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Happy and High Performing Teams a la SXSW

Shane and I had a great time at South by Southwest (SXSW) this year.  As the event slowly becomes more distant in my memory I’m attempting to post some of the learnings on the blog.  In this post I’m going to address the session titled, 10 Strategies for Building a Happy and High Performing Team, lead by Beth Hallmark and Drew Scherz.

Let me start by saying this was one of 2 sessions that we attended in a small room.  Both were extremely engaging because everyone had a voice in the conversation.  I highly recommend attending some small sessions if you plan to visit SXSW.

Beth and Drew work as team leaders in the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts overseeing Susan Combs’ award winning Window on State Government site.  Here’s what they handed us at the session:

  1. Know what people like most about their jobs
  2. Expect high performance
  3. Find and hire high performers
  4. Promote the power of the team
  5. Share success and failure
  6. Embrace the importance of dreams
  7. Reign in the Ego
  8. Celebrate Differences – especially among high performers
  9. Remember, there are no guarantees
  10. Know that “happy is” as “happy thinks”

Know what People Like.

Of the list there are a few items that I find particularly interesting.  To start with, when I first saw this list, I was stunned to find that i was struggling to answer #1, “know what people like most about their jobs.”  We have annual retreats and often talk business, but for some reason I was drawing a blank.  What do you like most about your job?  For that matter, what do I like most about my job?

I like change. I engage with new people, new challenges, new technologies, and new workspaces every day. At the moment, I’m enjoying my life / work balance and feel like my job helps me to achieve my life goals.  I love the people I work with.  I love coding AND designing. Honestly, I could go on for a while about things I like about my job.  Getting to the core of it though, I am happiest when I have space and time to bounce between projects, both at work and in my personal life.  I’m not sure what conditions cause me to be ‘highest performing’.  Are people generally happiest when they are at the peak of their performance?  I was pretty happy relaxing in the pool with a Piña Colada in Panama last month so it seems that happiness and performance might not be explicitly related.

Expect High Performance.

I find number 2, “expect high performance,” to be inspiring.  I love that idea!  If I ask someone to work on mundane tasks, or if I accept sub par work, I’m doing a disservice to that person.  Of course, Beth noted that one should lead by example.  The only way that I can expect high performance is by doing the work that it takes oversee quality.  This means properly queuing expectations, spending the time to review the completed work, and enforcing the expectations afterwords.  Unfortunately I’ve been so busy lately with sales and travel that I don’t feel as though I’m fulfilling my management responsibilities as well as I could be.  This has inspired me to try harder.

Celebrate Differences.

Regarding number 8, “celebrate differences – especially among high performers”…  This one confused me at first but Beth clarified the concept when she described the practice of pairing people.  For example, someone who is detail oriented (me) works well with someone who is quick and thinks at a high level (Shane).  I wish I was better at articulating and remembering those traits people posses that yield ideal pairs.  Shane and Julie tried to impress upon me their DISC philosophy but some how it never quite became second nature to me. Perhaps I should try it again and see if it sticks.


The ensuing discussion raised a couple of interesting topics.  For example, one person asked what to do about high performers that fail to engage with the team.  Fortunately, I’ve never had to face this particular problem on our team.  If I was presented with this challenge though, my sense is that in most cases, manager jujitsu works best. Why resist when I can help instead?

We have a problem.  How can I best support you?  You are an invaluable member of our team.  However, when someone on the team succeeds, I get the impression that you feel threatened or jealous. It’s important to me that we all feel joy in each other’s successes.  What can I do to help?

Managers can be your Friend.

Another topic that came up revolved around how to straddle the line between friend and boss. Shane and I have had to face this often as we openly consider the people that we manage to be our friends. In fact, part of our interview philosophy is that we won’t work with people who we can’t imagine wanting to hang out with.  After some debate on the topic, we settled on the idea that you don’t need to pick a side if you make the rules clear.  If we agree on a metric for success and we document the successes and failures, then talking about the working relationship becomes a mechanical and metered affair.  This is the same principle behind setting up clear contracts before engaging in business with someone.  The contract is the measuring stick.

Additionally to documenting failures, it is at least as important to document successes. Positive feedback makes for happiness and is a vital part of performance metrics.  One of the topics that came up had to do with bonuses.  Being that we work entirely with contractors, the concept of a bonus is sort of weird and uncharted.  We look at our annual team trip as a bonus.  However, that trip is much more than a bonus and it’s not bound to performance in any documented or linear fashion. I’m not really sure how to think of bonuses in the freelance world but it is an active topic between me and Shane.  One of the guys at the meeting suggested that bonuses are effective when they are predefined and tied to specific performance metrics. He works with individuals on his team to identify bonuses for the next year and milestones that need to be hit to merit the bonuses.  While that approach makes sense for a team of employees, I’m not sure it makes as much sense with contractors.  Also, Shane and I are of the mind that cash is not an effective form of bonus.  We subscribe more to gifts and experiences.  If I give you some money, you’ll spend it and it will be gone.  If I give you a present you will always think of me when you use it.  It also reflects a certain level of consideration.

What do you think it takes to make a happy and highly performing team … of freelancers?