High-performing teams require a new kind of leadership – one that’s vulnerable, self-aware and cares for the person, not the employee

Adrienne Tan

I recall sitting in a Senior Leadership Team meeting, where our Editor-in-Chief was presenting to a newly formed Executive team on the extensive history of the newspaper title. At one point, he identified one of the bosses he had worked with in his decades-long tenure: ”This guy believed that you got more out of your people if they were unhappy — that it drove them to work harder” he mused.

Thank goodness our workplaces — and our leaders — have evolved.

This was evident in the kick off of our Melbourne Product Leaders’ Lunch Series for 2019. We had fourteen Product Leaders discuss what it takes to create high performing teams and most of the conversation revolved around how these leaders and their companies were bringing self-awareness and emotional intelligence to their teams.

Psychological Safety

Google’s People Operations group studied teams within the company and found that the most successful teams in Google demonstrated the following:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

They observed that Psychological Safety was the most important of the five dynamics that contributed to team success.

So as a Product Leader, how do you create psychological safety in individuals?

Build trust by being a vulnerable leader

Lead by example. As Li Xia puts it, “It’s taking those opportunities on a day to day basis to influence your team… show some vulnerability and lead the way.”

Laura Cardinal agrees, “use your own self-awareness to encourage others to be honest about their strengths and weaknesses…I can be ‘high zest’ and my team know I can be ‘high-zest’ by identifying it and naming it, it de-personalises that characteristic and gives the group courage to call out when that particular character trait is showing up in a way that’s not working for the team.”

It’s also about being aware enough to know when you’re in a good head space for a conversation or not. According to Liz Blink — “have the emotional intelligence to say ‘hey now’s not a great time for this conversation because I’ve had a shocker of a morning, but you’re raising good points, so let’s come back to it at a later point.”

Does it take time to create this kind of trust? Absolutely. But as Jen Leibhart explains “the amount of time that is spent with the team at the beginning — going through the values sessions and retros can seem odd if you’re not used to it but you make up for it in the communication, efficiency and trust that is built.”

Respect how individuals within the team operate

Amanda Ralph explained how they’ve encouraged transparency and vulnerability amongst her team to better engage stakeholders.

“We’ve actually created a hand-out that we have in all of our team areas and distributed to other key stakeholders that have a profile map for our teams (using the DiSC model) …being transparent about what our preferences are. It’s made all of us a bit more reflective of how we give feedback and how to manage those preferences.

“It’s meant that we’re much more effective in terms of engagement. And things make sense now. I’ve got people in my team, and I’ll give them feedback and then three days later, they’ll come back to me and say ‘you know that conversation we had three days ago’ — and I’ve moved on but I have to step back and say, okay, for that person, I need to accommodate that and manage to that.”

According to Jithma Beneregama, Executive Director of Digital, Design and Innovation “This starts at recruitment, who are you hiring and knowing what motivates them.”

Building trust means that feedback can happen continuously

The outcome of being able to build a culture of trust where people have psychological safety is that feedback can be continous, ensuring cross-functional teams can move fast and course correct as they go along.

For Erica Wass, Senior Product Director at Zendesk, “My favourite transition point is when not everything has to be a crucial, critical conversation… it’s just comments at that point that people are hearing and giving — it takes the fear out and makes it part of the norm and every day of working rather than having to work up to, and prepare, for big conversations.”

Li summed it up “So it’s kind of using those opportunities on a day to day basis to influence our team and lead by example.”

It’s also important to separate out developmental conversations with performance conversations. According to Chris Billing, make sure you’re still having dedicated conversations where they have an opportunity to talk “about how they think they’re going rather than how I think they’re going. It’s all about them.”

Create an environment where that feedback is democratised

Ok, so you’ve created a culture of trust, feedback is free-flowing with your teams and the result of all this high performance is that your company starts to scale. How do you maintain that culture? The group imparted some great advice on how they’ve scaled the feedback loop: Create the kind of space where individuals can share their personal and professional goals with the team and indeed, the company — not just their direct manager.

For Laura, “The success of that team is the combination where they’re going to grow and learn off of each other, just as much as they are going to grow and learn from you and off of their own experiences — our job is to guide teams on how to have the right conversations, not necessarily to impart all our knowledge on our functional team.”

Dayne Nash explained how he helped implement “Kick ass conversations” company wide: “Georgia Murch has written a book called Fixing Feedback“. Every single employee in the company has to go through the training. And it was about actually using a structure to make sure that everyone understood how to give feedback timely and immediately and in a way where it’s like, “here are the facts and here’s what I observed and here is my interpretation of those facts and then here’s why I think that’s impactful.”

Christian Seely also explained how he’s used ‘SBI – Situation Behaviour Impact’ for a similar effect: ‘So describe the situation you’re talking about, explain the behaviours that you observed and the impact that it had on the people around you. That way it kind of removes you from being judgmental or providing an opinion. Explain to someone “this is the impact you had on someone else, or me”.

Zen Ecosystems, explained Grant Hatamosa, does a weekly check in “ called 15/five where we acknowledge where someone has done a good job and deserves a high-five and also creates a forum for people to be transparent about challenges across the business — it means that anyone can help that person, regardless of function.”

Bring joy to the individual, not the employee

Christian pointed out “The person you are at home is a function of the person you are in the workplace and so the two need to be in harmony to be an effective leader”.

Backed up by Laura: “It’s called full-life living.”

Acknowledging this as a leader means that you’re creating the context for your team members. As Amy Connolly, points out “It takes me on the journey of how you got to a particular point so that I can help you.”

It also means knowing what would bring your team joy as Grant points out “you can’t manufacture joy, you actually need to understand what’s really cool for your team — for us, that’s DJ Friday.”

Our Product Chick, Amanda, has found a really great way of ensuring that people are looking after themselves so they can bring more of themselves to their team: “We’ve created health and well-being KPIs — sometimes it’s personal but it means we’re creating a deliberate space to have the conversation of whether we’re looking after ourselves.”

So what have we learned?

  • Find tools to help your team provide constructive feedback and to remove the emotional burden that comes with providing feedback. Some of these include:
    • “Kick Ass Conversations” by Georgia Murch
    • 15five
    • Situation, Behaviour, Impact (SBI)
  • Build a team that has a vested interest in each other’s personal and professional goals.
  • Lead by example by not being afraid to be transparent, calling out your bad days and your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Identify how individuals in your team receive feedback and cater to them, rather than expecting employees to conform to an HR system.

Thank you to all participants and in particular, Dr Liz Blink for facilitating the discussion.


  1. Amanda Ralph, First State Super – Head of Product, Co-founder Product Women
  2. Amy Connolly, Xero – Product Manager
  3. Chris Billing, Open Universities – Head of Product
  4. Christian Seely, Australia Post – Head of Identity Services – Growth Markets Product & Innovation
  5. Dayne Nash, PageUp – Chief Product Owner
  6. Erica Wass, Zendesk –Senior Director of Product Management
  7. Grant Hatamosa, Zen Ecosystems – VP Product
  8. Jen Leibhart, Assembly Payments – Co-founder of Product Anonymous & Growth Product Manager
  9. Jithma Beneragama, Department of Premier and Cabinet (Vic), Executive Director Digital, Design and Innovation
  10. Laura Cardinal, Product Women co-founder and Product Leader
  11. Li Xia, Australia Post – Head of Product – Digital iD.

   Facilitator + Brainmates:

  1. Dr Liz Blink, Product Anonymous – Co-Founder
  2. Pearly Yee, Brainmates – Product Coach & Consultant
  3. Adrienne Tan, Brainmates – Co-Founder, Principal Consultant & Chief Mischief Officer

Further references for creating high-performing teams:


Adrienne Tan

Adrienne Tan | Author

Adrienne is Co-Founder and CEO of Brainmates and Co-Founder of Leading the Product. She has been championing Product Management since 2000, earning international recognition for raising the profile of the Product Management profession. In this capacity she regularly consults to the Asia-Pacific's top businesses and speaks at business and Product events around the world.

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