Have you built a sustainable successful team?

Leaders-and-FollowersThere are leaders. And then, there are cult leaders. Some of us I am sure are still wondering – what will happen to Apple after Steve Jobs? Will they still be able to turn out paradigm shifting products? Can they sustain their success even after the departure of visionary leader?

That, to me, is a dangerous sign.

May be on a smaller scale, this may have happened to you as a leader too. What will happen to the team when you are reassigned, or leave the organization? The question is not whether you have built a successful team – the question is, will that team remain high-performing even after you are no longer in charge?

I am sure that as a leader, you have led highly motivated teams that consistently delivered excellent business results. But what happened to those teams after you were no longer leading them? The odds are that most of those teams disintegrated.

Of course, keeping aside the nostalgia and sense of pride in your formidable leadership skills, is this sign of the truly successful leadership? If the team’s performance was driven by the leader alone, was the leader truly successful? I think leaders who are truly successful as leaders build teams that continue to excel even after their departure.

So far, I am proud to have built three teams in my career that consistently performed above expectations, were highly motivated and had close to 0% attrition. But two of those teams broke up after I left the respective organizations. While there was some perverse pleasure in knowing that I was the key driver of the team’s success, now I consider that a failure.

I am still working with the third team and my focus, now, is to build a sustainably successful team. So far, it seems to be working since people within the team have grown and are handling teams I used to handle before. May be it’s a lucky streak, but these teams are still thriving. Or may be, what I have tried to do differently is working? While the jury is still out on this, I’d just jot down my new approach to building a sustainably successful team:

  1. Bring business perspective: I now make sure that when briefing for a difficult timeline or an innovation project, I always talk about how it is adding value to the business overall. Most of the leaders tend to appeal team loyalty (“lets prove that we are an awesome team”) or even personal loyalty (“this is really important to me”). I am not saying these are not important – but I increasingly realize that it is important put it in context of a business need (“Lets prove that we are an awesome team by adding $2 million to the business at 20% operating margin”). Inculcating a thought process where everyone in the team is able to link the work they are doing to the larger business picture seems to make a long-term difference.


  1. Democratize external-facing opportunities: There was a time when I would have selected the same team members for a client meeting or a presentation to a global audience. Now I ensure that everyone – I mean EVERY one – in my team gets that opportunity at least once. Don’t be afraid to put team members in front of your boss. By doing so, you are building confidence, establishing credibility and giving everyone a chance to shine. Don’t worry – If they do well, credit will accrue to you. Even if they don’t, they – and you – learn a lot in the process.


  1. Help achieve ambitions: Help team members achieve their personal ambitions – even if they are outside of your team or your organization! This is counter-intuitive but in my experience, it works. Everyone has their aspirations – make sure you understand them and help them fulfill those aspirations. Believe me, most times you will be able to fulfill those within the organization – and then its sustainable– because you are putting right people in right roles. And if not, that’s fine too. Helping a team member succeed outside your team or even organization is an acknowledgement that you are watching out for their long term success. If you are able to hold on to a team member just out of personal loyalty- they are gone the minute you are.


  1. Right fit: I can’t stress this enough – is everyone in your team in the right role? Or are they pushing themselves just because you hired / promoted them? Do you have a great individual contributor in a team lead role? I think the biggest strength of a leader is to proactively look for skills and put people in the roles where they will thrive. I have had a number of instances where average developers turned out to be great team-leads and vice versa. I have even had instances where an average designer turned out to be great in an onsite assignment where key was communication and relationship management with the client – NOT just design. We now use him exclusively for onsite assignments. If people are in the right roles, they are going to do well regardless of your presence.


  1. Manage out: It sounds drastic but it is critical – under-performers NEED to be managed out of the team. It has to be done – it’s not optional. Especially when the weak members are also well-liked by the team. Other team members are going to carry the extra load and eventually that is going to lead to resentment. A sense of loyalty towards you may delay this – but it’s going to happen.


I think its way more important to lead a culture than to lead a cult. Cults go out of style very fast – culture becomes an integral part of every individual who’s been a part of it. So if your boss thinks your absence will break your team, while it may feel like a compliment – it’s a warning sign.

2 Responses

  1. Really well-written Mahesh. I’d suggest another one that invariably happens in great self-sustaining teams but is surprisingly under appreciated. Working on the process, and not on the results. I think if we start thinking how to make processes person independent, lot of other things fall in place. Keep writing.


    1. Thanks Abhi! Processes are important, especially at scale. However, ultimate aim of processes is execution of tasks. But wouldn’t it be fantastic to build a team that keeps innovating, improving and keeps pushing the envelope? Easier said than done of course 🙂

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