How to Build a High-Performing Design Team

I hate to admit it, but I love watching “Antiques Roadshow.” It’s one of my guiltiest pleasures. Did you see the one where appraiser Lark E. Mason Jr. got all choked up and fought back tears during his appraisal of what turned out to be an extremely valuable Tang Dynasty marble lion? Classic! Listening to him describe why the characteristics of that particular artifact were so highly prized — between bites of my General Tso’s Chicken — was truly priceless.

After nine years of working in-house, remembering Mr. Mason’s appraisal of that marble lion got me thinking: What are the key characteristics of an extremely valuable in-house team? What makes some in-house teams priceless compared to others? We all know the basic foundation of a solid in-house team lies in its ability to be collectively strategic and creative. We also know in-house teams need to have a keen understanding of their organizations’ strategic goals, a strong grasp of their clients’ needs, the ability to utilize ideation skills and software knowledge to transform concepts into purposeful realities. Whether you’re contributing to a group of two or 22, these traits truly are the basis of a solid team.

teambuilding_color2_flatIllustration by Joey Chou originally appeared with this article in HOW Magazine.

I’ve collaborated with and managed teams at a magazine, ad agency, niche-market design firm, joint-action agency, government organization and nonprofit association, creating work that reached local, regional, national and global audiences. While working at these various places during the day, I also took on freelance projects and served on local arts and advertising industry boards at night. Whew! That’s a lot of interaction with teams and personalities, and a wealth of experience gained from both the good partnerships and the bad. I’ve worked with some truly high-performing teams and absolutely dysfunctional ones.

From all these collaborations, I’ve been able to determine, through trial and error, three key characteristics for building a high-performing in-house design team.

No. 1: Establish a clear vision and a set of core values

Determining a clear vision and set of core values is one of the most important characteristics in establishing a high-performing in-house team. It also gives an internal and external team contributor great insight into the basic leadership qualities the person managing the in-house team possesses.
A clear vision and set of core values facilitated by a leader willing to roll up his or her sleeves and jump into the trenches — Converse or Louboutins first — with their team to make that vision a reality is a must-have leadership trait.

Developing this key characteristic takes much more work than just rubbing the proverbial genie’s bottle, closing your eyes and making a wish. It takes focused planning — and it won’t happen overnight. It will take the same kind of thoughtful planning an architect might employ in designing blueprints that instruct how to build an amazing custom home.

It’s the job of the in-house team leader — the architect and creator of the blueprint — to set that vision and core values and to implant them in the minds of each team member. That leader must also train and mentor team members whose poor performance could affect the overall health of the entire team. The last thing a leader needs is for one or more stubborn or unwilling detractors to cloud the view of their co-workers’ common vision and values, taking them off course and jeopardizing their collective goal in becoming a high-performing team.

So, where and how should you begin? Start by developing a keen understanding of your organization’s purpose and strategic business goals. The vision and values you develop should be derived specifically from the purpose and goals established by your organization with several forward-thinking additions of your own. The following is a simplified view of the vision and core values established for my own in-house team at ElectriCities of NC:

Corporate Purpose

Serving the needs of public power communities through collective strength, wisdom and action while promoting a more successful future for our citizens

Our Vision Supporting the Corporate Purpose

Communicate, institute and embed quality to powerfully further our corporate purpose

Our Core Values Supporting Our Vision

  • Develop rich, strong, quality relationships
  • Provide clear communication
  • Think strategically
  • Cultivate a creative environment
  • Acquire and retain top talent

The vision and values you develop should be different from ours. Your end goal — not unlike the architect’s — is to design a vision statement and set of core values that lead to the construction of a solidly built in-house team. A strong vision and set of core values will absolutely stand the test of time one, three, five or even seven years into the future. However, be flexible and be prepared to make a few tweaks or a total renovation by the fifth year. Your high-performing in-house team’s vision and values must always align with any updates made to your organization’s overarching corporate goals and strategic plan.

One last, but important, tip I’d like to share with you: Live, post and evangelize the vision and values you develop throughout your organization and to all your team’s external stakeholders. For example, we developed a website around our vision and values that can be accessed easily by all our clients and partners. In taking time to fully develop this key characteristic, your team will be viewed not only as a model of excellence but also as a highly valued, strategic business partner. That shift in perception is a huge byproduct of becoming and operating as a high-performing team.

No. 2: hire talented contributors with defined roles and accountabilities

Searching for the equivalent of the genuine article among those looking for work in today’s economy is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack or sifting through a sea of yard sale kitsch and eventually finding a priceless marble lion. Most in-house leaders feel the weight and importance of building and maintaining a solid in-house team comprised of creative, versatile, passionate and strategic talent. So, what’s the “high-performing” difference? The difference is that every person who occupies a position on a high-performing team also has an entrepreneurial spirit, owning their role and being accountable to the team and the organization for the work produced.

I’ve conducted phone interviews where passionate but unwitting candidates reveal their interest in “slumming it” in-house while riding out the bad economy. I’ve also conducted face-to-face interviews with talented candidates who display great portfolios but aren’t able to succinctly articulate the strategies fueling their stunning solutions.

These needle-in-haystack searches, coupled with lessons learned from truly regrettable hires, opened my eyes to the fact that acquiring top talent can be tough. Even if you believe you’ve found that sharp, shiny needle, depending upon your level of engagement and leadership, that person can either help elevate and increase your team’s performance or severely damage your team’s reputation—a reputation that took years for everyone to build.

Poet Maya Angelou once said, ”Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it!” That’s great advice, especially for in-house leaders who are looking to strengthen their teams by acquiring talented and trustworthy people who will support one another. Careful research, preparation and honesty about the type of work a high-performance team must produce and the level of quality that everyone is expected to maintain—on the front end of hiring — will help determine not only the right person, but also how best to define their role and key accountabilities.

It’s vital that you — the team leader — communicate each member’s value. Create an environment where each member feels that they’re included and that their opinions matter to you. It will breed shared trust, passion
and loyalty.

Begin by defining individual team contributors’ roles by conducting a 360-degree team performance appraisal known as 360-TPA. Ask each member of your in-house team to offer constructive feedback on the health of the team as a whole. Focus on the strengths, weaknesses, threats (factors that hinder individual and team success), and individual personal goals and development of each team member.

Ask each team contributor why his or her role exists. Encourage them to define their role as it relates to the established vision, values and overarching strategic goals. Have them assign their specific job functions to each of those strategic goals, revealing how each is accountable to accomplishing the corporate objectives. This exercise, and the information collected, will be invaluable in helping you and the individuals on your team define roles and key accountabilities that support your organization’s mission. This will also help each member of the team realize that they’re doing so much more than designing, writing, coding, photographing, filming or developing marketing communications. They will quickly realize that their role is an integral component of a high-performing team and that their job function is responsible for the overall success of the business.

Leaders of high-performing teams should conduct a 360-TPA with individual contributors at least once a year and, at most, twice a year, redefining roles and revising key accountabilities as needed and sharing the broad strokes of updates with the entire team. By doing so, a culture of transparency and shared trust will ensure each individual becomes a true stakeholder in the success of the team and of the business.

No. 3: Master effective communication and conflict-resolution skills

Every in-house team will encounter speed bumps that will require individual contributors to work together in maneuvering around them. There will also be times when teams must face major roadblocks head-on and travel through them at full speed. This could be challenging or irreparably damaging to the health of  untrained, low-performing teams.

Speed bumps and roadblocks are those little nagging miscommunications and conflicts that occur in corporate environments and creative groups the world over, where individual contributors function at varying degrees of passion, angst or laziness. But there are a few techniques that supercharged, high-performing in-house teams deploy to effectively communicate through these issues—leading to the resolution of bad conflicts and the management of good conflicts. And yes, there are good conflicts. Good conflicts are basically resolutions from bad conflicts that grow a team and get them thinking in new, innovative ways.

Did you know that more than 70% of all communication either isn’t even heard or, not surprisingly, is misinterpreted? Poor communication generally occurs when folks don’t have a clear understanding of their roles and key accountabilities. For example, a leader may not have a clearly defined role, or a team member may be less interested in owning their key accountabilities, opting to spend unproductive time focused on the accountabilities of others. This type of behavior is toxic and shows a real lack of respect and trust for the entire team.

How does a supercharged, high-performing team handle these types of miscommunications and conflicts? It’s not easy, but each member recognizes the impact of his or her personality and attitude on the entire team. These high-performing, invested team members understand that the way they communicate a message—from the beginning—determines the outcome. They also know that the way a message is delivered always affects the way a message is received.

High-performing teammates state their issues in an open, non-defensive way while using active listening skills to avoid the pitfalls of making rash judgments. Members of high-performing teams are passionate people who want the best for the entire team. They approach a conflict seeking mutual understanding. They want the conflict resolved fairly because they know the vision and core values set for the team far outweigh any individual victories.

Building a high-performing in-house team won’t happen overnight. It takes careful planning, strategic hiring and open communication. But now you know where to focus your energy to create your own
stellar team.

superchargedesigntutorialAdditional Resource: Supercharge Your In-house Team

Want to take your in-house team from zero to hero within your organization? Creative director Ed Roberts will walk you through the 3 characteristics of a high-performing in-house team in this one-hour design tutorial.

Supercharge Your In-House Team.

One thought on “How to Build a High-Performing Design Team

  1. bbarclay

    Hey Ed,

    I know this article is a little bit old, but was interested in the first action item: “No. 1: Establish a clear vision and a set of core values”. It’s a good piece of writing around “what” you have to do, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on “how” you do it?

    Many Thanks!