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What Makes a Top Performing Team

Dec 24, 2019 | 13m

Gain Actionable Insights Into:

  • Why having a set of rock star performers on your team is not enough to guarantee success
  • The four Cs to consider when putting together a winning team
  • What corporate teams can learn from top performing sports teams


Traits of a Top Team

You’ll never find two people who are exactly the same, each person is unique. When you come together as a team, who you are as an individual is not as important as how well you’re able to work together. In my experience working with elite teams in cricket, I have noticed that top teams are those that unfailingly possess Seven Traits; it is these traits that make the difference between good teams and excellent teams.


The first trait is inclusivity. For a team to be successful, every member of the team should be involved and engaged. Create an environment where everyone has freedom and expects to be included in decisions that are made. You should make it explicitly clear that every member of your team has the right to have their say. That may mean that you need to create the expectation, offer more encouragement, make the environment “safer”, or give them an individual request to contribute.

You should also be focusing on bringing people with diverse perspectives together. As an umpire, I worked with cricket players of various ages who represented different cultures, languages, and religious backgrounds. This variety adds spice to the experience. You should embrace diversity within your team. Because if everyone comes from a similar background, you’re not really engaging with diversity and tapping into the collective intelligence of the group.

For example, we need more women in cricket, in umpiring, and sports in general. We certainly need more women in business and in management positions too. Why? Because women think and execute differently than men do. When you have an important decision to make, drawing insights from a healthy variety of perspectives will position you better for success. A team without diversity and a broad range of thoughts and ideas is limiting itself to a very narrow path.


Does every member of your team feel equally important? Successful teams don’t adopt the mindset of segmenting people based on seniority. At my first One Day International (ODI) match, my fellow umpire had 35 ODIs under his belt. We still walked out onto the field as equals. Sure, he had a lot more experience than me, but we both set out to do the same job and make the same decisions. At the end of the day, our priorities were the same - to succeed as a team. I couldn’t afford to sit back and let my colleague make all the decisions simply because he had more experience.

That’s the second part to egalitarianism – carrying your fair share of the work. Only when each member of your team is able to take full ownership of their roles and responsibilities can they contribute equally and meaningfully to the group’s objectives.

Clear Expectations

Have you ever approached a task not knowing what is expected of you? It’s certainly not a situation that will bring out your best work. When roles aren’t clear, situations are ripe for chaos. If you’re leading a team, be very clear about each person’s role and what is expected of them. This will shape their goals and progression as well.

You see, having clarity about your role affects the quality of your contribution, whether you’re a manager or a creative. In sports, this clarity can make or break a game. When people know their role, they’re empowered to contribute effectively when a problem comes up. They don’t wait for someone else to get things done because they know it’s their job to take charge of a specific set of responsibilities. They’re also going to be bolder in seizing opportunities that come along and focused on achieving their purpose.

How does this play out in team dynamics? When each person is focused on their role, they are freed up from having to worry about or cover for anyone else’s work. If you want to see your team succeed, give everyone clear directives and feedback, don’t work on assumptions.

As you articulate roles, don’t forget to take into account the various soft skills that people may or may not have. Many times, people’s soft skills are just as important to good teamwork as the technical skills they bring to the table. For example, are they exceptionally good communicators, or more composed under pressure than others? As a leader, you should identify these skills in people and tell them how their soft skills can add value to the team. Match the strengths of your people to the roles that need to be carried out.


The best teams in the world are made up of people who will actually play for each other and care for each other. They’re like a second family. This doesn’t just magically happen; teamwork must be intentionally built over time. In a corporate environment, you should work towards developing a trusting relationship between various people in your team.

Create opportunities to build understanding within the team. Make it a priority to schedule that team dinner or outing you’ve been thinking about. Be appreciative of each person’s contributions and the value they add to the team. Be accepting and respectful towards your colleagues. For example, if your team member doesn’t turn up at work, you could check in to ask if they’re okay. In turn, they’ll cover for you when you need them to. In short, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

It may be too ideal a notion in an environment like Hewlett Packard with over 2000 colleagues and employees. But foster the spirit of trust within smaller teams or departments in the organisation – the sales team or operations team, for example. You may not be able to implement this in the same way that sporting teams do, but building a foundation of trust can drastically improve corporate team dynamics.

A “Team First” Attitude

While you can have superstars within your team, it’s how they come together to create team success that matters. You want your team to be working towards a shared objective, not just one person’s agenda. Put the team before personal gains. If you’re not actively thinking and working towards team success, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. Because people who are selfish or self-centred might be successful for a short period of time, but they won’t succeed in the long run. It’s simply not sustainable.

“It’s in everybody’s interest to be successful as a team.”

For example, Ronaldo is a very successful footballer. But has he won a World Cup? No. It takes a team to win a World Cup. In cricket, as well, there’s no point in having just one umpire have a good game, because we’re going to be judged as a team. I’d have to plan to be successful, but also support my colleague to do his best as well.

Is everyone on your team willing to support their colleagues to do their best? Because when we’re successful as a team, we all win.

Be Supportive of Others

Along the same lines, being supportive is another mindset that you should be fostering in your team. Treat your team like you would treat your family; look out for them and pick them up when they stumble.

The saying, “a team is only as strong as its weakest link” is indeed true. If a member of your team tries to succeed at the expense of a colleague, the whole team loses out. Attitudes are infectious. Which type of attitude do you want spreading within the team? One of supporting and helping your colleagues or one of “me first” at the expense of others?


Culture is a word that’s thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean? It’s about having a set of values and rules that every member of your team agrees on. It’s a behaviour that we expect from others and ourselves. There’s a way to reverse-engineer this. Start by envisioning what a successful team looks like, and think about the types of mindsets and behaviours that would get you there. That’s culture for you.

Of course, none of this matters unless you’re actively communicating this to your team. As an individual, you’d have to show integrity to the values you want to champion. If you want your team to be punctual but you’re consistently showing up late, that’s a failure in culture. The second part to this is to make sure that your team can connect with the culture regularly and can contribute meaningfully. As a leader, outline what behaviours are unacceptable and draw clear boundaries. Take an active interest in your team’s culture and develop it with purpose. If you don’t, a culture will develop by default and it may not be one that’s best for the team.


Learn From Sports Teams

My knowledge of corporate teams may be limited, but from my experience, I can tell you that sports teams are much better at continuous improvement. Unlike corporate teams, sports teams are more focused on being brutally honest, getting feedback, self-assessment, and helping teammates who are falling behind. Sports teams are constantly looking at refining processes to enable success. It is easier to look at the scoreboard in sports than it is in a corporate setting.

Imagine a scenario where a corporate employee is constantly asking themselves what is working, and what they could improve on. They’re holding themselves accountable and are taking full ownership of their role in the team. This is a mindset of continuous improvement. Compare that to someone who thinks, “I’m just a cog in the wheel, what I think or do doesn’t really matter.” This person is likely to hold the team back.

What corporate environments do well is planning, strategy, using data to solve problems. So what can you do differently to tap into the successes of a high-performing sporting team? Take a deeper interest in processes and people. Look at holistic development and continuous improvement. You need to understand that when processes are strong, the bottom line will take care of itself. Think about giving and receiving feedback more often, and being more intentional about self-reflection and assessment.

Have a Change in Attitude

Most people in sport are in it for the love of the game. We don’t do it because we are merely chasing success or gains, we do it because we love what we do.

Consider refreshing your approach to work with this change in attitude. You work 40 or 60 hours a week. Why not challenge yourself to be the best at your job instead of just doing what it takes to hit your KPIs? You might find yourself getting more involved in your industry, and enjoying it to boot.


Everyone needs a coach. A lot of people in the corporate sector don’t have coaches. They have managers, which is not the same thing. A manager may challenge you, but as long as you’re showing up for work and not drastically messing up, you’re good to go.

A coach is someone with whom you have a unique relationship, one that is built entirely on trust. A coach has your best interest at heart. They’re going to be the ones championing continuous improvement. A coach thinks about how each individual’s goals can connect to the goals of the team. They’re aware of each person’s strengths and areas that need development. A coach will even look at how improvement plans align with the team’s overall strategy. They do this by asking questions. The best questions are the ones that make you think, by confronting you with your own thoughts and options. Good coaches won’t tell you what to do. They help you discover solutions to your own problems and take ownership of the issues you’re facing.

In a corporate environment, having your manager as your coach can come with its own set of challenges. A coach is someone who knows your game better than anyone else. This means that you should be comfortable approaching your coach with your most embarrassing shortcomings. You should be able to trust them enough to confide in them, and know that they will keep it confidential. However, how honest can you be with someone who ultimately determines whether you get promoted or not?

If you’re in a leadership role, you can try to embody the values of a coach regardless. You need to be holding your team accountable, preparing them, showing them that they can add value to the team, and giving them that roadmap to success. Start by asking questions that challenge your team member. Try not to be too confrontational or you might scare the person off. Look instead to stretch their limits and show their potential.

As a coach, you need to be continually challenging your people to get better. This happens when you give regular and meaningful feedback, show interest in your team members’ development, encourage self-reflection, and are generous with your time when they need your support.

Keep your eye on the big picture as well. Always refer back to the Seven Traits I shared earlier, and try to involve everyone in closing in the gaps. You’d work with each person’s strengths for the benefit of the team, all while making sure that everyone is subscribing to the team’s culture. There should also be an understanding that if someone steps out of line, you would have to take action.

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Simon Taufel

International Cricket Umpire, Performance Management Consultant



Developing Teams