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  • Writer's pictureKerry Ahrend, M.S., PMP


As I was reviewing one of the group discussions on LinkedIn I saw the question posted regarding advice on how to build a high performing team. This is every project managers’ biggest challenge and greatest opportunity. There is so much to share and explore on this topic so I will focus on just a few essentials to get started. I will briefly address the following topics and expand on them in future blogs:

  1. · Looking in the mirror

  2. · Servant-leadership

  3. · Creating a vision

  4. · Stages of team development

  5. · Leadership styles and approaches

  6. · Habits of effective leaders

Looking in the Mirror:

First and of utmost importance in building a high performing team is to look in the mirror…yes, that means at yourself. A gathering of individuals will never become high performing, a highly productive unit, unless the leader is high performing or at least open to learning and developing skills required of a leader. Many people think they are leaders but in reality no one is following. What does it take to get people to follow you? Why would anyone want to follow you? Advice…don’t focus first on “how do I mold this group into a high performing team” but rather on “what do I need to do to be an effective leader?” So let’s start with you as the leader and later we will move onto the team members and their role in becoming a high performing team.

People want a leader who has vision and is worthy of earning their trust and respect. A leader earns trust by giving trust, by being trustworthy, through consistency, follow-through, and by setting the example. Establishing rapport and building relationships are essential. As the expression goes, people will care when they know you care. See it is about you first…getting your house in order before creating marching orders for others. This requires personal reflection and an honest assessment of your ability to earn the trust and respect of others. How do you earn trust and respect; how do you build rapport; how will people know you care? Hmm…some good questions for reflection. Let’s take a look at some strategies and practices that will help answer those questions.


Have you heard the expression servant-leadership? Are you familiar with this concept? It is a leadership philosophy and practice that has been around for centuries. The term itself was coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf to describe a leader who gives priority attention to the team members, customers, colleagues, and other stakeholders to whom they serve. The servant-leader’s emphasis is not on increasing their own power but on increasing the growth and development of individuals in the organization as well as increasing teamwork, personal involvement, and accountability. They use collaboration, trust, communication, compassion, and the ethical use of power to lead and serve others better. Becoming a servant-leader requires self-awareness, a desire to serve others, and a commitment to lead.

Creating a Vision: How can you get somewhere if you don’t know where you are going? Ever get in your car and just drive with no destination in mind? If you are a sailor, do you set sail without charting a course? Probably not! However, in my experience I have witnessed many “leaders” (so called leaders) who will embark on a project without creating and sharing a clear vision with the team. I have seen and heard from many project managers who are stuck, with their team, in conflict and confusion and have no idea of how they got there. Vision sets the direction and having a shared-vision ensures everyone is going in the same direction TOGETHER. One of the exercises I recommend to teams stuck in “storming” is to have everyone write on a post-it note what they think the vision is for the project. The responses can be eye–opening and will explain a lot about why the team is struggling to make progress.

Stages of Team Development:  If you want to be an effective leader and mold a group of individuals into a highly productive team you MUST understand the stages of team development. These stages are predictable and necessary and all teams will go through them to become high performing. The predictable stages are Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning. This is also called the Tuckman Model. At each stage of team development the leader can expect to see and experience certain behaviors and attitudes from the team members. And there are certain things that must be addressed at each of these stages. The leader’s understanding of the stages of team development and ability to navigate successfully, by employing the appropriate leadership approach and techniques, will determine the level of success the team has moving forward.

Leadership Styles and Approaches: A number of years ago, Ken Blanchard developed a model called Situational Leadership II. I have had the privilege of teaching his material and highly recommend it to all in leadership positions. Essentially Situational leadership says that there is no one right leadership style to use in every situation. That makes sense, intuitively, but the reality is that most people tend to use only one or two styles of leadership in all situations. The majority do so because they don't know better. For example, ever had a boss who delegates everything, regardless of your level of understanding or expertise, because he or she couldn’t walk you through it if they tried? Situational leadership describes four leadership styles and ties them to the stages of team and individual development. Those styles are: Directing (also may be referred to as telling or tasking), Coaching (steering), Supporting (encouraging), and Delegating (entrusting). Using the appropriate style in the appropriate situation will facilitate and enable your team to achieve desired results. Using an inappropriate leadership style will in fact hinder your team from being successful. It will hold them back and result in frustration, mistrust, and confusion.

Habits of Effective Leaders: If you haven’t read Stephen Covey’s book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People(Simon & Schuster, 1989) then let me recommend it now. If you have and it was a while ago, pick it up again. Those 7 Habits are timeless and essential habits of an effective leader.

  1. Habit #1 is Be Proactive. Bottom line it means have a plan. Without a plan you can plan to fail. We should be creating effective solutions and not spending our time in reactionary mode putting out fires.

  2. Habit #2 is Begin With the End in Mind. This goes back to having a vision, a set direction so everyone will be on the same page. Without clear direction your team will surely get lost and again will encounter frustration, mistrust, and confusion.

  3. Habit #3 is Put First Things First. Covey followed up the 7 Habits book with a book entitled First Things First (Simon & Schuster, 1994) This is about prioritizing and putting the important things first. Anyone struggling with time management issues (which is almost everyone) will benefit greatly by following this quadrant approach to setting priorities. A team will struggle without having a clear sense of priorities.

  4. Habit #4 is Think Win-Win. To be a successful high performing team you must collaborate and work together to meet common and shared goals and objectives to achieve the vision and mission of the project.

  5. Habit #5 is Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. As a leader you must do more listening and seeking to understand the other party’s needs and expectations. Ask open-ended probing questions, listen actively, and seek to understand the interests (basic human needs; Maslow) of the other person.

  6. Habit #6 is Synergize. Leaders don’t have all the answers and they recognize that. They engage others in joint problem-solving and joint decision making. Respect, trust and rapport are built through engaging others and respecting their input.

  7. Habit #7 is Sharpen the Saw. Some leaders may be “born leaders” but most are not. Most are individuals who are committed to building their skill sets and developing their people or team members. This takes us back to where we started…reflection, looking in the mirror to see what skills, knowledge, abilities, desires, and habits it will take for you to become an effective leader worthy of being followed. What does the (wo)man in the mirror look like…would you follow him/her?

For more information on Situational Leadership visit  And for offerings by Stephen Covey go to

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