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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.  

· Looking in the mirror

· Servant-leadership

· Creating a vision

· Stages of team development

· Leadership styles and approaches

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, 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, back in the 1980’s I believe, Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey developed a model called Situational Leadership.  I have had the privilege of teaching this 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 what they don’t know.” 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 and keep them from being successful. It will hold them back and result in frustration, mistrust, and confusion.  

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