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Building high performance teams: how to succeed in these challenging times with Kevin Mascarenhas

Building high performance teams: how to succeed in these challenging times with Kevin Mascarenhas

Michał Grela

Michał Grela

Relationship Manager at Future Processing

Contact me
Kevin Mascarenhas

Kevin Mascarenhas

Leadership coach to tech startup CEOs

Recent years have been unprecedented in terms of new unexpected challenges and changes in our work. The pandemics has impacted teams in many ways and has required us to rethink the leadership models to allow the teams stay effective, efficient and high performing.

Together with our guest Kevin Mascarenhas, leadership coach to tech startup CEOs, we have touched upon the topic of leadership and high performance teams on various levels. We discuss the concept of transformational leadership as well as, on one hand, key factors required to build and maintain the high performance teams and, on the other hand, the blockers and obstacles to overcome on the way.

Furthermore, we have talked about the impact of hybrid work on our attitude towards life and work in general and the fact that it is impossible to return to the pre-pandemic working environment. We also discussed the significance of aligning roles and responsibilities at a company to business goals of the organisation and how to approach it.

Michał Grela (MG): Hello and welcome to yet another episode of IT Insights by Future Processing. Today my guest is Kevin Mascarenhas and we’re going to discuss how to build high-performing teams and what are the key attributes needed to produce your best work in teams? Kevin is an expert in helping tech startups, CEOs create a freedom to focus on the strategy while entrusting the team to take care of the tactical through one-to-one coaching. Uh, he’s an expert in leadership team coaching and organizational designs. I’m really looking forward, Kevin, to have this conversation with you today. Thank you for joining me.  

Kevin Mascarenhas (KM): Thank you, Michael, for the kind invitation and the opportunity to share with your audience, what I’ve learned from working with technology startups. It’s my great pleasure to be here.  

MG: Can you give us some insights on your background, please?  

KM: My background. Okay. I graduated as an engineer. I was writing embedded software for engine management control systems back in the mid-nineties. So that’s the first generation.  

MG: You’re the dinosaur of coding.  

KM: Yeah. That’s the first generation of drive-by-wire. So straight into coding, yes, that’s what I did. That’s where I started. I did consultancy. I think what I recognized was that as an engineer in the UK, you’re not going to expect to be well paid. So, I gravitated over time from consultancy to the investment banking world. And I spent eight years working in New York, Glasgow and London supporting the trading systems and building highly available infrastructure. So, there was a sort of an engineering theme running through all of that work and a systems theme as well so it was about putting systems together. Then when I had finally reached the end of investment banking, some people out there might know what I’m referring tong to, I had an epiphany and I retrained in ecological landscape design. I learned to read a landscape to grow food organically and to design those landscapes in concert with communities. So I went around the world, West Africa, the Arctic, Australia, Central America, all across Europe and particularly in the UK, working with people, communities, farmers on designing these landscapes and learning the art and science of building connected systems, natural systems and using organic techniques to do that. After that, I learned if I could facilitate large groups to do that then I could certainly do this one to one. What I learned the key was to get out of the way of others so that you can empower them to take control of their own environments and then learning as a coach to do that again on a one-to-one basis, led me to the work that I’m doing now, that was about five years ago and bringing all these interlocking and overlaying approaches to systems thinking and systems design. Originally, I wanted to meet clients that were going through some sort of existential crisis and meet them there with coaching. And as it turned out, people kept asking me for advice on starting their businesses. I don’t really understand what this was I was ready to start off with. And then I just relaxed into that and realized there’s a personal dimension to starting a business. There is also obviously the business dimension. So, I learned to put those maps together, overlay them. And then I started working with technology entrepreneurs and before you knew it, I was actually supporting an accelerator program. I built a team of coaches. I mean, we’re providing business coaching to start-up entrepreneurs on the Geovation program, which is run by ordinance survey and land registry. And it’s built from there. I continued to build it from there, COVID hit and then my business went online. I relocated to Sweden, which is where my daughter lives. And now I’ve kind of got the best of both worlds.  

MG: This is a very interesting story. Very, I’ll say broad background that you shared with us, thanks. The top big of today’s conversation is building a high-performance team and the key attributes that are needed to make the most of the team’s performance. There’re different approaches to developing transformational leadership in teams in this new hybrid world we find ourselves in. What’s your take on that?  

KM: Well, you use the word transformational leadership. And that’s often where I start with leaders is to sort of re-think the model for what leadership is in these uncertain and chaotic times of the 21st century. Traditional leadership looked like needing from the front and charging forward and being the front of all knowledge and the person – the hero at the front of the business.  

MG: Is that not up to date anymore? 

KM: I don’t think so. I think it’s a sort of a mechanistic metaphor. I see it as something that belongs in the industrial era, it has so many connotations with the way that armies operate. And now actually we are finding in the latest interventions that are a different style of leadership is needed. And that’s what, where we begin our journey. And by that, I’m talking about a multidimensional approach that’s flexible and meets the need at the moment and is fit for purpose to the context. So, if we were to think of leadership from the front as exactly that there are other styles to leading from behind, leading from the side, who are you as a leader leading from within and also leading from the field, seeing the bigger picture, and all of this comes from the coactive leadership framework, which I absolutely love. And that’s what I share with clients. And that’s what we model how we’re going to lead our businesses in the tech startup world.  

MG: Sounds like there’s a lot of let’s say, maybe not pressure. What I mean is that it’s mostly up to the leader, how the team is performing and you know, in the face of recent disruptions with pandemics and now war, unfortunately, it’s being turned upside down, but just looking at the last two years and lockdown time and hybrid work time from your perspective, how effective have teams and individuals been during these unprecedented times? 

KM: Yes, you’re so right. Unprecedented times. And when you’ve got an effective dictator leading a country into a war that not everybody is in agreement with what you can see there, just to start off to open this up is there’s a gap between where he is and where the rest are. And I think leading from the front is about closing that gap. Are you representative of the group’s concerns and interests? How does that relate to COVID times? Well, what I would say is that we were forced into a remote working environment almost overnight and without any preparation. So that comes with a whole set of challenges for everyone. And I think one of the keys there would be communication and transparency that goes with that. So, I think that at the start of COVID, what we saw was overcommunication and that was very necessary – over communication to ensure that the trust is there, the uncertainty is dissolved and there’s a sort of a collective sense of how we move forward. So, transparency communication has been key.  

MG: It’s definitely the two aspects that can help teams stay on top of this: let’s say risk and uncertainty. If the leaders are being transparent about the situation of the business and communicating openly about what challenges are the business-facing, you know, a well-informed employee or team member is definitely better engaged or more engaged in the business, has this buy-in. 

KM: Yeah, I would say yes. Engagement and alignment to what the strategy is or what the business goals are because many of us have had to pivot in some way to meet changing in the environment, changing circumstances, changing context of which we’re running business, because what we did before no longer applied and probably wouldn’t do going into the future. And what we’ve seen is that’s had disastrous effects on some businesses and also created opportunities and new niches to create business that weren’t there before. 

MG: Exactly. But from today’s standpoint, these pandemic restrictions ease. What does this mean for teamwork and team efficiency? 

KM: Yeah. I think that we got to a comfortable state for many of us. I think it’s dependent on circumstance, but for many of us that were able to operate from home effectively, we suddenly started to see: oh, okay. So now I don’t have to travel. I can be more effective with my time. I can compartmentalize. I’m more available for my family. For others, some that I coached their younger generation, or they might be leaders that have joined during the pandemic. It’s actually quite a difficult place to start a role or to start building a team from. And I definitely got a sense of really anxious t t to get back into the office to start to meet people face to face and build that trust and rapport, that connection. And equally, for younger people, they really wanted to have that connection with the team so that they can get that start building that trust and rapport. So, I think once we were in the pandemic, it was about that, about trust and rapport, building that through some of the things we just spoke about earlier, which is transparency and communication and then taking that into the present, we are now a be in the hybrid environment, I would suggest. I would imagine… Well, what I know from the people that I work with is that we won’t go back to the way it was before now. That’s not earth-shattering to hear that.  

MG: I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that people want the best out of two worlds. They have learned that you don’t have to, you know, sit an hour in the tube each way, twice a day and you can spend this time or invest that time in just being more productive or just rest or spend it with your family. But on the other hand, from the business perspective, having people in the office from time to time has an enormous impact culturewise and in order to foster the atmosphere and build a rapport and team spirit. So, I guess both sides have to meet somewhere in between eventually. And that’s the way it’s going to stay for a longer period of time, I guess, hybrid as you said.  

KM: Yeah. What I’ve noticed is that leaders in big corporates are insisting that everybody must come back to work and that it will be business as usual, but there’s such a strong pushback to that’s not going to be realistic or practical. So, then it’s a question of, well, what does the hybrid workplace look like? How are we going to create enabling environments to have that blend so that everybody gets, as you say, the best of both worlds, how are we going to create this win-win situation? What’s that going to look like? And how will we foster a culture that is part in person and also part electronic.  

MG: I don’t think we have answers to these questions just yet. It’s all being forced right now, definitely. 

KM: Yes. Can I open that up? Because I guess is a lot of your client base will be in larger businesses. Where I’m at, when I’m working with smaller organizations, they are seeking to empower their people in any way that they can. It’s so important to them, to foster a culture where there’s a collective understanding of what are we achieving together and how are we doing that these are very real issues that they need to tackle in immediacy. I think the way that that begins or where that begins is with the purpose. I think now I’m noticing my clients are revisiting that question of why are we here, what is it we are here to do, what is our purpose. Let’s get a clear intention around what’s our purpose. And then let’s feed that into the values that we hold personally and share collectively in our organization. 

MG: If I can be transparent with you, if a business is trying to answer these questions now, it’s years too late. It’s like I wouldn’t imagine starting a business without knowing these “why” answers, and it’s struck me that you say it’s a popular challenge at the moment. People are coping with the very basics. 

KM: I would say it’s more of a revisiting. And I would say that it’s an opportunity to create more alignment and coherence. And it’s more a case of racing ahead. You know, what I notice is a lot of businesses are racing ahead and almost assuming that that’s gonna take care of itself. Then as a business grows and scales, it can create endemic difference in the organization. And it’s intractable and difficult to remediate further down the line. So, it’s with encouragement for me that we are revisiting this earlier and to make sure that there’s real clarity around that as they go out and start hiring. 

MG: That sounds reassuring. I was afraid that, you know, people are having successful businesses without understanding the wise of it, but I’m happy to hear that I was wrong. So, coming back to, because we dived, we jump side slightly, but trying to focus on the core aspects of this conversation, the team performance and getting the most out of the teams and leadership, maybe starting from a high perspective, what matters from your perspective, from your experience or based on your conversations to the ones that you’re having, what matters in a high-performance team the most,  

KM: Well, we’ve talked about purpose. We’ve talked about values. One at the team level, another one of those that we are addressing is roles. And again, one of those things that almost taken for granted, typically in larger organizations in my experience, what happens is you are recruited on the basis of a job description and that job description then gets put in a draw and forgotten about, and you get on with your day-to-day reality. In this more startup phase that I work with, my clients, what I encourage them to do is define roles and keep them alive. So, the roles are changing over time, but they always reflect what’s actually going on. Now, the start point for that is a difference actually it’s what is the person doing in reality? So, what is the, what is the team member doing in reality on a day-to-day basis? And then what is the expectation from the team leader, from the CEO of what that person ought to be doing? So, what I have them do is to write that up separately and then have a one to one where they explore, what’s the expectation versus what’s really going on and then mediate that. And then you’ve got an alive document that describes what’s really going on in the workplace. So high performance is about aligning action to what the business goals are. What’s going to move that boat forward faster. So, once you have that an alignment, then you are free to enact that role, which has in it, a set of accountabilities, accountabilities being, what does that person personally account for as being done? What are they taking ownership for? And then when that is happening, business is flowing, work is being done, value is being created. The way I describe it is get in, you have full permission to own your role. And so therefore you can get in your car, your Ferrari and race ahead, race ahead until such time, as you hit a roadblock, that roadblock is the some point of tension, then you get out of your Ferrari and you examine what’s just happened. What isn’t working and what do we need to fix? How do we fix it? The way that that can be fixed is through two different types of meetings. One is a tactical meeting where there’s an immediate fix and you make it happen or another – and this is new for many of my clients – you take it into a governance meeting. A governance meeting has a cadence of, let’s say once a month, where you build a backlog of incidents and you explore them one at a time to suggest what do we do with this point attention, what actually happened there and what do we need to do to resolve it? Once you figure that out, it might be a change in role. It might be there’s a new process that we need to implement. It might be that if somebody else’s work or it might even be external to the business, who knows you resolve those tensions one at a time, and then what’s happening here is that role is getting ever more fit for purpose. If it’s getting ever more fit for purpose, you’ve got this evolutionary cycle within your organization. So, you’re only ever getting more fit for purpose. You’re doing higher quality work where it matters more effectively. And I would describe that as business evolution. And I think that’s one of the key tenants of organizational design when you are thinking about high performing teams.  

MG: I really liked a bit about keeping roles alive, but it all sounds like a very agile approach I would say. You mentioned that once you identify a challenge, you take it to a meeting A or meeting B and sort it out, but it really does seem to me like a good fit for more startup-like organizations with culture that is relevant to that sort of approach. But how does that work with larger organizations who are say less adaptable to such elastic approach and then prone to being stiff and moving slowly forward with change of approaches. 

KM: Yeah. I get that. I think that then comes back to leadership and to transparency. I really do believe in communication. Even in my world, we talk a lot about having one to ones. So, I think it’s important to be checking in with teams to understand what’s working and what’s not working. I think of it as one of the frameworks I use is deliberately developmental organization DDO. And in that framework with thinking about what are those feedback loops? Yes, you talked about agility being something that belongs to the startup culture, the startup world, but there’s still a way to design feedback loops into any system or into any team structure. So again, it’s one of those and I’m doing coaching at the corporate level too. And this is something that we touch on is how often do you check in with your manager? How often do you have those developmental conversations? How would you structure a developmental conversation? What is it you want more of? How does that match the needs of the team, the needs of your leader and also the needs of the organization. What I’m constantly doing with clients is having them focus back in, on zero in on, how can I add benefit? How can I be in service to what we want to create more of? I think it’s that I think it’s around communication, transparency and the sort of the thinking, the alignment and focus around goals around business goals, business outcomes.  

MG: Honest communication and this being just straightforward and transparent is crucial. I definitely agree with you. What are the other mindset and behaviors needed? 

KM: Ok, let me think. 

MG: Or are these the ones that are the most critical and more impactful? 

KM: They’re all key. The way that I like to work in a corporate setting is think of people at the center of their system. You know, I was talking about systems design. That’s the golden thread really, it’s run through my career. So that’s what I bring to my clients to whether it’s in a startup or a corporate setting. So, in a corporate setting, I kind of do this – I’ve got this turnaround technique where people can’t quite see themselves anymore in the context of their organization life, their team life. So, what I do is I act as a mirror and what I create is this I’ve sort of pulled them out so they can see the system that they’re working within. So, what we are doing there is like the ecosystem perspective in a landscape, what we are doing is we’re strengthening the connections and the relationships to what matters to them or the people that matters to them in their team life and in their work life. So, we focus a lot on what’s it going to take for others to get what they need through the work that you do? 

MG: Taking yourself out of this context and stepping in different shoes is definitely a very interesting exercise. I’ve went through it a couple of times in different circumstances, and it was always enlightening, I would say, but it’s really hard and it needs external facilitation and open-mindness in order to actually feature yourself in from different perspective. But we only briefly touched on that topic on the very beginning of our conversation. Then we went to teams, but I want to circle back to the person of the leader, because the leader is, let’s say, the most important person in the team, or let’s say maybe not more important than any other team members, but he’s responsible for overall performance of the team. So, what can a leader do in business to foster this high performance?  

KM: Teah. You may mentioned in your introduction to me about me and you talked about how I support leaders think more strategically or trusting that they’re the individuals in their teams are taking care of the day to day. So, I think that’s a big part of it. And the way that’s achieved is through empowering others. So, this is a journey of letting go of stuff to free leaders up so that they can put their attention on what’s the strategic focus of the team or the organization. What are the strategic goals that we’re working towards, if they are using them. 

MG: Does that mean that, sorry for interrupting you just a quick question. Does that mean that from your perspective or looking at the frameworks that you introduce in teams, et cetera, the leaders should not be involved in, let’s say the execution, but only should stay on the strategic level of the team goals?  

KM: Okay. So that’s quite black and white and you know, it’s very much context dependent. What I would suggest is that leaders had experiences of execution and they’ve now taken the next level. So, their priorities and focus needs to be different to move the business forward. Now, if they’ve got their hands in the day to day, which they may have for various reasons, that means that there’s a neglect to the direction focus of the team or the business. So that is not something that happens overnight and it is a process and a journey. And that happens over time whereby we kind of break out of the doing and I support through coaching, more of the seeing and sort of taking of the strategic path. The empowerment piece is designing the structures and processes is about creating the psychological safety to enable the team to take more and more ownership and to find more and more comfort in that. So, they start developing a collective responsibility for the operational, the execution of the team outcomes. I guess I’m a detective, you know, and taking again, taking that systemic approach. I love to find troubleshoot and put my finger on the point where something’s not working in terms of a system. So, I’m really inspired by Patrick Lynn, Chinese, the five dysfunctions of a team.  I sometimes share a map of the five dysfunctions with business owners to help us diagnose where do we think the challenge lies? It’s a five tiered pyramid I would say. And it looks at quite a bit of what we’ve already described, something we haven’t touched on that might be interesting to talk about is conflict. 

MG: In a, in a team there’s always this conflict avoidance issue over polite. 

KM: Correct. Particularly in the UK, we’ve got this tendency to be nice.  

MG: I noticed that I worked in a team that was, so let’s say fond of each other and people liked each other so much that at some point, there was only tapping on the shoulders and we were, you know, on the highway to success that we were so excited about it. And so, you know, the atmosphere was so friendly that eventually when some issues appeared came up, we didn’t have the balls actually to bring them up to the conversation. And at some point it started to be risky as we were, let’s say, not mitigating the obvious risks that we were obviously not discussing in order not to lose this, let’s say what friendliness, atmosphere, sympathy. 

KM: Right. You know that, I mean, that’s quite a challenging situation to resolve from the inside. Again, you can imagine how useful it would be to use an external resource, to be able to mirror back what’s actually going on and to create some kind of opportunity for an honest conversation, with some level of vulnerability and some level of safety included. So that’s a very tricky situation to find oneself in. I think what I would say, well, I’d say to that is that it would take some unpacking and it would need the need, the support of somebody skilled a facilitator to come in from the outside.  

MG: That was just, you know, my experience on conflict avoidance. But I guess that usually the reasons are different what what’s usually, because we started discussing conflict as a dysfunction in the team. 

KM: Yeah, you’ve just said it differently. Okay.  what I know from the work that I’m doing is that difference is two different perspectives where each one has some wisdom that’s seeking emergence. And the journey really is to unpack that and put that back together again, in a way where you integrate the wisdom from both sides of the pitch. Now, you know, sometimes it can be a situation where one person just doesn’t have the right perspective or the right way to take things forward. So, things like decision making frameworks are useful here, decisions by consent as opposed to consensus, what you are doing is you want to create environments where there’s a listen and where there’s empathy. You wanna be able to hear both perspectives and then you wanna mediate and align and hear the sort of the wisdom within each of those in order to create the way forward. I’d also say that what’s key here is that I often use a model called transaction analysis, which is a psychological model whereby we explore ego states. We look at where are we coming from? And where is our communication derived from? And what we’re trying to do there is have an adult-to-adult conversation whereby you are dropping away. What happened in the past in terms of childhood and experiences, and you’re meeting each other as an adult and describing what the need is from an unbiased or non-emotional state.  

MG: Sounds already like a therapy rather than coaching.  

KM: It’s interesting cause it’s quite effective. Actually, it sounds a bit clunky maybe in this conversation, but the reality is that what I’m doing there is supporting individuals to fully express themselves, okay, what the need is and what outcomes they’re looking for.  

MG: It is often a blocker. People do feel blocked to do that. 

KM: Yeah. And some form of mediation can be supportive there. 

MG: Wonderful. Thank you, Kevin, for bringing that one up as well. And thank you for having this chat with me. We went through variety of aspects related to building a highly performant team. We talked about its functions. We talked about the key success, blockers and enablers and role the leader in different coaching approaches. I really liked it. I really do believe it was very relevant. And thanks for sharing your thought. 

KM: You’re very welcome. Thanks again, for the opportunity to share with the audience. I really enjoyed the conversation. 

MG: And thank you our listeners for being with us on this another episode of our podcast. If you like it, please don’t hesitate to spread the world around and do drop us a note if you’d like to have another topic covered in one of the future episodes. That was IT Insights, thanks. 

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Michał Grela

Michał Grela

Field Marketing Manager at Future Processing

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Ewa Mazurek

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Kaja Szczygieł

Relationship Specialist at Future Processing

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Sylwia Wolny

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