Having spent my last 11 years growing an agency, one of the factors we squeeze and optimize most frequently is performance.
Agencies are a weird beast that gets scrutinized all the time. Why?
- Enterprises are large and monolith enough to employ an endless set of processes going through multiple layers across a number of departments across the organization, taking forever to execute
- Product businesses don’t face deadlines in the same way an agency does. Roadmaps are more easy-going, distractions are fewer, people work on a single product at a time (continuously)
- Support/maintenance firms get interrupted frequently, but established processes in place ensure that there’s a clear chain of command and a limited set of activities support staff is in charge of (and expected to accomplish)
Agencies are a combination of them all. The feast-and-famine cycle leads to irregular levels of work, sales, and project management processes that usually contribute to scope creep, digital and technical challenges + 3rd party dependences inevitably support delays. In most companies, people shift between multiple projects at a time. God forbid sick leaves!
Unless you predominantly work with A-stars, you’re practically out of business in the context of an agency. But regardless of the business you want to run, here are some of the main tips you need to consider when building a high-performance team.
1. Evaluate Your Existing Team
The very first step is inventorization.
Gauge your existing team. Is every member up to the standard?
Sure, some perform better than others. In reality, your crew is around because they deliver.
- Some of them can handle multiple projects at a time.
- Others are more precise when it comes to solving complex problems.
- Certain members fix emergency bugs quickly, no matter what.
- Some can document or report back to a client mitigating further threads.
Assess the top qualities each member represents for the organization. Use this as a starting point when vetting future applicants.
2. Build a Value Culture Map
Culture maps are a powerful instrument to strengthen and expand your organization upon the existing company culture. Essentially, they build on top of the mission and value statements you designed early on.
Using the qualities you want to amplify and expand upon, build, or adjust your culture map through every possible channel. Starting from your vision statement, going through your job descriptions, and used as an assessment matrix during feedback sessions.
Start simple, but use this as a moral compass for future hires. We’ll expand on that in the next sections.
3. Design a Bulletproof Hiring Process
No matter how great your hiring process is so far—there’s always room for improvement.
One of the key instruments we leveraged a while back are behavior-based interview questions. After reading High-Impact Interview Questions: 701 Behavior-Based Questions to Find the Right Person for Every Job, we sat down and included a number of highly relevant questions for each role, stressing on the importance of traits we care about deeply.
The book contains a long list of sample questions, but more importantly, it covers the process of preparing a skill matrix for your organization.
Roughly speaking, you can pick the core traits you care about, and design your interview process around them. This process can start as a generic workflow focusing on 3 or 4 traits at a time. As your company expands, the process can be improved in multiple ways:
- Start with the core values for every single member of the organization
- Add critical traits for every role – since development and sales usually don’t share the same values when it comes to hard skills for top performers
- Expand on qualities for senior roles. What makes a great junior doesn’t translate to a senior, a team lead, or a VP of Engineering.
Designing your hiring process around the traits matrix can be an eye-opening exercise during feedback sessions and while discussing possible promotions with your staff.
4. Continue With a Stellar Onboarding Process
An Australian survey shows that 6 out of 10 managers have had an employee leave due to a poor onboarding process. Hiring is slow and expensive as-is – the last thing you need is extra turnover due to poor onboarding practices.
For starters, the right onboarding process will get your new hire up to speed faster. You don’t want to pay for training for months in a row until you start to see some results. Set some clear expectations and an action plan that gets the job done.
Additionally, a streamlined plan builds confidence for both parties. Top performers want to be in alignment with management, proving they’re worth it, and hitting goals as best as they can.
And if you aim for a high-performance culture, a flaky onboarding process will be your first obstacle in getting there. Good luck re-training your team member after months of slacking or confusion due to the wrong expectations set from the start.
5. Set Clear High-Performing KPIs
Let’s face it: a high-performance culture thrives on hitting goals quickly with flying colors.
Set the right expectations for new hires – be it juniors or senior talent. Clearly outline what they need to be able to accomplish once the onboarding is over. Don’t shy away from discussing details: such as streamlined and crystal clear commit messages or submitting unit tests for developers, proper keyword and headline research for content writers, or a certain sales quota for sales engineers.
You can play with expectations during the process and adjust as needed. But set the bar high based on your top talent (calibration necessary) and indicate this to new hires.
It’s a fine line and you can still lose talent if you aim too high. But finding the right balance will uncover the performers you truly need to scale up your business.
6. Grow Leadership Bottom-Up
High performers come with high expectations.
Employees don’t quit jobs – they quit managers.
Bringing in external management in a culture of top performers is a risky endeavor. Of course, it may be required every now and then, but it’s important to always look inside first before seeking external talent.
High performers are ambitious. They work hard and smart, hitting goals and overcoming obstacles. Promotions are in order – as long as a new title won’t jeopardize the business or cause friction due to missing soft skills.
Once you build your value map and align your hiring process accordingly, you should be aware of the qualities a senior lead should possess. Schedule meetings with your top performers and clearly indicate what it takes to make the next step.
It’s hard to negate a senior order from a leader who has spent years combating challenges side by side with their comrades.
7. Reward Overachievers
Actions speak louder than words.
On top of your public statements regarding your desire to build a high-performing culture, make sure your overachievers understand the importance—and so do your other colleagues.
You can implement a number of different techniques that would indicate that your top performers are worth following:
- The standard “Employee of the month” award
- Monthly bonuses for overachievers
- Weekly shout out for top accomplishments during group stand-ups
- A hall of fame on your website (or an internal productivity/management system)
- Promoting top talent when the time comes
Adjust that based on your existing processes. But in any case, reward the people who work hard and convey that to the rest of the team, continuously.
Just make sure you don’t go overboard by compromising your core expectations for new hires or the culture map.
8. Don’t Compromise On Culture—Ever
Speaking of culture, you can’t build a solid core if you’re making exceptions for certain teammates.
The sales world has suffered immensely from prioritizing short-term revenue over culture and long-term results. In various cases, the top salesperson may be toxic—using shortcuts to close deals, overpromising just to hit sales quota, and bragging indefinitely regardless of hidden tricks up their sleeves.
If your top performers align well with your company culture, that’s wonderful. However, if they portray qualities that directly compete with the value map you’ve designed, punish this behavior immediately.
You don’t have to fire them on the spot—a solid warning or a performance improvement plan may be in order prior to the last resort. But tolerating culture shakedowns for short-term revenue will cost you a fortune soon enough.
9. Incorporate Regular Feedback Sessions
Top performers need both validation and calibration.
To ensure that everything runs smoothly, incorporate two different feedback protocols:
- Regular feedback – make it as frequently as possible. Every quarter or every month may do, depending on the duration of the assessment. But waiting for an entire year to send over a feedback report would not work in a high-performing team.
- Instant feedback – whenever a solid accomplishment needs praising or a recurring problem is detected, act upon it immediately. Pull your colleagues into a room or schedule a meeting for the next day. Brief them and set expectations straight.
Acting quickly and gathering feedback on a regular basis will keep your performance review process and feedback workflow intact while minimizing the risks of critical exceptions along the way.
10. Build a Career Map For Job Opportunities
Speaking of ambitious top performers, career growth and opportunities are important for many.
More importantly, as you scale your hiring process and recruit more talented A-stars, your existing career ladder would not sustain promotions in the same way it used to previously.
You can’t promote everyone to a team leader or manager. This means that you have to become creative and invent more opportunities for top talent so you can retain them longer.
In terms of horizontal scaling, you can always offer a full-stack role that incorporates additional opportunities within the same field.
When it comes to climbing up the ladder, find out if you can create new roles that complement the existing leadership positions. Additionally, consider breaking down your products or initiatives into different segments, each allowing for a new lead to step in.
The software engineering field presented a new type of role called “Individual Contributor” for overachievers who don’t necessarily need to manage a team. Certain initiatives can be handled standalone (for the most part), which can be a lucrative opportunity for hardcore experts who can get the job done and own a product or a component entirely. The same concept can be applied to marketing or business development, for example.
Bottom line: consider your top talent as intrapreneurs within the organization.
11. Integrate Tooling For Visibility And Transparency
Goals and deliverables are the bread and butter of a high-performing team.
You have to max out your existing toolkit or switch to new systems that enable you to measure velocity, compare task completions over time, track down delays and blockers, and design specific dashboards that make decision-making possible.
At DevriX, we solved this problem through multiple initiatives, including:
- Fully utilizing Asana for project management in ways we haven’t before
- Connecting additional tools and SaaS solutions that enable us to create Gantt charts and track down overflow of tasks (or underassigned employees) to manage the load better
- Building our own custom time tracking system with better notifications and a number of custom rules across projects
- Creating SaaS BPM as a complementary tool for our account managers and operations team for better distribution and allocation of work (immensely helpful especially around covid, sick leaves, remote work)
- Designing our own dashboard incorporating multiple systems in the same place, including a feedback platform gathering data such as problematic deploys or tasks that required more back and forth than needed
In any case, what you need to focus on is data. Aligning your team’s work around metrics will improve the process and make your feedback cycles much more reasonable.
12. Continuously Train Your Leaders
The further your organization grows, the more important your leadership stays credible and adequate to react and develop your high-performance team further.
With more A-stars joining the team, your leadership crew can feel intimidated, or unable to progress sufficiently. This can cause friction, or even showcase ego traits that are not appropriate within your cultural matrix.
This is why boosting your leaders is just as important as keeping the performance culture a standard for the rest of the company.
Look for leadership training courses in your area (or virtually). Consider what would benefit them the most, and make sure you integrate that within your annual budget as a recurring investment.
Consider coaches and advisors too. Working directly with your top leadership team—as a group or in 1-on-1s—will uncover new challenges and discover ways to resolve them over time. From soft skills to communication techniques to presentation strategies, your leaders should be role models, possessing the required confidence, critical thinking, and feedback-delivering skills everyone deserves.
And most importantly—you, as an executive, should be stepping up progressively yourself. Learn continuously, join mastermind groups, find your own business advisor—do whatever it takes to guide the ship in the right direction at all times as you grow.
13. Create Clear Escalation Channels
It’s integral to implement a streamlined communication system that works at all times.
As your organization grows and productivity spikes, you’ll accomplish more, but the team will face more challenges more frequently. This entails both interpersonal conflicts or delays and requests for new licenses, tools, upgrading servers, and the like.
Your expectations should go up too—escalating caveats because they turn into problems that turn into “all hands on deck” situations.
This requires a set of systems for escalations which is clear to all involved parties.
- Could be an emergency channel on Slack where everyone pings the entire crew in case of trouble.
- Or your head of support having a direct line of contact with executives to ensure it’s clear something may be happening soon.
- Your project management team may gather all delays or indications early in the day, reporting straight to executives in their daily standup.
- Or your operations manager can be in charge of monitoring dashboards early on.
- And automation could be improved continuously to ensure everyone is aware of most scenarios that could morph into a problem.
Find out what works best for now and implement it across the board. Document the types of activities that should be escalated as well and build a culture of trust that makes this happen.
14. Invest In Training
On top of leadership training, don’t forget specialization training for your most productive employees (the goal being almost everyone on the team).
Keeping a consistent pace is one of the hardest problems executives deal with in high-performing organizations. Industries have busy months and some downtime so schedule internal training courses whenever your staff isn’t overbooked.
When hiring, you may be able to distribute the workload better. This enables team members to leverage learning opportunities over different courses of time.
Additionally, implement a policy for downtime. If some staff members are between projects or awaiting approvals or assets from customers, or generally having a day or two without too much work on their plate, design a program for occupying their time. Consider internal products or tools, renovation of your website copy, tutorials, or training courses.
Set aside a budget for continuous training—especially for initiatives that would be more important over the coming years.
15. Create Internal Challenges
Your most ambitious talent may be seeking further growth opportunities outside of their day-to-day work.
We’ve seen this in practice across multiple companies and the right leaders have always been in charge of assigning “extracurricular activities” in the form of internal challenges, pet projects, internal products, or R&D initiatives for the future.
Your engineers may want to dive deeper into machine learning or big data. Or they want to explore React or Angular further, even if that’s not what they have to do at work (now).
Your content marketers may seek additional challenges in terms of producing skyscraper content. And maybe running roundup series that connect them with top influencers within the industry? How about starting a company podcast?
Freedom is a driving force for top talent eager to grow further. Make sure you can proactively assign problems that develop their skills and challenge their creative thinking. They will require mentorship and support and you should be ready to lend a hand outside of business hours, too.
16. Recognize Your Employees
One of the biggest fallacies with building high-performance teams is the expectation of hard work or all-nighters whenever needed.
Here’s the bitter truth: nobody will ever work as hard as you do unless they have a serious incentive to grind significantly more than they need to.
This may represent a stake at the firm, a specific compensation that makes sense, extra perks at the office, or anything else that your team member values. It’s often individual and it differs across team members.
I’ve uncovered some of the common techniques startups use to hire talent. Smaller businesses may be able to offer different incentives that large corporations can’t.
A team page with accomplishments may do the work for starters. Your marketing team can be featured across guest posts or stories (which is a form of credibility they retain in the future).
Growing a team of high performance requires dedication. The core of the organization—the leadership team and the culture—should be rock solid, sending the right message both internally (new hires) and externally (through PR and business activities).
Internal transformation is required for most companies to align the existing team along with processes and metrics required to get the job done. New hiring strategies and refined recruitment processes are integral to discover the right talent, too. And since the leadership team should give the right example, growing both personally and professionally is the key to making it happen.