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Leading High Impact Teams
by Cynder Niemela


Here is a compilation of earlier articles by Cynder Niemela, based on her excellent, award winning book - Leading High Impact Teams: The Coach Approach to Peak Performance. Enjoy! ed.

High Impact Defined

The first step in building a high impact team is exploring the meaning of “high impact.” Keep in mind that each team must create its own definition, based on the challenges it faces, but the following points provide a starting place:

High Impact Leaders:

  • Assertive communication skills to lead teams and champion projects to senior management;

  • Rebel constructively to make positive organizational change;

  • Manage successful projects in a project-averse corporate culture;

  • Discuss business competencies that support high-impact project management such as business awareness, forging successful partnerships, commitment to quality, initiative, analytical and conceptual thinking, self-confidence, and flexibility;

  • Manage conflict effectively to support high-impact results;

  • Advanced in people management practices.

High Impact Teaming™ Processes & Changes May Include:

  • Skills needed to reach the next higher level of organizational change;

  • Risk analysis or earned value analysis to support high-impact control results;

  • Moving organization to higher levels of process maturity for high-impact project results (i.e., for software as first developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute);

  • Planning for high impact organizational results;

  • Processes and methodologies that create momentum for change and are effective in the eyes of senior management (not just efficient);

  • Comparing existing methodologies for new product development (RMP, Stage-Gate, PACE, etc.

High Impact Teaming™ Tools / Techniques:

  • Virtual High Impact Teaming© methodologies utilizing technology and HIT Tool Kit©;

  • Web applications and usage for high impact projects;

  • Estimating tools for high-impact scheduling and budgeting;

  • Latest types of software tools that are helping project managers lead more effectively;

  • Tools and techniques which are easy to use and create value almost immediately after implementation.

High-Impact Project Types (very high profile in the organization or by society):

  • Security-driven projects that relate to combating terrorism or electronic invasions of highly sensitive information such as corporate intellectual property or highly-secret military information;

  • Projects that deal with break-through medical research, such as human or animal cloning or an aspect of DNA research;

  • Complex but highly successful projects that made a major impact on the world or community such as NASA moon project, San Francisco airport expansion, or Bay Area bridge upgrades;

  • Projects that change organizational culture to make it more competitive (e.g., Six Sigma, enterprise-wide CRM, ERP);

  • Projects where failure could severely impact the company or government agency;

  • Projects with accelerated schedules to launch product in the market place before the competition or to catch-up with the competition if you think they are ahead of you.

As you can see, there are many facets of meaning to “high impact.” Consider carefully how your team can be transformed into a high impact team.

Phases of Team Development: Preparing to Set Sail and Setting Sail

In this first phase, team members become acquainted with each other, establish ground rules, and begin to establish working agreements. At this point, individuals may be concerned with fitting in with the team and the contributions they may make. Exchanges between team members are generally polite and guarded, with members reluctant to take risks and share ideas. Team members will generally defer most decisions and direction to the team leader during this phase.

The team leader contracts with the coach and then with the team members about the team’s purpose, objectives and tasks. At the beginning, team members are watching to see how the agreements will work in action and how the team dynamics will be manifested. Individuals will often ask themselves the following questions during this phase:

  • Why am I here?

  • Do I want to be a member of this team?

  • Will others value my contribution?

  • How much work is required?

  • What are we supposed to accomplish and by when?

It is critical for team members to find satisfying answers to these questions. When they do they will be ready to progress to the next phase.

Activities that assist the team in developing the critical practices for this phase include creating a Shared Purpose and Vision, Storyboarding and the 5-Step Contracting Process. Early wins in these activities generate confidence and the context for ongoing success. We also find that in the next phase, Weathering Storms, teams who experience success early on are more willing to be in healthy conflict.

Fostering Relationships Among Team Members

We all know that rapport with clients is good for business, but how many understand the bottom-line value of rapport among the team's own members?

High-impact teams operate in an atmosphere of trust and goodwill. "Office politics" is notably absent in high-impact teams. The safety provided under the team's umbrella (and consciously fostered by its leader) is an important ingredient in empowering team members to bring their best talents to bear on the team's vision.

Steve Boyes is a partner in a global financial services firm. When he came to me for team coaching, his team was in a state of disarray. Assessments showed that trust among team members was low; nor was there any shared vision to keep the team focused and excited. One year after beginning his coaching program, Steve's team had become a shining star within its organization, was receiving letters of appreciation from clients regularly, and had increased revenue by 138%.

The change: Relationships among team members.

Right from the beginning, my work with Steve and his team focused on trust. Through a series of trust-building exercises, the team forged genuine bonds among its members. Meaningful conversations were sparked that led to feelings of cohesion. After a few months, members were able to express heartfelt concerns for each others' difficulties. Soon they stopped seeing themselves as a group of individuals and began to perceive themselves organically, as a collection of complementary strengths. They saw that these strengths were ideally suited to carrying out the purpose of the team, now redefined as "Providing excellent innovative service for our clients and a balanced life for every member of our team."

The Importance of Rapport

In a competitive society, it is easy to lose sight of the role human kindness plays in creating a safe environment where high motivation can thrive.

Looking back at his journey from low-impact to high-impact team leader, Steve now sees the logic in the work we did together: "Our company's vision statement talks about developing long-term relationships with our clients. But if our team of consultants is not cohesive, then how can we possibly team with our clients?"

How, indeed. An added bonus of fostering trust and goodwill among team members is that Steve's team became intrinsically motivated to succeed. Instead of requiring extrinsic rewards (bonuses, trips, etc.) to do its work, the team members tended to find the work itself rewarding. Well matched to their duties, the team members were now pulling for each other as well as themselves, and were free to let go and win.

Don’t Forget to Celebrate!

Are you planning a Holiday party for your team? If not, get busy. Teams that celebrate together have better working relationships and higher morale.

Celebrating regularly is one of the qualities that distinguish high impact teams from ordinary teams. Make sure you have a system in place for celebrating with your team at regular intervals. Standards (how, when and why) for these celebrations can be included in the working agreement.

Celebrating doesn't have to be about parties. Acknowledgment, applause, or sharing of positive feedback are all forms of celebration. A congratulatory e-mail after job well done is a type of celebration. One team I worked with put positive feedback from internal new product demonstrations at the end of their status reports. Small potatoes? Not at all! Every member of the team got a boost from those comments. There's no such thing as praise that's unwelcome!

Celebrations, recognition and rewards help teams to:

  • Facilitate transition from one phase to another

  • Raise and sustain a synergistic and light morale

  • Give attention to meaningful moments in the team's life

  • Reinforce team values, goals, and working agreements

  • Increase shared purpose, pride and accomplishment

  • Motivate team members after long periods of intense work.

Work with your team to identify meaningful opportunities for celebrations. Here are some examples:

  • Solving a challenging problem

  • People joining or leaving the team

  • Birthdays

  • Outstanding collaborative efforts of team members

  • Reaching critical milestones.

Celebrations don't have to be expensive. Time out in the afternoon for some light refreshments and a review of the team's latest accomplishment can be highly meaningful. While writing my book "Leading High Impact Teams," my collaborator and I would sense the need for a treat after a period of intense work and reward ourselves by going out for a long run together. It refreshed our minds, our bodies and our friendship.

In an office setting, the ritual will be different. But make sure you have rituals for celebrating the achievements of team members. High impact teams are made up of members who know their value and feel excitement at the prospect of achieving their goals. Regular recognition -- a chance to bask in the glory of one's accomplishments -- keeps the chase exciting.

The Need for Renewal

High impact teaming keeps teams performing at optimum levels, but even the best of leaders and team members need renewal. To maintain excellence, your team must regularly find ways to restore its energies. Teams that don’t, often suffer from boredom, burnout, and poor morale. One way to revive collaborative and synergistic energy is to infuse creativity as a means of renewal.

Infusing Creativity

Creativity can break up stale thinking patterns and perspectives. It enables us to address new problems with new solutions. Activities for infusing creativity don’t have to be time consuming or expensive. Just taking a walk, getting some exercise, or an unexpected lunch out can make the difference.

A powerful renewal tool that employs creativity is Idea Mapping.

What is Idea Mapping?

Idea mapping is an activity that generates seemingly free-form ideas and enables you to map the ideas together. An Idea Map helps teams create a broader, more comprehensive solution to a problem or to design a new product, service, or organization. The exercise asks participants to use keywords, colors, and graphics to form a nonlinear network of potential ideas and observations.

Idea Mapping How-To

You will need the following materials:

  • Post-its for each participant
  • Colored marking pens or crayons
  • Two flip charts or white boards and pens


  1. The leader describes the outcome desired for the Idea Map.

  2. In the center of the flip chart, write a word or phrase that describes the essence of the problem or opportunity and draw a circle around it.

  3. Ask participants to jot down all of their ideas about the problem or opportunity. Put one idea on each Post-it.

  4. Randomly place the Post-it notes on the flip chart and connect any related ideas with arrows.

  5. Cluster main concepts (3-5) among the ideas generated by drawing geometric symbols around tem and identifying the symbols in a legend. (For example, a rectangle could describe problem-solving approaches.)

  6. Now create an outline by listing on another flip chart sheet the cluster headings with associated ideas listed underneath. Rank in a logical order.

  7. Write a statement that formally defines the desired outcome to the problem or opportunity.

This is just one way to refresh your team with creativity. To keep your team at its best, make sure to take the time to find methods of renewal.

Burnout: Cutting it Off at the Pass

Teams cannot perform at optimal levels indefinitely. In our experience, teams whose charters call for them to work together for six months or more are subject to boredom and burnout. For a team to sustain excellence over time, its leader must be alert to signs of stress and prepared to boost morale at the first signs of burnout.

What are the signs of burnout?

  • Loss of a sense of humor;

  • Negative attitude toward the work or other team members (gossiping);

  • Loss of efficiency -- taking longer to do simple tasks;

  • Passive-aggressive behavior; such as arriving late to meetings, interrupting others during meetings, treating others dismissively, etc.

  • Tunnel vision - can't see "the big picture;"

  • Diminished problem-solving abilities.

As team leader, it's up to you to be sensitive to these signs and to understand that they don't spell disloyalty or bad character, but are simply the predictable behaviors of people undergoing stress. You have both the power and the responsibility to help team members find a wellspring of renewal, so they can rededicate themselves to the team's Shared Vision and Purpose.

How can you do this?

  • When a team member shows signs of stress, lighten up and add humor to your communications with her.

  • Make sure team members are taking care of themselves in ways that will provide renewal. Areas to be considered include proper rest, adequate social life, recreation that involves a change of pace and scenery, and so on. Inquire in a friendly way about team members' lives outside the office. If you feel there's a lack of balance in their lives, find a tactful way to discuss the problem and make constructive suggestions. Sometimes a show of genuine caring is enough to bring a team member back into the fold.

  • Periodically schedule team outings or team sessions that are free of task work. Add some bonding activities to these sessions that bring team members closer together.

  • Offer one-on-one coaching as a strategy to help people renew. A coach acts as an objective, yet empathetic confidant. Coaching can be used during periods of stress to lighten the burden and to clear away the fog of stress.

  • Find a way to offer recognition for past successes. Even something as small as reminiscing about a person's professional triumphs (especially if it's in front of other team members) can break the spell of negativity. Caring behavior always wins loyalty -- a quality high impact teams are known for.

Remember that burnout is a progressive disease!

Arriving at the Destination

The end. What does that mean for a team project? In most project schedules, there’s a line item that indicates the team’s last task. However, reaching that last task doesn’t mean that the team’s work is done. As the team reaches its destination, three completion factors add up to high impact performances. First is presenting the work. Second is gathering the gained wisdom of the individuals and the team. Last is meeting the individuals’ and the team’s need for completion or closure.

When the coach and team leader do not ensure that these three areas are addressed, remnants of the project linger and subtly prevent people from being fully present in their next endeavor. Research shows that when people reflect on past accomplishments, their vision into the future goes further than if they do not.

You can help to create the opportunity for an intentional completion by pointing out to the team that simply stopping an activity does not create a satisfying sense of completion. Team members generate a wide variety of presentation formats and celebration styles once they accept completion as a phase of the team’s development.

Benefits of Taking Time to Conclude

Others outside the team recognize individual contributions. When sponsors give recognition and appreciation to the individual contributors, it creates a greater motivational pull to achieve organizational vision.

Team members identify how they have grown and professional benefited from their participation on the team. Gathering the learning promotes integration of new behaviors that foster high performance on future teams. This is critical to developing sustainability in organizations.

Individuals have the opportunity to put closure on unresolved issues or relationships rather than carrying them into future work. Team members continue to learn the needs of different team members even as they observe how others like to celebrate and complete.

Celebration and completion reinforces organizational goals and values. It improves morale among team members and has a broader impact on the morale of the organization.

Next time, we’ll continue to discuss completion and explore ways of “gathering the learning” and presenting the team’s work.

Gathering the Learning

Now let’s discuss the best methods of benefiting from the experience as the team project ends.

Gathering the learning is an active process that precedes presenting the work. Set aside time for encouraging the team members to appreciate what they are taking away — what they have learned that they can use as their career unfolds. Once the individual learning has been identified, turn your attention to what the organization can learn from the team’s collective experience. As questions like:

  • Once this is over, what are you going to miss?

  • What problems came up that you worked through and how did you do it?

  • If you were to update your resume now, how would you describe the accomplishment of this team?

  • What new behaviors or skills will you take to your next project?

  • What did you learn about what it takes to become a high impact team?

  • What would you do differently on your next team?

Presenting the Team’s Work

Teams should present both their journey to becoming a high impact team and the business results of their work. High impact teams usually present their work to both the assembled team and the organization at large. One approach is to coach the sponsor or leader to ask the team to identify what they accomplished and are most proud of. Another is to ask the team to explain how their work supports the organization in meeting its goals.

Now that team members know what they’ve learned and have presented their work, it is time for individual team members to say their goodbyes to the team. People want to feel a sense of accomplishment, to recognize their own growth and development, and to be appreciated by others.


The Author

Leading High Impact Teams


Cynder Niemela coaches executives and business teams to Peak Performance. Her book, Leading High Impact Teams: The Coach Approach to Peak Performance was voted one of the Best Business Books for 2001 by The CEO Refresher.

For additional information email: or visit .

Many more articles in High Performance Teams in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2003 by Cynder Niemela. All rights reserved.

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