IT Insights



Building and managing high-performing teams with Mike Sturrock

Building and managing high-performing teams with Mike Sturrock

Michał Grela

Michał Grela

Relationship Manager at Future Processing

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Mike Sturrock

Mike Sturrock

CIO at The Pen Warehouse

As a renowned CIO, Mike achieved outstanding results through skills in leadership and the ability to create cohesive teams which deliver above expectations. In this conversation, we focus how to build and sustain a high-performing team.

A timeless leadership challenge – how to build and sustain a team that will exceed expectations.

Every manager would like to streamline productivity, foster collaboration and communication and contribute to company’s growth and revenue increase. But as the saying goes, ‘Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.’ Hence, building a highly performant team is essential to achieve these goals. That is crucial especially now, with increasing importance of remote work.

Our Guests:
Mike Sturrock is an experienced CIO working with global, renowned brands, with a strong track record delivering top line growth and bottom line returns. Mike achieved these outstanding results through well proven skills in leadership, and the ability to create cohesive teams which deliver well in excess of both their own and corporate expectations.

Michał Grela is Future Processing’s Relationship Manager, working within the marketing department to establish and nurture relationships to expand the company’s network of contacts. He strongly believes that business is about people and that, at the end of the day, it’s all about Human-to-Human rather than Business-to-Business.

Michał Grela (MG): Hello, and welcome to yet another episode of IT Leadership Insights by Future Processing. Today, we’re going to talk about building and managing high-performing teams. It’s a timeless leadership challenge, how to build and sustain a team that will exceed expectations.

Every manager would like to streamline productivity, foster collaboration and communication and contribute to company’s growth and revenue increase. But as the saying goes, talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championship. Hence, building a highly performing teams is essential to achieve these goals and that is crucial, especially now with increasing importance of remote work.

My guest today is Mike Sturrock, an experienced CIO working with global renown brands, with a strong track record delivering top line growth and bottom line returns. And Mike achieved these outstanding results through well-proven skills in leadership and the ability to create cohesive teams which deliver well in excess of both their own and corporate expectations. Mike, I’m super happy to have you here today with me.

Mike Sturrock (MS): Thank you for inviting me. I’m looking forward to this conversation.

MG: Cool. Would you be so kind of tell us a few words about yourself and your background, please?

MS: Yes. Thank you. I’ve been in technology now for 30 years, which ages me a bit, I suppose. Yes, when I looked back and realized I’ve been doing this for 30 years. In technology and leadership in many industries and in numerous businesses in all that time. So starting in software development and I then progressed through consulting in various firms and then through industries, such as music, media, telecom, airline, logistics and then most recently in insurance.

And I was reflecting on it the other day, as I was thinking about this conversation, I thought there was one common thread through all of this, lots of different technologies, lots of different businesses and business models and imperatives, but the one common thread through all of it has been people and leadership.

MG: Amazing. Amazing experience. Congrats on that. I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the topics. Let’s dive right to it. Mike, what does it mean to be a good leader?

MS: To be a good leader, I don’t think there’s any formula for it. I think if there was a formula, then the people who could master that formula would then be good leaders. I think leadership comes in many forms and in the best organizations it comes at every level on any level. So it doesn’t just need the most senior person to be a good leader. There could be leaders at every level of the organization.

But there’s a few things I think, in my experience that I look for in leaders and I look for in myself and try and develop. The first pair I think is integrity and honesty. I think in order to be trusted as a leader, people have to believe that you have integrity, you do what you say you’re going to do and that you’re honest. That you don’t tell them something that you know not to be true.

You might have to be economical with the truth. Hide those things you can’t tell people, but the things you do tell people have got to be true and people got to see that. And again, that’s at every level. And then once you’ve got that foundation, I think the next step is some sort of vision and commitment?

What is it that this leader’s here to do? What is it that this team’s supposed to be doing? What is it this organization’s supposed to be doing? What is it that that leader is wanting to have happen and can you believe in it as a member of that team? So if you then go, “I trust this person, they’re telling me the truth and I like where they’re going,” then it’s about…

Well, jobs are hard. Life can be difficult. You need some resilience. So a leader who isn’t going to buckle when the going gets tough and is going to support you when there’s hard work to do and there’s problems, so some resilience. And I think the final point for me was having a passion for the people, not just for the bottom line, the numbers, whatever it is that you’re aiming for, but for you as people and their development, you look after them in the short-term, but also in the long-term.

That you take care of them as they’re going through a difficult patch or a stressful project or whatever the thing is. But also looking at the longterm. Where is their career going? How can you help? How are you being helped by that leader to develop your career? And for the individuals in the team to feel that the leader is supporting them in their development.

I think that combination is what I would look for, certainly in myself and I look for in people that I promote as leaders, that they can do all of those things. Great or less the elements of all of that at different times. But the combination of those things, for me, creates a good leader.

MG: That was really nicely said and to be honest, there’s definitely a difference between just the boss and a supervisor and a true leader. And basing on what you just described, I guess the word would be definitely a better place if there would be more leaders like the ones you’ve just explained.

MS: Yeah. Sorry. I think that’s true. Yes. In organizations and in politics and so on. I think the fundamental for me, and it’s been used in the past, I think, was the idea of a servant leader. So certainly for me most of the time I lead from the back.

I’m there to serve my team and provide them with the environment to do well and it’s only occasionally will I step to the front if there’s a crisis or there’s a big decision needs making and I will take accountability for that. But most of the time I would lead from the back as it were and let them get on with it.

MG: Exactly a leader is there for a team, not the other way around, I guess.

MS: Yes.

MG: It’s basic but so many organizations forget about it.

MS: That does require the leader not to have full control of their own ego. It can be quite an ego-inflating thing to do to be a leader of a big organization or a big team or something, but you’ve got to have full control of your own ego if you’re going to be the best possible leader.

MG: It might be in conception from time to time. Yeah. It to starts with the leader, but it comes down to a team. How would you usually approach building a high-performing team? Where would you start?

MS: Where would I start? I think before just starting with the people, one of the things I mentioned there about a good leader was having a vision and I think the vision, what is the team there to do? And how is it going to take for the organization that that team is a part of? I think that’s the first thing, the why. Why is this team here and what are they going to do?

And then you start pulling people into that team and they have some of them already, but you will then look to create that team behind that vision. We are going to achieve this thing. We’re going to launch this product. We’re going to transform this area. We’re going to roll out to this country. Whatever the thing is that you’re aiming to do.

And then you start building the skills and experience around the ability to deliver that vision. And again, back to the people you’re growing their careers. I, for instance, just started rolling out my previous company to the US and I was very clear with the team that we were going to be using new technology, which we’d selected, which we weren’t skilled in and we were going to have to buy in some people who have these skills.

But I also wanted the team to develop themselves, so I said, “If any members of the team want to get involved in this, there’s lots of online free training and you can get the first accreditation’s in this technology. If you go and do that and demonstrate your commitment by spending your own time getting the basic accreditations, I will then look to put you in the team that does this rollout in the US and you can develop your career in this direction.

So we won’t just buy in all the expertise we need. We will look to grow our own from our own team.” That then gets people who really want to do this stuff. They’ll put a bit of their own commitment in and then we’ll back that. That I think then starts to build that high performing team, people who really want to be there. And they believe in what’s being done.

They believe that there there’s benefit to them, not just earning a salary, but they’re taking their careers forward. And I think the final thing then is that a bit like I’ve mentioned about all those leadership behaviors, it’s about modeling those behaviors yourself as a leader and people wanting to be part of that.

And frankly, on the tough side, we talked about positive things here, but challenging when those behaviors are not being demonstrated, when the opposite of some of those behaviors is being demonstrated, then having the courage to challenge those behaviors and deal with them. I think in all of that, you end up then with a team that really understands what it’s doing, why it’s doing what it’s doing and wants to be there.

They’re not just there for the money. I think that’s with people. Money is not a motivator, but lack of it is a de-motivator. Once you’ve got the money out of the way, all the other things I’ve talked about around developing your career with like-minded people and so on is actually what makes people come to work or work from home now.

MG: That was very wisely said. And what I found most interesting is that you’ve mentioned or talked mostly about commitment. It’s mental, this approach, soft stuff, not hard skills. And that really is interesting bearing in mind that you’ve been a leader in a technology field, which means that you’ve been working with people who are rather focused on getting these hard tech skills instead of focusing on the soft stuff.

MS: Yes. Except for you’ll notice I haven’t used the phrase soft skills because I don’t think they’re the right words to use. I think they are very difficult to gain because they go to the heart of who you are as a human being. I think the technical skills and I’ve studied and gained a lot of those too, not to trivialize them in any way, but that goes to a different part of who you are as a person, that is your engineering skills, your mathematical skills, whatever it is.

But what have we been talking about here, this goes to who you are, what are your values? What do you care about? What makes you get out of bed in the morning? How do you deal with other human beings? And I think that’s not in any way soft. I think that’s hard if you are going to be a good leader.

MG: Definitely. I couldn’t agree with you more, but since we are touching on this human bits, for me and from my experience, the very important parts of building a team is a culture and the way you communicate, and that’s especially important now, today, bearing in mind that we’re having this conversation in the middle of a pandemic and the majority of employees are working from home. How would you foster culture and this open communication and build a team during work-from-home times?

MS: During work-from-home times, yes. It’s not easy. And I think that the whole world has transformed, hasn’t it? Over the last few months. Fortunately the technology has supported us. If we’d been doing all this 10 years ago, it would have been a great deal more difficult. I think if you’re lucky you have done these previous things we’ve talked about before this all happened.

There’s a bedrock of respect and followership as it were for you, if you’re a leader before this started, but regardless of whether there is or isn’t, I think you’ve got to demonstrate your honesty and integrity. And the technology allows us to do that and an open and frequent communication. You can never communicate too much, is often said.

And I think in advertising space they talk about having to hear the same message, something like seven times before you get it. For instance, when we talked about vision before just putting a few slides up that says, “Right, this is the vision, and then never seeing them again,” isn’t a vision, I think.

I think if there’s a vision, joie de vivre, something about a team or what it’s doing, then that needs to be repeated frequently. Maybe it’s the first slide in every pack for the next six months, for instance, to say, “These are our principles, or these are the things we’re aiming at,” for instance. So you’re repeating those kinds of comms.

Certainly in lockdown, I’ve been doing weekly blogs. So I will write to the whole department every week with some key messages, three things that are happening. I will do bi-weekly Town Halls, which are not just me talking, but I’ll get members of the leadership team, more junior members of the department and it’s a development opportunity for them to talk about what they’re doing that might be of interest to everybody else. We’re launching this product or we’re developing this new technology that’s doing this or so on. And then speakers will discuss more widely, but also encouraged questions and debate and collaboration, looking for discussion forums and being part of them. I will, for instance, make time available to be in team meetings within my department. I will join them so that they can, in smaller groups talk to me, ask me questions.

And again, hopefully that integrity and honesty comes through because I will be able to say if they, for instance, ask me about profit or loss of the company. Well, as we’re a private company, I can talk about it. In previous companies where I’ve been the director of a PLC, you can’t talk about it because the listing rules mean that you can’t talk about those things until they’re public.

But that’s fine. You just tell people that, and again that’s honesty saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk about that. The reason is this.” But it’s that frequent communication that hopefully gives people the confidence, not just about what you’re saying at the time, but that you will tell them when and if there is information that they need to know, and also then being open to them asking you things at any other time as well. So not being aloof. I always reply to emails. I always make myself available to the team.

MG: Right on. Again, very well put. I guess, honesty, transparency, openness, and empathy are virtues that are handy regardless working from home or other normal times.

MS: Sorry. I was just saying you used the word empathy. I think that’s a very good one. I heard a great thing a while back, which has always stuck with me, the difference between empathy and sympathy and it is empathy. The empathy is care for other people. The sympathy is a different emotion.

I think empathy was about caring about what happens to other people and I think where I mentioned earlier about looking to develop people’s careers, well, that was before all of this. My empathy for some of my team now has been what they’re facing, where they’re living in smaller accommodation, or they’ve got young children at home, they’re trying to homeschool whilst trying to hold down the job and that the work hours and the home hours all blur into one, they can’t go on holiday. All those things.

That is tough and trying as best we can to support them in a sort of here and now, but also manage the work in such a way that they can sustain and for them to feel that you are doing that for them, I think is very valuable. And again, it goes to the core of who we are as people and that’s why I don’t call it soft skills.

MG: It’s a nice definition of empathy. I like it. And I’d like to get back to a few things you’ve already mentioned. Life and the teamwork is not a bed of roses and sometimes the manager has to deal with challenges such as handling conflicts and building one team attitude despite controversies. Have you ever encountered, in your experience such cases? What can a manager do when it comes to handling conflicts within a team?

MS: Yes. In a long career, as you can imagine, I’ve dealt with my fair share of conflict. Don’t go looking for it. But I think one of, again, the skills of a leader is not to shy away from it if it’s there. And there’s also a bit of judgment here. Sometimes this conflict in the early days of a team is what I call sharp elbows. It’s just team members trying to work out who’s responsible for what and the judgment might be that actually you stay out of it and let them sort it out.

That might be the judgment and there’s, again, no formula for that. You will say you know the individuals because you want to spend enough time with your team, you’ll know the characters, you will adjust to that. That’s just them working out where’s the boundary. My responsibilities and where do your responsibilities start? So it’s a kind of transient conflict and it gets sorted.

Occasionally I’ve had to step into those and I’ve had a few times when I’ve sat around a table with two people who are in conflict before it gets to a point where relationships might get broken and we just negotiate and demonstrate respect for them both. I think I can think of a couple of examples now, which I won’t go into detail, but where I say, “Look, I respect both of you. Both are very, very capable people. There this particular issue here. I think the way we should take this forward is this. Is everyone okay with that?”;

And they go, “Let’s discuss it.” Rather than me laying down the law, let’s discuss it. And we sort it out and we move on and no relationship is broken and there’s respect all around. There’s something more fundamental though, where a leader has to judge whether there is either a fundamental personality clash between individuals or is a capability issue where someone is having a conflict with someone else because they believe they’re not capable of doing the job. And those could be more difficult.

And sometimes you have to make some difficult judgments. And one thing I learned years ago was a high-performing team expects the leader to make the difficult decisions when they need making. They shouldn’t have to be made very often, but if they are and do need to be made, the team expects the leader to make them.

So if there is someone who is not capable and you aren’t able to develop them to a… Because I said my first reaction would be to get them into the right job or support them in developing the skills they need. But if they either temperamentally or intellectually or whatever, are not the right person for that team, then unfortunately in the end, the end of the road is you have to remove them from the team.

And the leader, having gone through all the other steps fairly rapidly sometimes and comes to that decision then acts. And as a high performing team would expect not through, we’re more fancy that I decided I don’t like this person, so I’m letting them go, for instance. They wouldn’t respect that. But a high performing team would expect their manager, their leader to make the tough decisions because otherwise you’re kind of disrespecting the team. So yes, I have had to do that.

MG: Definitely. Great leader make tough decisions. But I guess that in fact, hard decisions often get more complicated when they are deferred. So not running away from the conflict is a very important part of being a leader.

MS: It is. And in fact, I was asked a few years ago, I have privilege of having two teenage sons and I was asked in an interview once how I dealt with poor performing members of a team. And I talked through my approach and it’s a graduated approach, starting from a chat about their performance to a chat every week about their performance and then to performance management and so on.

And I summarized it by saying, “This is the way I would want my boys to be treated if they were not performing at work. I wouldn’t want it swept under the carpet. I’d want them to go through this process and given every opportunity to sort themselves out, every support in doing so. And if the end of the road was that they left that organization, but they had gone through all those steps, I couldn’t complain.” And that’s the treatment that anyone would get at my hands as well.

MG: Really interesting. I guess that’s a clever approach. Another topic you touched on already is opportunities for development. Is encouraging development and setting goals is also an important part of being a leader and building a team. What metrics or KPIs should there be in place? Should there be any? How would you approach that?

MS: Yes. I think it depends of course on what you’re trying to achieve. So if you’re in software development say, and you’re in agile type environment, then there’s a lot of metrics that you can put in place. So the tooling that will drive those metrics, everything from story points to sprint, to objectives, defects in production, whatever it is, there’s a measure that tooling can help you achieve. And they are very, very useful and I’ve used them quite a lot in setting up agile environments and then being able to tune them and being able to look to the team and measure their performance. From a software point of view, you can do things like that.

I think when it comes to things like project delivery, I’ve been responsible for a lot of business transformation and project delivery, not just the technology bit, but the whole transformation piece. I think it does get a bit more difficult or it’s a little bit of a wider net. So it could be things of a high level like net present value of the investments, are we getting the return on the investments we’re making?

It could be rolling measures around project delivery and risk management. Are the project teams managing risk effectively or are we keeping having issues because they weren’t managed when they were risks? Budget hearing, and scope management and so on. So you can manage all of those. I think the fundamental point though, always comes back to people and I think you then start looking at things like engagement scores.

For instance, say a team where the team is achieving, say, the right scores if they’re a software development team, achieving the measures that you want from a software delivery, but the team engagement is very low, say, you might say, “Well, there’s a problem there with maybe the leader of the team or something in that team.” So engagement scores are always important to me.

And then outward facing what do sponsors and recipients of the work think. So if the project sponsor of a big piece of investment, are they happy with the way the money’s been spent, the project’s been delivered and the value’s being created, which should reflect then on the team and probably the project manager or the leader of the team, depending on how it’s structured.

So a combination of all those things, but I’m also very careful about what measures you do use because there’s an old adage that what gets measured gets done and so if you measure something… I heard this once where I had a software development team that was measured on the number of story points, I think it was, that was produced. And then I had a testing team that was measured on zero defects getting into production. And these two measures conflicted, and there was a bit of a conflict, which I had to get to step into.

And then when it came to the surface, “Well, why are you resisting?” The testing manager was resisting going live with this piece of software because it had a defect in it and it turned out the defect was a minor defect. The sponsor had said they were happy with it. They wanted the software in now and then fix the defect later and so on.

But this ran counter to the measures of the testing manager and that was a case of what got measured got done, but it wasn’t actually the right thing. It was easy to say, “No, put software with no defects in production,” but that’s easy to measure, but it wasn’t the right measure and so we fixed it. But it was a lesson for me making sure you don’t.

What gets measured gets done, so be very careful what you measure and don’t measure too many things. You try and measure 100 measures, you’ll end up knee deep in stats and not really knowing what’s going on.

MG: Okay. That was really relevant. I guess that if of course there are tools that are handy, then why not using them, but let’s not forget about the goal and the very sake of what are we using them for. Another important aspect of building a team is accountability and responsibility. How would you distribute work appropriately within a team?

MS: It always comes back to people again. I think the first thing is you need to know you. It’s often said that delegation is the art of management, but you don’t just delegate work. Know who your people are, not just what they’re capable of, but what do they aspire to? And so what I sometimes look to do is delegate to people for whom they can almost do the work you’re about to delegate to them.

Though it’s a stretch for them, but then support them, coach them, help them deliver that work and in the process you get their commitment and you’ve developed them and you’ve increased the overall capacity of that team because that person now knows how to do that thing that they didn’t know how to do before. In that way, as a leader, you always got the accountability. You can’t duck that and you mustn’t duck that. Again, that backs to the integrity and honesty.

In the end, it’s down to you, but you can make someone responsible for the delivery on a piece of work like that, which is appropriate to them but a bit beyond them and then support them in doing it, which I’ve done many, many times.

And in that way, you get their commitment and by the end of that bit of work you’ve now got someone who’s even more capable than they were before. But in the end, as I said, the senior manager is the accountable person and must never duck that. You delegate the responsibility, but you take the accountability.

MG: Well, that’s a nice, I guess witty way of combining performance and development. But once the team is assembled and already well-performing and all the things that we’ve already talked about are in place, I imagine you’d like to move it to the next level, take it to the next level and create room for innovation. What can a manager do, or what can a leader do or what can a team do in order to over-perform.

MS: Yes. Well, one of my theories around innovation is it comes back to culture. I’ve resisted having separate innovation teams within organizations, because I found that, in my experience, doesn’t work very effectively. What you want, in my experience is people to have the room, the head space and attitude, to be able to think about, “How are we doing this way?”;

For instance, people think innovation is about something completely new that no one’s ever heard of before. That’s, in my experience not the case. Usually nine tenths of it is stuff that everyone’s done before, but they haven’t combined it in this particular way. And that’s the 10th, 10th. That’s the bits that people haven’t done before in your industry or for that product.

They haven’t put these things together in that particular order and that produces something new. And so having a culture that allows for collaboration, for discussion, for group design, rather than one person going away and thinking of something, if you have that culture of collaboration, then innovation comes out of it. And I’d say, nine tenths of that innovation will be things you’ve already got.

“Oh, we’ve already got that data. Oh, if we combine that with this thing here, we could give the customer this level of insight or we could of drive this personalization which we couldn’t do before.” Those kinds of things for me is where the real valuable innovation comes from. And then because they’re the people who’ve thought it up, they’re much more motivated to deliver it.

And I’ve seen that be a sort of a virtuous spiral upwards of lots and lots of small innovations that lead to big outcomes. Certainly the example I just used there with data, we’ve done that in my last company where we were able to combine data in GDPR compliant ways that allowed us to drive business activity that absolutely drove the bottom line. And those were small incremental steps rather than big transformations and that was around culture and just ways of thinking for the team.

MG: I definitely agree that culture is one of the most important aspects of building a team. And what you said, again, was very informative. I really liked the example. So were I to slowly sum up our whole conversation, I would say that what I noted is that a high-performing team is a blend of highly skilled professionals and the performance of the team can be achieved when there’s a powerful and thought leadership.

The goals are distributed and shared. The communication is clear. There’s trust, openness, transparency, harmony and as you said, empathy, and then you can think about exceeding expectations of both team members and the stakeholders.

MS: Yes, indeed. I think that summarizes it all and in the process then no one feels cheated. If we all worked in teams like that, I think we’d be willing to put a lot of effort in, we take our careers forward as well as the companies, organizations we work for. And as my old grandmother used to say, fair exchange is no robbery.

So you work hard, you throw all your commitment into it and at the end of it, you’ll feel, “I’ve worked with really good people. I’ve learned a lot as well as earning a living and so on. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve taken my career forward and in the process I’ve moved the organization I worked for forward,” and be able to look back on it positively.

MG: That’s a very, very nice summary. Thank you, Mike for sharing your thoughts. That was really interesting. And thank you, our listeners for listening to yet another episode of our podcast. If you liked it, please don’t hesitate to share it and do drop us a note if you’d like to have another topic covered in one of the future episodes. That was ID Insights with Mike Sturrock. Thank you.

MS: Thank you.


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