This blog is based on the original journal article in the Public Relations Journal.

How would you answer these fundamental questions:
— In a rapidly changing world, how can communication teams elevate performance to become more valuable to their organizations?
— What exactly is a high-performing communication team? What advantages does it have over others – smarter people, bigger budgets, better platforms, and tools?
— Where should communication teams invest their time and money when both resources are finite?

These questions underpin the perpetual push by communicators to be more valuable and indispensable to their organizations. But they’re difficult questions to answer, partly because communication teams vary widely by role, size, skills, structure, capabilities, tools, and maturity.

A research collaboration between upper 90 consulting, the Institute for Public Relations, and Grand Valley State University’s Advertising/Public Relations program attempted to chip away at these topics.

It began with a review of research and thought leadership on teams and performance. Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team was especially instructive, but it didn’t account for differences in the nature of the work done by communication, finance, HR, technology, and other corporate functions. Also, Lencioni presents trust as one of the five determinants of team performance, but teams don’t start with trust – they must earn it.

From this, upper 90 consulting created a high-performance model specific to communication teams. It was then tested with teams of varying sizes from different industries. CCOs, their direct reports, and their team members answered the same set of questions, and here’s what we found:

Although they see their own organizations differently, CCOs and their team members confirmed that there are primary drivers of performance in communication teams. Done well, these drivers generate positive outcomes which, in turn, help to enable higher future high performance.

The performance drivers are:
— Full commitment – Fully committed teams have a clear vision, a shared set of team values, and team members who care about the team’s success.
— Focus on results – Focused teams have a strategy that maps directly to business objectives, the right systems, tools and processes, and discipline around continuous learning and improvement.
— Constructive conflict – Creative and innovative teams embrace constructive conflict. They welcome different ideas and opinions, promote open and honest communication, and provide timely and healthy feedback.
— Shared accountability – Teams that share accountability have clear and relevant measures, empower and support their members, and recognize and reward performance.

When teams optimize these drivers, they’re more likely to enjoy these positive outcomes:
— Attract and retain the right talent for current and future needs
— Have a sufficient budget for current needs and future investment
— Receive visible support from the CEO and C-suite executives
— Earn the respect and trust of internal and external stakeholders

In short, communication teams that want to elevate their performance should focus on these drivers to create a stronger, healthier culture that leverages their talent, tools, and techniques.

Although our research was in the field prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, our findings are timely as many communicators, burned out after months of working from home, are now finding it harder to stay focused, aligned, creative, and inspired. Now, improving team culture may be one of the best levers a CCO can pull to create greater business value.

There were two additional findings worth mentioning:
1.) There’s a perception in some corners that communication teams can’t perform at a high level without more people and budget. In our study, however, respondents saw talent and budget as outcomes, not prerequisites, of high performance.
2.) Our study took a 360-degree look at team performance. As seen in a prior study by the Plank Center, CCOs tend to rate their team’s performance significantly higher than their direct reports and team members. This gap raises several questions and potential risks that may warrant further study. 
3.) While we haven’t completely resolved the fundamental questions above, we believe that team culture centered around the drivers in this model is an area CCOs will want to emphasize in their push to create greater business value.

Tim Penning, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA Professor of Advertising and Public Relations, School of Communications, Grand Valley State University

Mark Bain, President, Upper 90 Consulting

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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