Building and Leading High-Performing Teams
How can project managers build and maintain high-performing teams? By focusing on culture, empowerment, engagement and resilience.
Organizations today see a need to adapt. According to the 2023 PMI Annual Global Survey on Project Management, two-thirds of companies are engaged in digital transformation efforts. They’re also prioritizing shifts in organizational strategy (36%), adoption of new technology (34%) and expansion into new markets (32%).
Companies need future-focused project teams to drive these changes. It’s a tall order, however, when project teams are, by nature, cross functional and temporary. Further, they’re composed of members who have other responsibilities, report to functional managers outside the project, often work on multiple different project teams, and may never meet face-to-face over the course of the project.
In the face of these challenges, how can project managers build high-performing teams? By employing strategies to develop and manage talent that can nimbly switch gears while staying on mission. Project leaders who prioritize and nurture soft skills — capabilities so important that we at PMI call them power skills — can help build and reinvent teams in ways that deliver and sustain a competitive edge.
In this report, we discuss four guideposts for building high-performing and forward-thinking project teams.
Building and Leading High-Performing Teams
Cultivating an Ethos for Change
The New Reality:
Today’s increasingly diverse workplace can inspire new ways of thinking.
The Big Question:
How do you best tap into all perspectives to build a positive and powerful team culture that accelerates impact?
A strong team culture doesn’t simply happen. It must be nurtured with deliberate intent — and that culture won’t look the same for every team. A good starting point is understanding the company culture, which influences how individual teams work and can offer a starting point through the organization’s values, attitudes, behaviors and standards.
For project managers seeking to build diverse, people-centric teams, it’s about being servant leaders (see Figure 1) who can inspire high-performing teams to deliver innovative and inclusive solutions. Fostering a positive, supportive culture means ensuring team members have a sense of agency and ownership about their work. They want to be as comfortable sharing bold ideas during brainstorms as delivering candid feedback during status updates.
At AstraZeneca, Lara Martinez Gonzales, PMP, makes sure team members are involved in designing rules for processes like communication preferences and conflict resolution. She is the global head of talent strategy, based out of Boston, Massachusetts, USA. These experiences not only consolidate team members’ feedback, but they also forge a shared understanding for ways of working. Teams also need an affirming platform for sharing project challenges, which is why Martinez Gonzalez dedicates time on each project for “vent sessions,” allowing team members to discuss their problems and pain points in a productive and supportive environment.
“Cultivating psychological safety within the project team by creating trust and setting the ground rules for all the team members is critical for project success,” says Martinez Gonzalez. “It will encourage innovation, reduce risks by increasing transparency and drive internal accountability.”
During onboarding at Cognizant, team members are encouraged to share feedback on materials as a way to promote from the start the company’s culture of inclusivity and constant improvement. The company also creates opportunities for teammates to temporarily switch roles so they can gain new perspectives and skills or dip their toes in leadership waters.
Cultivating psychological safety within the project team … will encourage innovation, reduce risks by increasing transparency and drive internal accountability.
Lara Martinez Gonzalez, PMP
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
“We give them the ball and see what they suggest,” says Michele K. Ninivaggi, PMP, senior manager, Salesforce Healthcare, Cognizant, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, USA. “If they’re a junior developer we ask them, ‘If you were the lead, what would you do?’ Because it’s through a synthesis of ideas that true genius comes along.”
Uninhibited thinking is the oxygen behind those enlightening moments. It’s how Google developed its Real Tone post-processing software — bringing together a diverse team of image experts to test and tweak imaging technology that would produce more realistic skin tones in photographs. It’s why Microsoft established an Inclusive Tech Lab, a dedicated space where people with disabilities can develop and test the latest digital tools to ensure products are designed to not only address accessibility requirements but also deliver an optimum experience for all users.
Building a more inclusive culture can also amplify employee engagement and cement the ties between teammates. When Cognizant launched a recent AI pilot project for a client, the team’s small size meant many who were eager to participate had to be turned away. To keep everyone connected to the initiative, project leaders hosted an all-access launch party. Then, throughout the project, they maintained the all-in culture by creating a platform for team members to share stories that everyone could access. “Learning and enthusiasm spread throughout a larger pool of employees,” Ninivaggi says. “The messages just kept cascading along.”
Developing a culture with inclusion at its core goes far beyond hiring practices. Project leaders must embed diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) into the team’s decision-making processes, fueling brainstorms and driving feedback loops. Doing so ensures teams cast a wider net for insights that can increase project benefits. It’s an opportunity to “tap into the mindfulness of the workforce across the enterprise,” says Yael Israel, PMP, senior program manager, Wipro, New York, New York, USA.
DE&I … amplifies a decision-making model that can safely challenge the status quo, flush out bias, build resilience and deliver continuous improvements.
Yael Israel, PMP
New York, New York, USA
“DE&I mobilizes a network of self-directed, cross-functional teams — across generational, gender, cultural, remote and in-person modality,” she says. This combination “amplifies a decision-making model that can safely challenge the status quo, flush out bias, build resilience and deliver continuous improvements.”
How can project leaders make a passionate and affirming culture a characteristic of high-performing teams? An easy starting point is to identify ways to acknowledge a team’s efforts. Whether it’s a project postmortem celebration that recognizes strong teamwork or a card that praises an individual’s achievements, carving out time to reflect on a team’s impact helps validate team members and punctuate a culture of accountability.
“Engaging and recognizing team members for their work not only at the project level but at the organization level builds a sense of confidence and ownership,” says Tine Vižintin, PMP, project director, Triglav Group, Ljubljana, Slovenia. “It’s a way to encourage team members to always think in the bigger picture, not only focusing on the current project but constantly thinking about the near future — what will the team do next?”
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CREATING A POSITIVE TEAM CULTURE
Great teams require a great team culture that must be developed with purpose. Some tips include:
- Involve the team in setting guidelines for communication and collaboration.
- Develop practices to acknowledge the team’s efforts and celebrate successes.
- Facilitate team members switching roles or shadowing one another to provide a firsthand look at what each team member faces.
- Share project progress with the entire organization to facilitate transparency and engagement beyond the team.
Case in point: AstraZeneca created a program in which early-career team members are paired with senior leaders with the goal of swapping information and insights. To sustain cross-generational knowledge transfer, the company introduced “Ask me anything” sessions with senior leaders and established social interactions between rising talent and members of the company’s board and leadership team. The efforts not only develop a pipeline of next-gen talent, but also expose project leaders to new ideas and ways of thinking.
“It gives our most seasoned employees an opportunity to learn about the digital skills and mindsets that the new generations bring to the table, and the newcomers can get exposure and learn from the experience of our top leaders,” says Martinez Gonzalez. “Encouraging our senior leaders to be an example and share their knowledge and career path helps to break barriers and secure the diverse workforce that we will need in the future.”
Offering such training is especially important for attracting and retaining younger talent. Gen Z and millennial job seekers ranked learning and development opportunities as the Number 2 reason they chose to work for a company (just below work/life balance), according to a 2022 Deloitte survey. To deliver continuous learning with broad appeal, organizations make use of various strategies, from reimbursement for professional certifications to formal career development programs to social hackathons and gamified learning applications.
But training needs to do more than build technical skills — it should also show how team members with divergent motivations and working styles can learn to trust each other and gel. Project leaders can help direct team members’ professional development pursuits by suggesting which skills they need to strengthen now — and pointing them toward knowledge that will help grow expertise and leadership abilities.
At Triglav Group, training and onboarding are designed to provide a springboard for next-gen talent, helping them build competencies for managing risk, change and digital transformation. Eager to create an expedited path for advancement, the company developed a program that steers new hires who have the most leadership potential into individual development plans. Those plans combine coaching, mentoring and peer shadowing to prepare young people for future management roles.
“This kind of knowledge exchange is priceless,” says Vižintin. “This helps young talent learn all the tricks and little secrets in a year instead of years.”
Knowledge exchange is priceless. This helps young talent learn all the tricks and little secrets in a year instead of years.
Tine Vižintin, PMP
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR EMPOWERING INDIVIDUALS AND TEAMS
Empowered teams have both the power skills and technical skills they need to work together to conquer any challenge. Some tips include:
- Provide a process for mentoring and coaching between senior and junior team members.
- Help team members identify areas for skill development and connect them with learning opportunities.
- Encourage team members to take advantage of the organization’s professional development programs.
Forging Real Connections — and a Sense of Purpose — in a Virtual World
Turning an around-the-world talent pool into high-performing teams requires project leaders to rethink team engagement and to develop a flexible and inclusive mindset. It’s more than just adapting meeting invites and schedules to accommodate time-zone differences. It’s also managing work and schedules in a way that builds trust, from learning about cultural considerations and communication preferences to acknowledging local holidays and empowering team members to determine which events merit utilizing paid time off.
Now more than ever, project managers must find ways to spark a sense of connection. The pandemic proved to be the ultimate pilot for virtual engagement. It’s time to assess and apply those lessons learned so each team member can perform at their best.
At Thales Digital Banking and Payment, a financial services firm spread across 20 countries, video calls became a way for project managers to re-emphasize active listening during weekly status updates, forecast follow-ups, quarterly staff meetings and global townhall discussions. Now virtual face-to-face conversations strengthen engagement, reduce the risk that participants are distracted by multitasking during calls and ensure that meetings end with clear direction for next steps.
“This promotes more focus on the meeting discussion and allows the organizer and the speaker to collect more nonverbal communication from the audience, which helps with more effective communication,” says Amr Sadek, PMP, global director, customer engagement and success at Thales, Valbonne, France. “It fosters faster and far more efficient alignment.”
Of course, project leaders need to understand how virtual ways of working can negatively impact performance (see Figure 3). For example, to make sure screen fatigue doesn’t lead to burnout among team members, organizations and their project leaders need to set limits on video calls and find creative ways (and funding) for team members to engage in person.
Still, there’s no getting around the reality that high-performing teams also need access to the right tech tools as a means of boosting engagement. Training up teams on tech can accelerate conversations in ways that help keep projects on course. For some teams, it might mean using basic cloud-based collaboration software or incorporating low-code/no-code apps to streamline tedious processes. For others, it could involve learning to use complex digital twin virtual models that simulate physical objects as a way to generate more immediate and accurate feedback.
At iMerit Technology, the organization developed a proprietary web-based tool that helps project managers monitor workloads and productivity, allowing for efficient distribution of tasks to team members who have downtime, says Shashwat Samrat Paul, PMP, project manager at the Kolkata, India, company.
No matter what type of tech teams use or where they use it, Sadek says project leaders need to focus “on how we collaborate as one team” even when working across enterprise functions. “We encourage our leaders to be purpose-oriented rather than focused on the specificities of what tools they use,” he says. “Project managers need to adapt to the diverse preferences of their teams and steer toward the greater purpose.”
Project managers need to adapt to the diverse preferences of their teams and steer toward the greater purpose.
Amr Sadek, PMP
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FOSTERING ENGAGEMENT
Remote work means that building team engagement requires a conscious, concerted effort. Some tips include:
- Focus on people rather than tools or technology.
- Set limits on video calls to prevent screen fatigue.
- Look for creative ways to engage in person where possible.
- Seek feedback from the team on virtual engagement processes and apply lessons learned to improve collaboration.
Bouncing Back — Again (and Again)
PMI would like to thank the following contributors, who provided the insights and actionable recommendations on building high-performing project teams presented in this report:
- Luis Branco, PMP, PMI-ACP, CEO, Business Insight, Consultores de Gestão
- Clement Chin, PMP, program and project management lead, RAC Insurance
- Yael Israel, PMP, senior program manager, Wipro
- Andy Jordan, PMP, author and president, Roffensian Consulting
- Amit Kasodekar, VP, strategy and project management office, JPMorgan Chase
- Lara Martinez Gonzalez, PMP, global head of talent strategy, AstraZeneca
- Michele K. Ninivaggi, PMP, senior manager, Salesforce Healthcare, Cognizant
- Stephane Parent, PMP, PMI-RMP, PMI-ACP, team lead, Shared Services Canada
- Niral Rajani, project manager, Aristocrat
- Amr Sadek, PMP, global director, customer engagement and success, Thales
- Shashwat Samrat Paul, PMP, project manager, iMerit Technology
- Tine Vižintin, PMP, project director, Triglav Group