As a team leader, or as a director of multiple teams, do you find yourself searching for ways to build the holy grail of all teams, the “high performance team?”
Or, you’re frustrated, because you’ve created, or been on, a high performance team, but you can’t duplicate the process, so all of your future teams pale in comparison.
By high performance, I mean the team that’s autonomous and self managing, that produces killer high quality output at a predictable, reliable rate, and seems unshakeable in the face of uncertainty and change. In other words, the team that everyone wants.
“Modern management theory” (whatever that means, these days) is focusing its energies to convince leaders that it is their job to create the cultural conditions that maximize the odds of a high performance team emerging. The rest is often chalked up to luck and other unpredictable factors.
While I agree that we still don’t understand every facet of what makes up a high performance team, I for one am not willing to stop at culture design alone and hope for the best, I need more. My experiences as a manager of managers has allowed me the opportunity to observe different leadership styles. I have come to believe that there is an unsung, quiet, leader persona, that is a crucial individual element for creating high performance teams. I have not found a label or description for this type of person, so I am choosing to call this persona the “Glue Leader.” The Glue Leader is someone who, by their presence, “glues” the team together emotionally. Finding these Glue Leaders is also the job of senior leadership, and there are cultural design elements that should be considered in order to set up the Glue Leader to succeed.
This blog will describe
- Why I think the Glue Leader is critical
- The characteristics of a Glue Leader
- What team culture design elements are important to set up the Glue Leader for success.
I have also interviewed two people that I believe are Glue Leaders, to share their perspectives on their leadership style. Yoh Kawanami, who used to work for me as a project manager, and Andy Cleff, who has co-led leadership training courses with me.
Why the Glue Leader is critical for high performance teams
Google performed a study to understand what makes high performance teams work, a research project they called “Project Aristotle.” In a nutshell, they found the most important factor to high performance teams is psychological safety. In other words, each member of the team needs to feel emotionally safe, which often translates into asking for help as early as possible, putting the needs of the team ahead of their own because they’re not afraid of losing their jobs, and being willing to fail early to open learning opportunities. The findings of Project Aristotle have been reposted, cited, dozens of times, as the “golden key” to successfully create a high performance team.
I don’t know about you, but for me, I know what it “feels” like to be in a psychologically safe environment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s obvious how to make it happen. It’s not a “skill,” it’s not something that can be mandated or required (as in, you WILL feel safe, RIGHT NOW! Sure, that’s gonna work). It takes…people. More specifically, it takes the Glue Leader. The person that people feel comfortable with.
What are the characteristics of a Glue Leader
First and foremost, Glue Leaders are rarely the formal leaders of the team.
This is what Yoh and Andy have to say:
Q: Do people on your team view you as the guy in charge? Why or why not? How do you feel about that?
Yoh: Throughout my career, I usually had a supervisor that was also directly involved with my team, so I doubt that I am considered the guy in charge. And I’m ok with that, as long as we are able to accomplish our task at hand. What my team members do know is that my calm demeanor approach does not waver even if the project turns south and that they can rely on me to get through the storm.
Andy: Nope. I make it clear I am not in charge, we are a team that makes collective decisions. Leadership by persuasion, example, and not power or coercion. I am fine with this.
What I find interesting about Glue Leaders is they rarely seek formal positions of power or authority. Rather, they prefer to work behind the scenes as the unsung hero. I’ve learned that it takes a great amount of emotional maturity to not need validation in the form of a title, or even public recognition as “the boss.” This lends well to strong, confident, introverted types.
Glue Leaders are the conciliators, the “safe social nexus.”
Do you know of someone that everyone in the office likes to “hang out” with? The person that always seems to find a way to find the positive in people? The confidant that people go to when they have a problem. If you do, you may have found your own Glue Leader.
Q: From your perspective, can you describe your leadership style
Andy: Servant leader, multiplier, coach, facilitator, connector of dots.
Yoh: My leadership style has always been focused on team accomplishments where the credits/praise is always for the team and not for myself. Acknowledging that no one is perfect (including myself), failure is not met with criticism but as a lessons learned opportunity for all. In such environment, I believe my team members are more comfortable approaching me when they encounter either a challenge or a mistake.
Glue Leaders are rarely the technical superstars on the team
Glue Leaders often shy away from the spotlight as the formal leader of the team. Oftentimes, this also means they are not the technical subject matter expert on the team. This means the Glue Leader will rarely be the technical lead, chief engineer, or product architect. I believe this is a chicken-and-egg scenario. Technical leads are often visible leaders by default. They make the tough calls for how to architect something, and they are the saviors that swoop in to fix the problem no one else can. It is therefore easy for strong technical leads to be put on a pedestal, which can easily become intimidating for less talented team members. The potential for being elevated higher than other team members works against the flow of a Glue Leader, which is why I’ve found Glue Leaders are often “just one of the guys.”
For those of you that like sports, here’s an example from basketball. Shane Battie is a player for the NBA that has less-than-stellar individual stats. However, when you dig into his career, you find a remarkably strong correlation to increased team performance to whatever team he’s on. This article geeks up Shane’s positive impacts on teams he’s played on, and even more interestingly, the deleterious impacts he has on the opposing teams.
How to create the conditions so a Glue Leader can succeed
Understanding the psyche of a Glue Leader is important to setting them up to win. I’ll move past basic things like trusting them, giving them autonomy, essentially the things that are pretty helpful for anyone to succeed. I asked Andy and Yoh what they think their external “measures of success are,” which can give insights into how they take pride in their work.
Q: Lets assume for the moment that you really are a glue leader. How do you measure your impacts on the team? In other words, if your boss was to ask you to come up with metrics to prove the business value of being the glue leader, what would you suggest?
Yoh: Ultimately whether the person is a glue leader or not, the supervisor is looking for results. If the team doesn’t perform, the approach doesn’t matter. With that said, if the supervisor is seeking a specific metric on how one should value a Glue Leader, two data points are turnover and promotions. Is the team member happy working with such leader that they stay longer with the team than others. And if they do leave is it because they have been promoted to lead another team to carry on what they have learned. These are the types of metrics that would add value to the company to spread quality level leaders throughout the company.
Andy: Is the team continuously improving? Are individuals on the team generally happy. Are the stakeholders general happy with the value the team is producing? Is the team becoming more and more autonomous, and am I dispensable yet still wanted?
What I find interesting about their answers is that their metrics of success are long-term. They’re not talking schedule or cost compliance, they’re interested in the real impacts they’re making at a human connection level. So many companies talk about valuing their people, but that’s easier said than done. If you have a Glue Leader, and want to help them succeed, then giving them a long runway to show the positive impacts they’re making can go a really long way.
I also think Andy’s sentiment of “dispensable yet still wanted” is intriguing. If he’s doing his job right, then the team can eventually “evolve” beyond needing him around, but because he is emotionally connected to the team, they still want him around. Hopefully, leadership intuitively understands that the glue is present which is why the team is working so well, but that also means that the glue needs to stay with the team to keep the benefits going.
I’m happy for Yoh and Andy to have found a unique place in this world, and am glad to have had the opportunity to work with both of them. I am deeply intrigued by the possibilities of a Glue Leader, and am always on the lookout for more of them, and to deepen my understanding of what makes them tick, and how to help them help teams succeed.
Have you run into a Glue Leader? Are you a Glue Leader yourself? Let’s start a conversation about it!