High performance teams with the Corporate Research Forum: lessons from Lisbon


The best teams in the world don’t just look in their industry for ideas and inspiration, they look outside their domain, pulling fresh thinking from whoever has world-class expertise.

At the beginning of October, the Corporate Research Forum hosted a jampacked event looking outside the business world for lessons on building and sustaining high performing teams. Dominic Mahony, Kate French and I had the fantastic opportunity to share latest insights from our research in the world of elite sport. Then we sat back and enjoyed two days of stimulating brain food.

Internationally acclaimed orchestra conductor Gernot Schulz powerfully brought to life his perspective on the role of a leader within a high performing team of musicians. Whilst Justin Huges former fighter pilot and team leader of the world-famous Red Arrows, offered up his ‘behind the scenes’ strategies for team selection, learning and leadership.

Below, I’ve shared the three key takeaways that stuck with me:


Gernot Schulz:

1. “In a high performing team, it’s not about the know-how but the know-why”

Being relatively non-musical, I’ve often wondered why a conductor is even needed in a philharmonic orchestra. The team is full of the most highly skilled musicians, so surely, they would all be able to play well without someone guiding them at the front?

Gernot explained how, when conducting a world-class orchestra, his role is less to do with keeping the team together through regimental pace setting and more about story narration. Each musical score can be interpreted and played a vast number of ways. His role is to align the musicians behind one interpretation, so there is one coherent story being narrated to the audience through the music. As he put it, he doesn’t need to provide the team members with the technical ‘know-how’ but the overarching meaning to the piece, the “know-why”.

Key tip for leaders: vision and purpose are particularly critical when working with experienced team members. They don’t need you to guide them in the precise technical aspects of how to do their job, what they need is a coherent, overarching sense of meaning.


Justin Hughes:

2. “The more complex the environment, the simpler your priorities need to be”

Imagine you’re flying at 400 miles an hour, in thick cloud, unable to see the other fighter jets around you. Everyone’s out of alignment and you’re in charge. Justin described how this was the very situation the leader of the red arrows found themselves in during a show in Eastbourne. He asked the audience, ‘what would you do?’

His answer: you filter out the noise and prioritise. In emergency aviation situations the priorities are simple: “aviate, navigate, communicate”. You fly the plane first, then navigate and then once the situation is under control you communicate.

As Justin explained, fighter pilots are skilled at information management: cutting through the noise and focusing on what matters. Succinctly put: “the more complex the environment, the simpler priorities you need to have.”

Key tip for leaders: today’s business environment is notoriously complex and fast changing. There’s a lot of distracting noise and leaders need to be skilled at simplifying their priorities and sharpening their focus. Ask yourself: “what can’t you afford to drop the ball on?”    


3. “It’s not about ‘did we do it?’, but reviewing ‘how good could it possibly have been?”

It’s not surprising that how a team learns is a key factor in high team performance. However, it was very special to be able to watch first-hand recordings of exactly how team learning is done in the red arrows.

In the video we watched the red arrows team debriefing after an event. What stood-out about their standard protocol was that the meeting didn’t begin with the general question “how does everyone think that went?”

It started with the leader admitting and apologising for a mistake. Immediately role modelling that it’s ok to be vulnerable, and that this time is for open review and honest feedback. Then they all watch a playback through a recording of the performance, with each team member expected to pause where necessary and identify any errors and learnings to take forward.

The debrief seemed very intense but Justin pulled out these key tips for leaders and teams:

  • Target your reviews - don’t debrief everything, there simply isn’t time. Review what’s most valuable or repeatable events

  • Discourage people talking in pairs - it’s ok in moderation but you need those lessons to be heard at the group-level, so the team can learn, not just the individuals

  • Nurture the ability and environment for people to be objective - when in the middle of a situation and error, our natural response is to be defensive or see your performance through a biased lens. However, Justin emphasised that a valuable skill in a high performing team is “the ability to objectively analyse your performance, with the same brutal honesty someone else would”

  • Two actions to take forward - as Justin put it, “don’t confused no blame with no accountability”. The red arrows debrief is an environment where people are expected to safely admit or point out errors, but it’s not a free lunch. Where there’s an error or something has gone wrong, it’s always ensured someone will take action to fix it for next time.


If you’re interested to learn more lessons from this fantastic event, check out the Corporate Research Forum’s retrospective summary

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