Starting and running a small business is one of the great adventures in life – and it’s one that needs to be rewarding both financially and emotionally. The only way to achieve this on a sustainable, long-term basis is to leverage the skills of other people – whether that’s as stakeholders, employees or outsourced. And to do that properly you’ll want the 7 Keys to a Winning Team.


You are not alone.

One of my favourite coaching sessions is the one after helping a client hire their first superstar. The effect is almost physiological – like a literal weight has been lifted off their shoulders.

Image One in a crowd

For the first time they realise they are not the only one having to correctly identify root challenges and come up with solutions. They’re no longer the only one having to come up with the answers and ideas. It’s only one step – but a significant one as each subsequent hire gets easier.

Your overall results will be representative of the average of your team. If you’ve got an average team that’s the very best you can hope for in terms of results.

And yet people are not set in stone. Environment has a big part to play.

If you take a ‘B’ Player and sit them next to a handful of ‘A’ Players, they will in all probability gradually raise their game.

If you take an ‘A’ Player and sit them next to a handful of ‘B’ Players, they’ll either turn into a ‘B’ Player – or they’ll leave.

A great team raises your game, leverages your results and releases you from the insanity of attempting to multi-task. This for many people is the unexpected joy. It allows them the space to think in a more entrepreneurial way. To genuinely become the captain of your ship.

Let’s take a look at what’s involved.


1: Strong Leadership.

This is a seemingly simple – maybe even obvious – title which gets harder as you look into it in more depth.

If you bring to mind successful leaders in the public eye and especially in business, your list will likely include some familiar names: Steven Bartlett, Richard Branson, Lord Sugar, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs.

All strong and successful leaders – but think about how they go about being that. They all have very individual styles.

The word ‘strong’ means different things to different people and that’s why it can be troublesome to implement.

Whatever your personal style of leadership, it ought to have both authenticity and consistency as foundation stones. People like to know what to expect from you. To be able to predict your behaviour. (If you’ve not done a DiSC profile, that’s a great starting point to understand your personal style.)

I realise some people wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. They might argue that ‘keeping people on their toes’ deters complacency and increases performance.

Whilst that might be the case – at least in the short term – it will come with downsides. People don’t like being manipulated and will inevitably tire of it. Perhaps more damagingly, teams in this environment become less willing to take risks and less willing to volunteer new ideas – for fear of getting it wrong.

And that leaves you as being the main source of innovation which is both a burden and it reduces growth.

Tip: Get clear on your management & leadership style. One way to do this is to think of someone who you can authentically model yourself on. Another is to write down how you want to be remembered as a leader and use this as your benchmark. Both of these will help you be more consistent.


2: Common Goal.

A symptom of teams that aren’t in sync is that individual agendas become more important than the goals of the group.

Expressions of self-interest increase and left unchecked I’ve even seen ‘team’ members who actively sabotage colleagues and their efforts. And not always to gain a personal advantage – sometimes it’s just for the sheer hell of it.

You don’t need to be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to have figured out that a person’s primary need is for safety – for themselves. When that is satisfied (beyond doubt) they then have the need to belong and to contribute. It’s a sequential thing.

Put simply, when people feel the need to choose between protecting themselves (and their interests) and looking out for the team, they will choose themselves.

A great Common Goal aligns the team behind a singular purpose.

If everyone buys into the goal – and they are clear about how they personally will benefit by the team achieving it – personal agendas can safely be put to one side.

If they also know exactly how they can contribute to it, you’ll be in business.

Tip: WIIFM. What’s In It For Me? Don’t shy away from this, it should be embraced. Look for a ‘win:win’ common goal. If you can find one that benefits the team, your customers and the business, you’ll have struck gold and of course it will also benefit you.


3: Rules of The Game.

You might wonder why this one doesn’t say “Culture” or “Values” – both of which are written about way more than the humble Rules of the Game.

The reason is wanting to keep this list as tight as possible. It’s not a list of everything you can do – and neither is it the basics. I’d prefer to think about it as the foundation stones to build upon.

Values are to a large degree ‘broad brush’ and aspirational.

Rules of the Game are day-to-day and more detailed.

This could relate to timeliness, or courtesy. It might be about dress codes or standards of customer service.

It’s different for every business and in essence is the rules you all agree to play by.

This doesn’t have to end up plastered on the wall, but it does need to be a ‘live’ document. Something that is referred to and adhered to. It ought to become part of the DNA of your business. It’s a great benchmark for behaviour and a great tool to bring new employees ‘up-to-speed’.

Tip: There’s a good argument that this should be created in conjunction with your team. If they have a hand in putting it together, they are more likely to want to play to it.


4: Action Plan.

There’s a great quote in the book A Road Less Stupid by Keith Cunningham: “business owners spend way too much time envisioning Oz and nowhere near enough time building the Yellow Brick Road.”

It’s a variation on the maxim “Positive thought without positive ACTION leads to positively nothing.”

Vision and Mission statements, Big Hairy Audacious Goals and Common Goals are all great. As long as they lead the way to a detailed plan of action: who does what by when and to what measurable definition of success.

I run my business strategy / planning sessions quarterly for a simple reason. It’s long enough to make a difference but not so long that people lose focus.

These act as the stepping stones to the bigger, hairier goals – typically pitched at 3, 5 or 10 years off.

Detailed plans ward off woolly conversations, and the propensity of time to just slip away.

They bring clarity and with that accountability.

And if you use them in a team environment, it plays a crucial role in raising performance.

Tip: Start by setting everyone on your team – including yourself – specific actions to achieve over the next quarter. For each one, have a specific measurement of success and / or an unequivocable outcome. Check in weekly / fortnightly / monthly as you see fit and conduct a thorough de-brief at the end of the cycle.


5: Support Risk-Taking.

Whisper it quietly, but business owners can be guilty of having a rose-tinted mirror when it comes to honest self-appraisal of skills, abilities and track record.

In his bestselling book Triggers, Marshall Goldsmith writes about the results of his organisation’s survey of 80,000 senior execs in the US.

A staggering 98.5% judged themselves to be in the top 50% of performers.

And 70% thought themselves to be in the top 10%. That’s some Grade A delusion!

You might argue those numbers wouldn’t be as high in the UK, but broadly speaking I suspect a similar picture would emerge.

From this biased starting point, employers can become intolerant to (and judgemental of) the mistakes of others. It can be hard to let people take risks knowing they might lead to mistakes. Ultimately, the consequence in financial and reputational terms rests with you and your fellow shareholders.

If those mistakes are happening through carelessness, poor training or inadequate systems, it’s only right to be intolerant. This makes them avoidable which is unacceptable.

But honest mistakes will happen if people are innovating and trying things at the edge of their comfort zones. It’s important when mistakes happen to look to the systems and training before looking to the person.

Tip: Asking ‘What are all the reasons this might have happened?” will lead to a more productive conversation and more valuable solutions than asking “Why did this happen”. Asking ‘why’ will tend to lead you towards a single answer.


6: 100% Involvement and Inclusion.

If everyone on your team knows exactly what the big ambition is, and exactly how they fit in to it, you’ll be in serious danger of getting them to really care.

It might be tempting to believe that ‘none cares as much as the owner’ but it doesn’t have to be that way. Granted many businesses have people who aren’t the right fit, who will get left behind as you drive things forward. A rising tide doesn’t automatically lift all boats.

But – and it’s a big but – you may well be surprised about who it is that raises their game and who doesn’t.

Involve everyone on your team. Get everyone feeling like they’re an important part of your business and they may well surprise you by how they choose to act. If people believe they can make a difference and that they have your support, they very well might do just that.

Tip: If you’re not used to the boss involving you in vision & strategy and asking for your opinions & ideas it can come as a wee bit of a shock. Don’t be surprised if you try this and get a tumbleweed moment. Give them chance to get used to the change of gear. Keep involving them. Keep asking.


7: The Desire to Learn.

Sir Clive Woodward talks a lot about Sponges and Rocks. People who want to grow and develop and people whose minds are closed.

If you employ a rock and you try to help or improve them, all your best intentions will simply bounce off.

Being a rock is the death-nell to curiosity, without which change and innovation remains elusive.

Daniel Pink talks about people in high performance teams having an enhanced sense of Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery. And you can’t master anything without being willing to learn.

Remember, this isn’t all about you. People in general don’t respond well to being told to ‘read this book’. They may well respond as you’d like verbally, but often it’ll just gather dust. If they are engaged in the common goal and believe they are an important part of that, they will want to develop and learn.

Tip: The first step to employing sponges is to be one yourself. Your team will take their lead off you.


A word to the wise.

Whilst there’s no business team you can’t apply this to, the order you choose to do so will be individual to you, your team and the current environment. You’ll all approach from different starting points and in a different order.

I suspect that if you reflect on the 7 Keys, one of them will stand out more than the others. And that’s a great place to start.


Want to talk about any of this?

I’d be delighted – just book in for a zoom coffee.