The Secret Sauce: High-Performing Teams

Is there a recipe for growth in today’s economy?



Mack Brothers


With the right combination of ingredients used in a strategic way, companies can create a sauce that becomes the foundation of myriad success stories. Over the coming months, this series will identify those ingredients and discuss why they’re critical in today’s world. Then, once the ingredients are on the counter, the follow-up series will show how, when mixed together, they can help to create a sustainable business model: the recipe for success.


“The Secret Sauce” is an ironic gesture to anyone looking for that single fix to a problem or the single secret to a better outcome. The character of Curly Washburn in City Slickers, played by Jack Palance, glamorized this concept with his “One Thing” philosophy on life. Countless click-bait ads on social media utilize this approach to get people to spend lots of time trying to find the “one thing” they need to change their lives.

The fact of the matter is: There is no secret sauce. There is no single thing to lose weight—it is a mixture of changing your diet and exercise. There is no single cure for the common cold—it is a mixture of nutrition and rest. In business there is no single strategy, technology, or process to drive better outcomes; after all, the future is predictably unpredictable, and only a level of adaptability and preparedness will enable long-term success (more on this in later posts).


Still, there are secrets hiding in plain sight that people use to live better lives and achieve better results as well as to have a bigger and better impact on their ecosystems. In effect, there is a consistent series of “one thing” that can improve the situation we are in and drive growth.


Part 1: High-Performing Teams

A favorite construct of mine is that highly successful teams share characteristics and traits that are typically absent from just average or non-performing teams. With recent studies showing that more and more people spend daily worktime (this includes students) interfacing with colleagues or team members, the importance of getting team dynamics right is only increasing. When I think back on the most successful teams of which I was a member (ranging from high school sports teams to the 25 person start-up I was privileged to join early in my career), they all had common characteristics that were different than those teams I was on that were not successful. While what defined “success” was different in each case and my own role on each of those teams was different, there were two elements that were consistently the same across all of them: a shared sense of mission and trust.


For any team to stay aligned throughout the day, with the various distractions of working at home and other tasks that interfere with a goal, they need a point of reference: a North Star. Various team members will be starting from different places, either with different levels of experience or knowledge or even internal acceptance of the value of the work itself. While merely knowing the “goal” of the team is a start, having the same perspective on how each team member will get to the endpoint with the same level of energy is critically different.


The component of the secret here is the word “shared.” It is a shared sense of mission—not just a mission, aligned goal, or agreed upon project plan. The power of this concept is that the energy being input by each member of a high-performing team is understood by each other, agreed on by each other as the necessary input, and is focused on a consistent view of the same goal. Think of a series of vectors (in physics, these encompass energy and direction) that start at different places but are all aimed at the same point in the distance. The total view of a map of these vectors then represents the shared sense of a team mission; individual members as a vector, but all aimed at the same point and all knowing what the map looks like. This is not to say that the goal is fixed in place and time. That aiming point can and usually does change over time, but teams with a shared sense of mission communicate honestly (usually politely), adapt to the new reality, and come up with a new view of the map—a new goal that drives success of the mission.


This approach does two things. First, the efforts/energy being spent on the goal are used as efficiently as possible, with little duplication of effort and little wasted time on lower or no value items. Second, team communication is quick and seamless. A sports team that knows the playbook and is able to use their own shorthand to adjust to a new play or new alignment is a perfect example. To change a designed play in American football, you do not need to stop the play, regroup, and have a long discussion. The quarterback (the on-field leader) is able to call an audible to his teammates, who all know the totality of the new play and are able to quickly execute their part in the change. This illustrates the value of a shared sense of mission in an operational environment, but the power really comes when that is deployed at a higher, strategic level—when teams understand their place in the strategy, know what is expected of them, and have aligned their efforts to it.


Trust is the other critical component of successful teams. I would say it is the critical ingredient. Trust is a measure of belief, but it is also a measure of the human condition as it is only given at the deepest levels of a personal relationship.  It is both rational and emotional. Teams can have a shared sense of mission, but without trust as the foundation, the energy will be dispersed as team members start to go their own path to protect themselves. Trust can only be gained through open communication, vulnerability, and having people know the human side of you. Warren Buffet is famous for saying that the person he trusts the most in business, his business partner Charlie Munger, tells him everything he does is dumb. If Munger says it is really dumb, it is a bad idea. If it is just plain dumb, it is worth trying. The concept of radical candor—having direct conversations while maintaining an attitude of caring—is a helpful construct to building trust.


The reason this is such a powerful foundation is that trust inherently creates a low-risk environment for people. Once you are at a level of trust, you have created a sense of security that allows for team members to stop worrying about their own protection and spend that energy on the mission. It creates another efficiency effect by lowering intrateam friction and unleashing more and more personal energy into the team, allowing momentum to build towards the successful outcome.


With that level of efficiency and connectivity, high performing teams have removed most of the internal roadblocks that prevent many of us from being greatly successful and are able to focus their efforts on the shared mission. High-performing teams built on a shared sense of mission and trust can still overcome poor strategy, bad markets, or lackluster leadership and drive an organization to success. Creating such teams then becomes the first critical ingredient you need to refine as the base for your organization’s sauce. Without it, success is harder and longer to obtain, costs more in many ways, and is never fully maximized. Real power then comes when you add the other ingredients: customer centricity, a simple strategy, and leadership, which just so happen to be the focus of the rest of this “Secret Sauce” series.


Further Reading

Here are some books that have influenced me, for this post and otherwise:

  • The Trusted Advisor (Maister, Green, and Galford)
  • Wooden on Leadership (Wooden and Jamison)
  • Radical Candor (Scott)
  • Extreme Ownership (Willnik and Babin)