leveraging strengths but also improving critical weaknesses that could undermine success. We can improve much faster if we share our goals with our manager and others on the team so they can help us. However, acknowledging weaknesses and seeking help are difficult to do unless the leader creates a psychologically safe environment. I have found that by being transparent about the things I’m working to improve (e.g., constructive feedback I’ve received, my leadership assessment scores), my team feels at greater liberty to do the same.
  • Have fun and laugh frequently. Whether through surprise birthday celebrations over Zoom, quarterly team-building activities, or random injections of fun during all-hands meetings, my team has benefited so much from laughing together. Not too long after joining, a new employee sent me the following message: “GCE feels more like a family than a department. That is a direct testament to the culture you have put into place. I feel very lucky to be in your org.” You can bet your bottom dollar that a team of people who feel lucky to be there will outperform a team that doesn’t.

Go to bat for the team.

Finally, I want to highlight that as servant leaders, there are times when we must fight for our teams. This can mean making a business case for additional funding so that our teams can deliver the level of impact required by the business, even when the financial climate is challenging. Or thoughtfully explaining a team member’s chosen approach to an influential colleague who disagrees but isn’t the subject matter expert on the topic at hand. A servant leader must always take a collaborative and positive approach within larger organizational dynamics. But she must also protect her team’s focus and morale, without which exceptional results are not possible.


Servant-leadership is a critical ingredient to building and sustaining high performing teams. It can take a variety of forms, whether putting in the elbow grease to help our teams shine, creating an environment where they feel fully seen, or going to bat for them in the right way at the right time. This approach takes courage, confidence, and strength because there are sacrifices that must be made along the way. But does servant leadership create results we can be proud of? And is it worth it? YES and YES.

Thank you for reading this series on How to Build a High-Performing Team. If you’d like to continue the conversation, please find me on LinkedIn.

Author: Li Kehl

Interested in consulting-related insights and trends in addition to the exciting jobs on Movemeon?

Join over 32,000 people already following Movemeon co-founder Rich Rosser on LinkedIn for more insights about careers, how to get the most out of consulting and how to hire current or former consultants.

Related articles