An Australian startup coach shares his advice to creating a high performance team

Get visibility on performance. Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images.

In sport you either win or you lose. As a coach you are responsible, there is no grey area. The profession sharpens your focus, teaches you to look for anything and everything you can do to improve your team, to get an edge. Coaching is an education in humility, patience and psychological strength.

I’ve been coaching in one form or another for 40 years. It’s been nearly two decades since I coached basketball — mostly Australian State and National leagues (NBL) — the experience gave me exceptional grounding for what became my coaching profession in the business world.

It’s a profession that’s driven me to transition from consulting with global businesses, to a new full-time role as Performance and Leadership Coach at Aussie document productivity startup Nitro, which has experienced rapid growth as the leading Adobe PDF alternative.

In 23 years of working across some 300 plus companies, I cannot recall ever seeing a full-time business “coach” appointment like this. It is innovative and reflects the changing nature of how businesses are approaching employee development and performance, particularly in the startup community.

I know what you’re thinking. Why does a startup need a coach when it already has a founder or CEO?

The fact is there are so many demands on a CEO’s time that it is impossible to drill down into all aspects of their company, department and team performance. Even department and functional leaders struggle with the demands of delivering on sales targets or executing strategic plans, so the clinical overview required is just not a practical expectation for a CEO.

The foundations of success in business and sport are fundamentally the same. Perhaps the only real difference is the environment. In sport you can spend a week practicing and strategising for a game that lasts only a couple of hours. But in business you are “in” the game 24/7 and every change you make impacts performance in real-time.

It’s one of the reasons a full time coach with objective oversight can have a real impact on performance at a company, team and individual level.

Any startup with limited resources understands that creating and nurturing a high performance team can mean the difference between winning or losing — whether that’s customers, investors or employees.

Although I have worked with Nitro in a part-time capacity for six years, the full time appointment came on the back of a year of significant growth — close to 100 new team members since late 2014. With rapid expansion, there can be an array of challenges, particularly in startups, to overcome, including shifts in culture, wasting of resources and issues with accountability and communication.

For a mature startup like Nitro, such a large growth spurt threatens to disrupt the work-hard, play-hard culture they’ve worked so tirelessly to create. As the company expands and new levels of management arise, there’s also a need for new leadership and teamwork skills that didn’t exist when they were first starting out.

Charles Darwin said it best: “It is not the strongest of species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

My role is to help manage through that changes that rapid growth bring and ultimately create an environment where people can perform at their best, individually and collectively, as a team.

My advice for managing a startup workforce through significant growth involves just three areas of focus:

1. Be certain people are focused on the RIGHT things

Each person’s work needs to be clear and focused and in any given quarter, week or day, they should be able to answer the question: “What are the top three things I must execute now?”

2. Get visibility on performance

Visibility brings high levels of accountability. Both team and individual performance needs to be completely transparent and visible at all times. You need to know precisely how each team and individual is performing. It’s therefore critical to set expectations and clear goals around execution and performance from the outset and then review progress regularly.

3. Build a team meeting discipline

Finally, you have to build a sound meeting discipline that focuses on the execution of strategy and improved performance. Execution is dynamic and things are always changing, so the only way to stay on top of executing your strategy successfully is to instill a weekly team meeting discipline that allows you and your team to thrive in this environment.

At the core of my love of coaching is the gratification that comes from being part of individual and team success. Watching people go to places they never thought possible and ultimately winning in extremely challenging circumstances.

When you are truly successful as a performance coach you make yourself virtually redundant — the team operates like a machine. They self-regulate, make good decisions and consistently deliver successful results. Your role as coach is then to just push the envelope.

Mark Bragg is the Performance and Leadership Coach for Nitro. He has worked as a Business Coach for 20 years, across for more than 300 businesses in 23 countries.

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