4 Elements to Creating a High-Performance Culture (or How to Build a Winning Team)

How many times have you launched a project and had everybody show up on day one with their hair on fire, ready to go full blast, only to have their energy disappear the minute things start getting tough? My guess is you’ve seen that happen more times than you can count. Frustrating, isn’t it? 

If you expect to have a winning team, you and your teammates have to develop the first essential element of human synergy—total commitment—not only to the task at hand but also to one another. 

Here’s a news flash: it’s not always the strongest, fastest team that finishes first, but the team that is the most committed. Commitment doesn’t start at the beginning of the race when everyone’s all pumped up and chomping at the bit. Commitment starts when the fun stops. When you are no longer having a good time, your team’s dedication, or the lack thereof,  will spell the difference between victory and defeat.

So, let’s take a closer look at the building blocks to total commitment, the Four Ps: preparation, planning, purpose, perseverance.


We seldom succeed in the long run by winging it. Of course, we sometimes end up being forced to wing it because circumstances change and obstacles arise, but coming to a race unprepared rarely leads to a strong finish. High performers know this, and they demonstrate their dedication to the end goals and to one another by being fully committed to pre-event preparation. Can you imagine what might happen if, in an adventure race or a desperate fire-and-rescue situation, one of your teammates decided to just hop up off the couch and show up without putting in the training time it takes to reach peak performance? 

In business, we can sometimes fake our way through and get away with being underprepared. We’ve all done it. But being a member of a high performance team means putting in the hard work and coming to the starting line in the best shape of your life, one hundred percent committed to the goal, even if achieving it means you have to crawl there with someone on your back. People are counting on you, and the bigger and more audacious the goal, the more important your preparation and ultimate contribution will be. 

In the races we’ve won, each of the team members started in peak mental and physical condition and had nothing left at the finish line. We used up every spiritual and physical resource we had in the course of the race. If even one person had shown up in less than their absolute best shape, we wouldn’t have been lying there on the finish line, gasping for air and sobbing, but victorious nonetheless. 

Many people thought my teams were just lucky when we first started winning races, but we had a different definition of luck. To us, luck is the intersection where opportunity meets preparation. 

Luck = Opportunity + Preparation 

Without preparation, there is no luck. Opportunities come and go, but why wait passively for an opportunity to knock when you can take control of the situation and create some for yourself? When you are fully prepared to capitalize on whatever comes along and are able to generate a few opportunities for yourself, you become the luckiest person who ever lived.


You’ve come to the starting line prepared. You’ve been given a map, and your goal has been laid before you. But before you set out on your epic journey in pursuit of that goal, it’s first things first: it’s time to develop a plan. 

Management consultant Peter Drucker once wrote, “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.” So how do you get beyond vague intentions and actually make some great things happen for your team? 

Chart your course.

Sit down with your map and plot the entire route to your destination. Think about where you are now and envision where you ultimately want to end up. 

Decide your pacing.

Pacing is something that’s often overlooked in leadership and business. Much of the time we just operate on a low, day-to-day hum, hoping to eventually end up where we want to go. Or sometimes we get an exciting new goal and come out of the blocks with our hair on fire, only to burn out because we can’t sustain that level of intensity for long. I’m a big fan of identifying the little hills that you really want to charge up when you come to them—where you most want to make your impact and where you want to push hard—because if you don’t have a plan for where you want to dedicate your greatest energy and where you want to rest, then you’ll either come on too strong and burn out, or not go hard enough and fall short. You have to find a sustainable pace for the long haul. 

Set interim checkpoints.

When I worked for a pharmaceutical company, my manager gave me my year-end sales goal and then walked away, assuming that I would somehow eventually meet that goal with minimal information to gauge my progress. That’s like a race director giving each team a map and a compass and saying, “You’re not going to be sure if you’re on the right track or what your progress is for the entire ten-day race, but whoever gets to the finish line first wins. See you in a thousand miles.” People would be so demoralized after only two or three days that they’d never make it to the end.

Now let’s talk about planning versus execution. Sometimes people are so paralyzed by planning and the false sense it brings of being productive that they never get to work. I’ve seen fire captains, racing teams and business leaders plan and plan and plan to death while the house burns down, or the other team breezes by and takes the lead, or a business opportunity is lost to an alert competitor. On the flip side are the people who roll up their sleeves and wing it at high speed without giving it a second thought. I’ve seen racers spring into action off a starting line and just follow the pack, having never even looked at their maps, and I’ve watched fire- fighters run into a burning building alone with no partner or plan at all, hoping to be a big hero. Neither scenario ended well. 

Clearly, the best practice lies somewhere in between the two extremes of over-and underplanning. There are obvious considerations, such as how much time you have for planning versus the immediacy of the situation. But in general, the teams that are able to achieve long term success naturally opt for a solid mix of planning and execution, realizing that most projects are fluid and require continuous feedback and reassessment


We are all in business to do well, but most of us also want to do good. We want to be a part of something larger than ourselves. We want to feel as if we’re contributing, to feel like we’re being recognized for our talents, to have the opportunity to shine, and to have our experience valued. 

A great teammate consistently helps people inspire themselves by elevating their sense of purpose. This is especially important when things get tough and people are losing their will to go on. In my experience, teams either quit or find a reason to continue based on the emotional intelligence of their leaders. The leader’s ability not only to read his or her team members and pick up on what they need but also to find a way for them to still win—in essence, to restructure the vision of what winning is—is critical to the team’s success. 

For example, everyone starts out with a goal. For some, it’s simply to win. For others, it’s to break into the top ten. And for still others, it’s just to cross that finish line. Somewhere along the way, those hopes get dashed by challenging circumstances and obstacles (this race is longer and harder than we imagined), a lack of preparation (major heatstroke because someone came from a New Zealand winter to race in Death Valley), acts of God (the river gets too high to cross), or whatever the case may be. You can’t win ’em all. Or can you? 

High performance leaders will reframe what a win looks like to appeal to the higher self of each of their teammates and to motivate them through the dark void of disappointment. Consistently instilling a sense of common purpose to mobilize the team and creating a rally point and phrases to inspire through a greater good is what a world-class team leader does.


A team of high performers knows that the mountain is always going to be higher, the river is always going to be wider, the course is always going to be longer, the terrain is always going to be rockier, and completing the task at hand is always going to be another inch away, no matter how close you get. It’s a mindset and belief that keeps you sane. Assume the worst and work frantically toward the best, but never, ever, ever give up. Because the moment you do, you often discover that relief (for example, the next checkpoint, the top of the hill, the end of the freezing cold white-water swimming section, the first ray of sunlight, or the FDA approval you’ve been waiting for) was right around the next corner. It happens all the time. 

Sometimes hope is all you have left, and you must be unwavering in your patience and faith all the way to the finish line no matter how difficult it may be. Because guess what? Your competition surely is.

Whenever people ask me what in the world motivated me to stand at the finish line of more than thirty-five of the most ridiculous, backbreaking multisport races on Earth, my truthful answer goes something like this: 

When I’m at the end of my rope, shivering, crying, afraid, and empty, I picture myself sitting in my backyard two weeks from then, warm and comfortable, watching the sunset and drinking a glass of wine with my favorite people around me, with this incredible journey behind me and holding in my heart and mind the sense of accomplishment of standing there at the finish line, emotionally and physically spent, in tatters, but with my team around me and with memories of victory and defeat that will last a lifetime. And then I think of the alternative, of sitting there in my backyard full of regrets and questions, second-guessing my character, analyzing my weaknesses, and wondering if my teammates will ever ask me to race with them again. Then I decide in that moment which reality I want to live with. 

And I keep walking.