How Post-Pandemic Leaders Can Drive Performance and Innovation

Jun 29, 2021


By: Inga Carboni and Rob Cross

Increasingly, organizations rely on networks of agile teams to get work done—a trend that will only intensify as we move into a hybrid, post-COVID world.

This transition will be difficult for leaders in part because they will need to manage collaboration without some of the structures they have grown used to—face-to-face interaction and co-location promoting serendipity, to name a few.

But other trends have also been emerging that require a new look at teams in the post-pandemic world. For example, employees are on many more teams—twice as many as they were five years ago—and teams are larger and more geographically dispersed than in the past. Research reported in Creative Conspiracy indicated that the average team size in U.S. companies in 2013 was 15. And while Katherine Klein of Wharton reported back in 2006 that the ideal team size is five people (and accepted wisdom these days is five to nine people), it is not unusual for individuals at present to find themselves on, or even leading, teams of 20 or more, many of whose members may be in different time zones and accessible mainly through electronic communication.

As people are put into more and bigger teams much more rapidly than ever before, we need new ways of driving results. Increasingly, researchers and practitioners are reconceptualizing teams as networks that need to form rapidly to produce needed results. This research is showing that the structure of internal relationships (social capital) contributes as much to team success as does the composition of the team (human capital).

To better understand the practices that yield performance in today’s teams, we conducted 90-minute interviews with more than 100 high-performing leaders in 20 different organizations. Each individual was identified as having successfully led multiple teams over at least 10 years. The organizations included a wide range of industries (for example, financial services, high tech, consulting, manufacturing, food services, hospitality) and ranged in size from several thousand to hundreds of thousands of employees. Here, we summarize what these leaders did to enable performance through collaboration.


We found that high-performing team leaders optimize network structures. In contrast to advice based on old models of team development, the leaders in our study did not focus excessively on team-building activities, nor did they limit their efforts to building strong one-on-one relationships with team members. Instead, they assessed and shaped the relationships among team members, purposefully redesigning the network structure to optimize it for team performance. More specifically, they manage the center, integrate the edge, minimize silos, and generate agility.

Manage the center. To manage the center, the leaders in our study took steps to prevent the people who are most centrally connected in the network from becoming overloaded with collaborative demands. Collaborative work (that is, time spent on phone calls, in virtual or face-to-face meetings, and on email or other collaborative technologies) is rarely evenly distributed. Very often, a small set of people— leaders, experts, long-tenured colleagues, or colleagues with whom others enjoy interacting—absorb a much higher volume of collaborative work than do others. Typically, 3% to 5% of the people account for 20% to 35% of the value-added relationships—collaborations that generate sales, efficiency gains, key innovations, or other forms of value.

This means that relatively few employees have a substantial and quantifiable impact on performance, yet, often, they are not managed any differently than those who do not make comparable contributions. All overwhelmed employees suffer due to the volume and diversity of demands; their work quality often falls off, they are at much greater risk for burnout, and they are far more likely to leave the organization.

The leaders in our study engage in three practices and a number of actions to manage the center of their teams. These leaders ensure that individuals, in general, or those in certain roles within the group do not become so overloaded with collaborative demands that they are unable to support their colleagues in a timely fashion; they identify and reward/ acknowledge employees who engage in collaborative behaviors that make their colleagues more effective; and they seek out influential team members to promote alignment and team engagement.

Simple network analysis techniques can quickly reveal people at risk for collaborative overload. Take 10 minutes to draw the network map of your team, and who turns to whom for information to get work done. Have two or three teammates review the diagram and make additions as needed. Use this information to distribute collaborative demand more equitably.

You should publicly acknowledge and celebrate collaborative behaviors to promote engagement and signal the importance of collaboration. For example, set a regular reminder to spend 30 minutes once a week to thank a small number of people for their efforts in the way that means the most to each person, such as a handwritten note, an email with cc’ing of partners, a private conversation, or recognition of that individual’s contribution during a team meeting. And you should invest time to locate and proactively engage negative opinion leaders. Crafting mutual wins early can pay off substantially over time.

Integrate the edge. Integrating the edges of a team’s network structure means pulling in people who are not fully included in the team’s interactions. Frequently this means newcomers and remote workers. But surprisingly, we also find that 20% to 30% of the employees considered as top talent—those on top talent lists or in the top 20% performance category— migrate to the fringe of the network. Often, these are people who have learned how to meet their revenue or other performance management objectives without making much of a contribution to their colleagues’ efforts.

To integrate the edges of their teams, the leaders in our study rapidly integrate newcomers, proactively engage remote and virtual group members to ensure integration, create short forums for serendipitous interactions, and ensure that subject-matter experts and high performers are available to help their colleagues in a timely manner.

To integrate newcomers, assign them a “buddy” who is respected and well connected in the network. One way to engage remote and virtual team members is by instituting events such as “watercooler Wednesdays” in which all team members can join an instant message group, such as WhatsApp, for informal conversations about binge-worthy shows or holiday shopping. And to increase collaborative accessibility to high performers, have them serve as technical consultants.

Minimize silos. A big part of a leader’s work is minimizing silos. Collaborative breakdowns diminish performance and innovation and have various causes. In one case, it might be poor communication technology. In another, it might be that none of the groups that should be working together knows what expertise exists in the other groups or understands how that expertise can support their work. Misaligned incentive schemes also can foster parochial behaviors, as can leaders who do not like each other. Companies often try to minimize silos by launching cultural change programs, formal reorganizations, or new collaborative technologies, but these broad solutions often do not address the issues that impede collaboration at crucial network junctures.

To minimize silos, the leaders in our study facilitated connectivity at specific silos across functional lines, physical distance, hierarchical levels, demographics, or expertise domains where collaboration is critical to performance. They also ensured that cliques or subgroups do not form within the team in ways that diminish alignment, performance, or engagement.

We suggest that leaders locate efficiency losses for targeted action by setting up weekly check-in meetings with people whose role requires them to work across boundaries to help them understand when and how to include others earlier in the process. And to prevent the formation of an “inner circle” subgroup, purposefully invite quieter voices into the conversation and force reluctant but capable members to take on added responsibilities.

Generate agility. Generating agility encourages team members to efficiently and adaptively work together in ways that respond to environmental demands. In a recent Korn Ferry survey that queried more than 750 CEOs worldwide about how their companies could succeed during the pandemic, one in four stated that “breaking down hierarchies and building agility” was paramount. Agility requires team members to collaborate rapidly and to easily share their sometimes differing perspectives on how best to respond to an environmental demand.

To boost their teams’ agility, the leaders in our study assess and streamline collaborative activities within the team to promote efficiency and engagement and cultivate diversity in network interactions to promote team agility and innovation. We suggest that you employ formal or informal approaches to analyzing collaborative time demands, such as plotting a grid of work streams and standing meetings that are employed to coordinate work. Then, reconsider the purpose, agenda, and required participation in each meeting. And you should leverage moments of connection—however brief— with people who represent different subcultures. This can be done by chatting for a minute or two with someone at the company café or asking someone about his or her weekend when a meeting ends early.

Team performance in a post-COVID world will require more intentional cultivation of networks. Rather than leading with available tools—video calls and instant messaging—more successful leaders will necessarily need to reflect on the points in the network they are trying to influence. Taking more targeted actions to promote desired collaboration will both yield performance and keep leaders and employees from burning out.


Rob Cross is the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College and a co-founder and research director of the Connected Commons. He is the author of 85 articles and five books, including the upcoming book Beyond Collaborative Overload with Harvard Business Review Press.

Inga Carboni is on faculty at William and Mary and a research associate with the Connected Commons. She has published extensively in both academic and practical outlets on the topic of networks.