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Out of the comfort zone

by Jeremy Campbell
Indian Management December 2022

Creating high-performing teams is a tough thing to do. Keeping them high performing is even tougher.

Creating high-performing teams is a tough thing to do. Keeping them high performing is even tougher. To crack the mysteries of high performance, consider this wisdom: ‘Successful people consistently do what other people only do occasionally. Successful teams are packed with successful people. If we could get our people to do the right things consistently, everyday, our businesses would be more successful’.

It is so simple to say but so difficult to deliver. The enemy of performance improvement is distraction. People do what they are comfortable doing, rather than focusing on what they need to do to make a difference.

So, what are the signs of a team that is failing to maximise its performance—a team which is comfortable? Here are five warning signs which you would be wise to heed. Do you see some of them in your business?

1. People are missing deadlines, furnishing excuses, and no one is being held to account.
2. You cannot remember the last time someone came up with a game-changing idea or a real piece of innovation.
3. People are keener to tell you what won’t work rather than how they could make it work.
4. Team members are distracted. Instead of doing the difficult things that really matter they perform the tasks which they like to do. 5. There is a lack of clarity about what people should focus on to shift the dial to meet your goals.

So, how do you motivate a team which has lost its way? How do you turn things around and unleash their potential?

Amid the chaos and confusion of the pandemic, Black Isle Group began working with Great Britain Olympic Team psychologist, Sarah Broadhead. The question we asked ourselves was, “What’s the best way to improve team performance in business, especially in the new, hybrid world?” Sarah coached the British teenage taekwondo star, Jade Jones, to Olympic gold in London 2012 and in Rio 2016. Her philosophy was to break down the ambitious goal of becoming the best in the world into small, less daunting, and more manageable steps. Every week, they focused on three to four different areas where they wanted to improve. These included rest and recovery—getting quality sleep; building strength; focusing on technique; and improving nutrition.

Each week they wrote down the everyday actions they were going to take on the road to gold. Each week they reviewed their progress in focused coaching conversations before re-setting for the next seven days. Each week they learnt from the mistakes of the previous seven days.

This helped them avoid distraction—the greatest enemy of improvement. It also helped to embed new habits which, through repetition and determination, would become second nature. They were growing unconsciously competent.

Sarah believes this is the way to reduce anxiety around the enormity of the task. By religiously focusing on the marginal gains, she believes you will inevitably create the difference between winning and losing.

So, what if we took a similar approach in the world of business? Could that change the way we maximise the performance of individuals and teams in corporate life? We decided to see for ourselves. The managed IT and solutions provider, VCG, was facing several big challenges. Following an acquisition, they had to bring together two teams and two cultures while coming out of the pandemic. They wanted to accelerate sales, increase employee engagement and deliver several behavioural changes across the business.

They set clear goals for a 10-week sprint focused on performance improvement. Each person then created their own everyday actions through which they could take small steps towards their big goals. Everyone got a coach— their equivalent of Sarah Broadhead. That coach would sit with them each week and review their progress and then re-set for the next five working days. Using technology through an app on their phones and laptops, they got daily reminders to keep them on track. The company’s leadership was able to monitor progress through a data reporting suite which pulled together the individuals’ everyday actions of the team and presented a collective view of progress. It gave them valuable visibility in the virtual world. VCG were delighted with the results.

They put a stretch target on attracting new business into their sales pipeline and over-achieved that by 360%. Employee engagement went through the roof. While it would be an exaggeration to say that it was all plain sailing this new approach and methodology clearly helped them make progress which took them by surprise. What they had really done was create focus and avoid distraction. They had created a performance coaching culture, just like Sarah Broadhurst and Jade Jones.

The group head of sales at VCG, Jeff Wheeldon, said, “The numbers were superb. But the standout for me, is seeing the interteam coaching and support. That is what makes a team succeed together. There is no doubt this approach achieved much more togetherness.”

Another business, Perfect Image—an IT managed services and data provider—tried a similar exercise. The challenges they faced included the need to grow—building pipeline and closing more deals—in a very crowded and competitive marketplace. They wanted to make a significant improvement in employee engagement as they came out of the pandemic and build a coaching culture. They too rolled out the methodology of everyday actions into their sales team. They ran a 13-week sprint.

They worked closely on helping individuals choose the right everyday actions or nudges as they were now called. They put in place a system of peer coaching so that everyone had someone to help and challenge them. The coaches kept the sales managers focused as they worked together to hit their big goals—to sell more, engage better and grow more leaders.

By focusing on everyday actions, avoiding distractions, and clearly measuring progress their performance soared. They added more then 350 new deals worth more than £6 million and their employee engagement scores rose from -69 to +20.

At a time when so much has been turned upside down for employer, employee, and consumer, focusing on everyday actions holds the key to improving performance in the new world of work. It is a methodology which we know works. It has been proven in several arenas yet is rarely used effectively in the world of business. Yet, with the right commitment, it is impossible for this methodology not to work.

The world has changed so much in the past two and a half years. The way we do business has to change too. No one has yet cracked this new world of work and it will continue to evolve. Those who embrace the shift of focus from comfortable teams to everyday actions will be the winners.

Jeremy Campbell is CEO, Black Isle Group.

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