Teams with inspirational stories of high performance are all around us. In this blog we look outside the business world and hear three stories of extraordinary teamwork and the lessons we can take back to our organisations.
The hockey pitch
By Sarah Thomas, Bronze medallist and Head of Business Development at Lane4
Sixteen thousand people have turned up to watch you play hockey at your home Olympic Games and you’re about to step onto the pitch knowing that, at the end of 70 minutes, your team are either going home with an Olympic bronze medal or walking away empty handed. It’s the ultimate high-pressure environment, and the ability to work effectively as a team will ultimately decide the outcome.
Sarah Thomas, Welsh field hockey midfield and forward player, gives her insight into what it was like to be part of the team that won bronze at the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
Transparency and a clear vision
Great Britain women’s field hockey team is made up of 32 players, 16 of which were selected for the Olympic squad with 11 on the starting line up, so you’ve already got some interesting dynamics there. It was everyone’s dream to play for Team GB at a home Olympic Games, but not everyone would.
It’s hard to navigate that tension but I think the team did it well and the protocols in place really helped. There was a lot of transparency and honesty about the selection procedure, so you knew exactly what you needed to do in order to be selected. Feedback was very regular and as individuals you had quarterly reviews. You’re trained to develop a strong self-awareness so you tend to know if you’re on form or not. Of course, there would be disappointment, but there were rarely any huge surprises.
On top of that, we had a really clear vision that everyone bought into; we were going to the Olympics to win Gold. Everything we did, every decision that was made, was all with that end goal in mind.
Training for pressure
One of the other things that I think contributed to the success of the team was our phenomenal resilience. You each work on your individual resilience, but that doesn’t automatically make a resilient team. That collective resilience takes time and effort to build.
One way we did this was through ‘Thinking Thursdays’ where we’d be purposely put under extreme pressure. Every Thursday was a new scenario where you were set up to fail but it was in a really safe environment to do so, and over time that definitely helped build our resilience. One week we might do a military fitness session at the side of the pitch and then come on to play a team who was fresh. Another week you’d find out that your team is going to have nine players for the game and the other team is going to have eleven plus subs.
We’d learn from each session and it helped us build the belief that we could deal with any situation that was sent our way. We saw that ability play out in our opening match against Japan where our captain, Kate Richardson-Walsh, was hit in the mouth and broke her jaw.
That was one scenario we definitely hadn’t planned for! However, the team were so good at dealing with all these possible unexpected scenarios it didn’t affect our performance and we were able to carry on progressing in the competition until Kate was able to re-join the team.
Form is fickle, class is permanent
That’s something one of our coaches used to remind us of when things might not be going as well as we wanted them to. When we lost the semi-final match against Argentina, we knew we only had 48 hours to regroup before the bronze medal match. It could have been easy during that time to start doubting yourself, doubting the team, looking for things we could tweak or do differently, but that’s exactly the opposite of what we did. We knew as a team that our ability, strategies and tactics had the potential to win a medal, so when we faced New Zealand in the bronze medal match we played the match in the same way we’d been playing the whole tournament.
The operating theatre
By Mr Marcus Bankes, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon
Imagine putting your life in the hands of a set of complete strangers. Thankfully these strangers are a team of highly skilled healthcare professionals, but they still sedate you, cut you open, fix you and sew you back up. It might not be a life or death procedure, but regular routine surgery still requires a huge amount of skill and coordination between a set of people who are sometimes relatively unfamiliar with each other. Perhaps most importantly, it requires strong leadership.
Mr Marcus Bankes, a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon specialising in hip surgery, shares his experience from 16 years of leading high performing surgical teams within the NHS and private clinics.
The power of familiarity
I work across three different hospitals, so I already have three different teams of people I work with. On top of that, the teams that I work with are fairly fluid, even in the same hospital I have different anaesthetists, nurses and assistants that I work with, so my operating team can often differ from day to day. As a result, I think that healthcare professionals are very skilled at coming together as a group of individuals to quickly form a team. However, someone’s level of familiarity with the team and the way we run our operating theatre can still impact the team’s effectiveness. Especially if that person holds a critical role.
For example, one of the critical roles in the operating theatre is the anaesthetist, they’re the other senior member of medical staff in the room. Although they’re hugely experienced and skilled if they are unfamiliar with the team and our operating theatre, it can have a significant impact. They’re the ones that drive the operations - we can’t operate until they’ve done their job - and you might not be aware, but there’s actually quite a lot of variation in how they do their job and how long it takes. If their approach is unusual or unexpected to the team, it’s surprisingly disruptive and can cause the team to lose momentum between cases.
Over the years I’ve learnt that the best approach is to acknowledge someone’s unfamiliarity with the team. I’ll suggest that the best course of action is to follow our usual processes and once they’ve operated with the team a few times and become familiar with the way we work, we’ll discuss any ideas or suggestions they might have.
Strong processes save lives
I think strong processes are one of the biggest strengths of healthcare teams. Given our fluid team structures, they provide a framework for people to work within to function effectively as a team in a short timescale. One process that has made a real difference is the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Surgical Safety Checklist, which was bought into the NHS in 2009. In the same way that pilots check their aircraft before take-off, it takes the team through a series of basic checks before the operation: Is this the correct patient? Is this the right limb? Does the patient have any known allergies?
Although most teams already had their version of the checklist, having something formalised created greater consistency, and studies have shown its implementation led to reduced deaths and surgical complications. The checklist has had a wider impact too, it’s helped improve communication between team members and improved the likelihood of someone speaking up when a problem is noticed.
We use the checklist alongside a team briefing. This is where the team gathers and goes through the cases for the day. Spending that time as a team before operating helps to bring everyone together.
I also use that time to welcome any new faces to the team. I will often emphasize that we do these operations every week so trust in the process and the team will support you throughout.
Leading with a cool head
I like to create a friendly atmosphere in the operating theatre. The people I work with are very jolly and enthusiastic and we like to have a laugh and a chat. Thankfully, in my line of surgery there are very few complications. Occasionally there might be a bit of unexpected bleeding, but it’s usually easily fixed. If we do run into a problem, clear communication is key. I inform the team as soon as I see an issue, we’ll turn the music off and the atmosphere becomes more serious.
I think that the way I manage myself through those higher-pressure situations gives the team confidence in my leadership, but that’s definitely part of your evolution as a surgeon. It’s much tougher to keep your cool when you’re inexperienced. I don’t think there are many situations now that I wouldn’t be able to cope with and lead my team through.
If we run into any problems in surgery, we’ll always discuss afterwards whether we could have avoided the situation, what could we learn from it and if there’s anything we could improve on. As a team it’s vital we keep learning and as a leader I think it’s my role to encourage that culture in the operating theatre.
By Dan Wallis, ex-Sergeant in the RAF and Consultant at Lane4
What would you do if it was your job to develop military personnel to cope with stressful situations? How do you prepare these teams to perform under pressure in many of the scenarios they might face? It’s a tough job, especially when the team’s ability to deal with that pressure can mean the difference between life and death.
Dan Wallis, reflects on his 10 years’ experience within the RAF, focusing on his role as Sergeant in the Human Performance Branch and gives his emotional insight into what it was like to be part of a high performing team with such high stakes.
An ethos that makes a team feel like a family
As an Adventure Development Coach, which is part of the Human Performance Branch of the RAF, I was part of a team who were responsible for creating highpressure environments in order to help train soldiers’ emotional response to stress. This could be anything from a gruelling overnight 65km hike in terrible Welsh November weather, to navigating through a narrow 30-metre-long tunnel in a pitch-black cave, stretching people more than they have ever been stretched before. By helping soldiers deal better with their responses to stress, they’d be better prepared to cope with the various situations they might find themselves in. Our overall aim was to create team unity that could sustain high and low pressure and develop leadership skills that could effectively lead the modern soldier, but there was a bigger purpose too…
The Human Performance Branch attracts people with a wide variety of different skills and backgrounds; and requires the completion of a 3-stage selection process along with an intense 10-month course. The one thing that ran through us all was the military ethos. Those philosophies of “if you want to get something done – you will” and “one in, all in” created an alignment between all cultures, ages and experiences, leaving an unspoken unity or military family. This underlying purpose was something far bigger than ourselves and is almost an intangible commandment that encourages performance. It is only now, nearly three years on, I realise how powerful it was.
Empowerment and trust in the field
Achieving psychological alignment within a military team ultimately comes down to a careful balance between high instruction and empowerment. Giving inexperienced military leaders too much power could lead to them making poor decisions with devastating consequences. There is no room for error in the field. The key is to build trust within the teams and use all team members as eyes and ears.
For our delivery team working with hundreds of such groups, trust and empowerment were also crucial. As an Adventure Development Coach leading other coaches, I knew that the guys in the field were going to be safe due to their intense and rigorous training, they were all qualified and experienced enough to do the job, and I knew that they believed in the higher purpose of what we were doing and what we were trying to achieve. As a leader I couldn’t and shouldn’t be involved with the details of what the team are doing and how they are doing it, empowerment and trust are what breed high performance.
On top of a unifying purpose, empowerment and trust, I also believe that the momentum the military are able to harness, and sustain, is key to their high performance.
Momentum can be difficult to build but, in my experience, there are a couple of methods I found effective.
Firstly, giving feedback in the moment is an effective way to build momentum. By recognising and rewarding what’s happening right now, people feel grounded and focused, which can be tough to achieve in such an abnormal environment. For example, it could be something as simple as finishing an expedition task ahead of schedule. Rewarding this determination and efficiency is an underrated way of ensuring sustainable momentum and encourages frequent high performing behaviour.
Secondly, I think morale and humour play a big part in a team’s momentum. Many teams within the military thrive on the aspect of survival and because operations can be so difficult, just getting through the day is sometimes worthy of acknowledgement. Despite being lucky to avoid the harshest of conflict operations, what I observed in teams was that, if there was a close call or something went wrong, you’ll find a few of the bigger characters rebuilding team morale through appropriate humour, or through humility and emotion. Being able to talk and reflect on these operational situations encourages momentum and unity. It might sound strange but being able to laugh as a team in these environments, is what keeps you going.
Top tips for leading your teams
Define your vision and purpose: Create alignment in your team by ensuring there is a strong and compelling vision and that each member is completely bought into the purpose of what you’re trying to achieve. ĥ Create a safe environment: Focus on empowering your team and trusting them rather than getting involved in the details. A safe environment where it’s OK to fail will help build team resilience.
Do more of what works and learn from mistakes: If your team has a setback don’t immediately jump to changing things that you know work well. Take time to reflect on the situation as a team, discuss what happened and whether you might be able to avoid it happening again.
Keep your teams on a roll: Sustain high performance by giving feedback in the moment and recognise achievements (no matter how small) towards your bigger goals.
Review your processes: Good processes create greater efficiency and clarity for the team. Documenting the team’s key processes will help when you need to integrate new members into the team.