Building High-Performing Leadership Teams With Margie Oleson

Penny ZenkerTake Back Time Podcast

TBT Magie Oleson | Leadership Teams


Every business or organization must have high-performing leadership teams. Without them, any venture is doomed to fail and fall short of achieving its goals. Penny Zenker chats with Margie Oleson, a dynamic executive coach and leadership virtuoso, to share some tips and tricks on building high-performing leadership teams. Margie explains the need to create a working environment where everyone can challenge and hold each other accountable. Margie also discusses how to save time when holding meetings and the right approach to reducing bad behaviors within the team.

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Building High-Performing Leadership Teams With Margie Oleson

In this episode, we’re going to talk about leadership. Leadership is so important in building high-performance teams. That’s what every leader wants to do. Unfortunately, sometimes they fall short. We’re going to talk about the tips and tricks in order to make that happen. I’m excited to have an expert in this space with me. Obviously, I look for all the greatest people for you guys to be able to pick their brains through me.

Margie Oleson is a dynamic executive coach and leadership virtuoso armed with a Doctorate in Organizational Development. With a strategic blend of expertise and innovation, Margie empowers leaders and their teams to forge robust foundations for collaboration and productivity. At the heart of her legacy lies Top Team Accelerator, a transformative force driving senior leaders and their teams to master change and drive enduring advancements in diverse industries from aerodynamics to FinTech. Without further ado, Margie, welcome to the show.

Thank you, Penny.

Tell us your story. Tell us how this became a passion for you and why you’re focused in this area.

There are a couple of things. One is I have been in organizations for decades. I went back and earned a doctorate. For the four years that I was doing my coursework, I figured out that we’ve known all that we need to know about the art and science of leadership, effective teams, and high-performing teams, and that had been for many years. A lot of the books, the audio, and the different ways that you can learn about high-performing teams were all based on some very common principles that were 30 years old. Now we’re at 40 years.

When I chose my dissertation topic, it was like, “What the heck? I had been in companies for so long, organizations of every possible type, for-profit, nonprofit, and government. I did not understand why it was such a struggle for leaders and their team.” I wanted to understand that. I went through the process of realizing that it’s about the way that organizations do the work that they do and how they’re set up. Imagine the complexity when you bring 2 or 3 people together, the energy exchange, the frequencies, the feelings, the history, and the needs. We’ll make that 10 people or 100 people or 1,000. Companies know to prioritize legal and hire someone who’s an expert on legal. They know to prioritize finance and bring someone in who’s an expert, but they think they’re supposed to know how to lead.

Our first leader is the person who raised us from a baby. Our first team is anyone who’s living in the house. We learned a lot of the automatic pilot responses, and even after a lot of education and experience, we’re still operating on that autopilot of how we learn. Those people then go into organizations. Whatever leader they had, whatever teams they’re on, if they’ve not participated in a high-performing team, if they didn’t have a high-performing leader, we’re going to learn to continue those behaviors.

I was in Corporate America for decades. I looked around and I didn’t want to be in those places where so much time was being wasted. 30 to 60-minute meetings all day long and everyone’s complaining about it. The ball’s not moving down the field much. Projects are delayed a year, and they’re spending millions of dollars. They don’t realize they actually can save a lot of time, save a lot of resources, and make it better by doing certain things that art and science tell us to do.

Let me unpack some of what I heard because there were some nuggets in there. You said the first people that we learn from or the first leaders in our lives are our parents. That is very interesting because there is no book on how to be a parent. There are plenty of books, but every child and every situation is different. There are some good parallels to leadership in that. We are leaders as parents, but there was no formal training for most people. Most people don’t pick up a book, and you’re not qualified to have a baby. That’s an interesting thought and concept.

In school, we’re not taught some of those basic types of leadership skills either. We’ve been taught time management. That’s interesting that there’s a lack of a basis that we have. Many people don’t have mentors. They don’t have the example that’s set so that they can see how it’s done. I want to reiterate what I heard there. That’s important to pull that out. You said the science is there. I also thought I heard you say that the books were all written about science from many years ago. Are you talking about the new science? Is there a new science?

I’m talking about implementation. The information is there. As a matter of fact, a lot of the leadership development training that I was familiar with where consultants would come in, HR would host training, or leaders would hire someone was in the classroom, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that was going to teach you how to lead. It was going to be based on those theories, but then what happens is it falls down in practice.

It’s no different than other things that we’re trying to change. Our brains do almost everything on autopilot to keep us safe and ready. Habits are probably one of the single greatest advantages that you can focus on to make change for yourself here at home but also in the organization. We talk about the habits for poor meetings, the habits for having too big teams, not leading, or having too many of the problems being solved over and over again. There are some things that we know from science and we want to benefit from it and use what we know about how to implement effectively.

I want to come back because that’s an important point. Most of what we learn in a lot of different areas is theory. The theory falls down very often in practice. I used to be in application development. You’d learn the code, you’d go and code something, and then it wouldn’t work. You’d have to write in workarounds to get it to work because that’s practice. That’s your goal, which is to get it to work, not just to write it the way that it’s supposed to be written. It’s important. We see that in a lot of different areas.

I’d be interested in your feedback on that, but the training that we do are antiquated because they are based on theory and there’s not enough practical application that goes on in that. Also, people go back into their day-to-day and they go back to the way they were doing things because it doesn’t fit. They don’t know how to adapt.

That’s exactly it. They can do it for a little while and they’ll say, “We tried that and it didn’t work.” They don’t realize that they actually went back to the old ways and they didn’t even necessarily notice.

We do that. We’re creatures of habit and we go back to old habits.

The brain is doing that, so we want to lead the brain. The brain is doing it because that’s how it’s wired, so we want to work with it to help make it okay to make those changes.

What are some tips to get ourselves into that place where we’re driving the organization and teaching the leaders? Where do we start? Is it how the leaders show up or is it how they’re leading their team?

I never was comfortable with the idea of top-down leadership, but I can’t argue it’s top-down. It’s kind of like the adults in the household. They have to get their act together first and everything else flows out of that. I learned in my research that you could be a high-performing team somewhere in the middle of the organization and manage for about 12 to 18 months, but at some point, you’re going to change or your team is going to change, or your leadership. You’re going to need some budget or you’re going to need some reinforcements, so you’re going to be at the mercy of the culture. It starts at the top.

Everything else flows out when leaders get their act together first. Click To Tweet

Top Team Accelerator is four pillars that take a year because we spend several months learning how to do high-performing teams and how to develop trust among the leadership. Leaders are leading and they didn’t think it was going to be like this. They didn’t think they were going to feel like a babysitter. They didn’t think people would come and gossip to them or complain to them. They didn’t think they were going to have to solve the same problems over and over again. They don’t feel comfortable talking about that openly. They may say something behind the scenes or they may not, but this is what’s happening with a lot of them, and so we help them.

The first thing we do is build the team and reduce those bad behaviors. You don’t fix trust by focusing on trust. You fix trust by doing the work, setting up your systems and processes, and then doing it in a way where the things that are going well and the behaviors that are positive that lead to trust are reinforced. I’m there to observe and to help practice for the things that need to change. We then move into them understanding what the actual work is and who should be working on what. They agree with it, even if it’s not what they would choose.

Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions once said, “If you can get everybody in the organization rowing in one direction, you would dominate your industry.” I agree with that because he’s seen all those teams and they’re not doing it. Most of the companies aren’t, because people will be on a leadership team and they’ll go back and lead their own team in their own way, either because they’re frustrated or they’re worried, or they don’t want to do the things that we’re focusing on now. We get them aligned and make sure that they’re rowing their teams in their direction, and then we look at the operations.

The fact that almost everyone struggles with their meetings, that’s one of the easiest things to fix. I’ve worked with clients, they fix them right away, and then it all goes back to the old ways because they don’t keep it going. They don’t necessarily follow a few things, “I haven’t figured it out because it’s not sexy enough,” or they don’t have someone looking over their shoulder. We spend months getting accustomed to how to make this happen.

There are elements of politics that get in the way, so we can’t fix our meetings because we always have to have that person in the meeting, even if it’s not for them to be there. We have open conversations about that with leaders to develop their teams so that they can reduce the politics and reduce the confusion. The last thing we do is put metrics in place that are the short list of the things you watch to know how you’re doing, and they include behavior metrics.

Let’s break it down. I want to make it so that there are tips. You’re talking about a lot of things that are 4 months, 6 months, and 1 year. I believe we can change things rather quickly. We may have a differing opinion on that, but let’s start with meetings because meetings are something that everybody pulls their hair out over complaints about and is a great wasted source of time. What are some of the things that you are recommending to your leaders to do? We then can talk about why they’re difficult to do and how to overcome that.

The first thing we do is implement the things we know, the science and the art of meetings. One, you need to have an idea of what the purpose is for the meeting and everyone who’s in it needs to know that. You only want the right people there that are for that conversation. That means make sure you have the right people there that are needed and make sure you don’t have anybody extra. We always separate tactics from strategy. If you have a tactical meeting where you’re talking about the operations, where it’s putting out fires and solving problems, but you invite that person who’s always being strategic and they’re not needed anyway, they bring up a long-term strategy and, all of a sudden, you’re off to the races down a rabbit hole.

TBT Magie Oleson | Leadership Teams

Leadership Teams: Everyone should know the business meeting’s purpose. You only want the right people for that conversation and don’t have anybody extra.


It sounds so simple. It’s unfortunate that it’s not rocket science. If you can do those few things, and then by the end of the 25-minute meeting, you stop three minutes before and you say to people, “Here’s what we decided.” Say it out loud. “Here are what the questions were that came up that still need to be answered. Here’s what the follow-up actions are.” Those things that I described, 97% of people’s meetings don’t go like that. When you don’t have those pieces in place, people go off and don’t do their piece because they didn’t remember, they do something and it’s not exactly what you said, or you have to have three more meetings to rehash all of the things that you came up with because people weren’t engaged.

There’s the meeting after the meeting because people are like, “I didn’t agree with that.” They didn’t say what they needed to say at the meeting.

The reason it takes months is because people will implement those practices. Leaders could look around their teams. There are people who are good at this stuff, but they don’t have the power. If you create space for them, they’ll be the ones to make this happen for you. What happens is power takes over. All of a sudden, we have a crisis. All of a sudden, “We said we were going to do purpose and agenda. We’re not doing that now,” and then they don’t ever quite get back to it. James Clear says, “You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your habits.” I would say the adage, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” I think habits eat our goals, desires, and strategy for breakfast. You have to do the work to develop high-performing meeting habits, everyone together.

 I want to pull out some of the things that you said, 25-minute meetings. What we’re trying to avoid there is the back-to-back meetings because that is wasting people’s time and it’s draining their energy. They’re not getting a chance to take a break in between meetings to write down the follow-up or clarify and do a brain dump so that they can prepare for the next meeting.

You can set up Outlook to default to that. Outlook will help you with that. When I go to schedule a meeting in Outlook, it defaults to those shorter meetings and then I would change it if I needed to.

Like you said, we have to be very specific and purposeful about our meetings. If we have a status update meeting, that’s only a status update. If we have a brainstorming meeting, it’s a brainstorming meeting. We have to be very clear not to intermingle meeting types so that you accomplish one thing in the meeting in terms of the type of meeting that it is. If you’re going down a list to say, “Is it this type of meeting?” that helps you determine who should be there.

For your audience who might be skeptical, they could notice now. For the next several meetings, notice how many times those elements are present and in many times they’re missing.

Also, we need to have forms and structures to make that happen. I know a lot of organizations that are looking to improve their meetings. After every meeting, they do a review. That leader is reviewed on the quality of their meeting. It’s anonymous. That’s one way to hold them accountable and give them ownership.

I saw some things that are also important that we take into account where we are now. I read and did it in an event where Jeff Bezos knows that people are busy, they have a lot going on, and they did come from another meeting. He gives them five minutes at the beginning of each meeting to read the agenda and to read the purpose of things that are being done so that they’re prepared and then they can have that discussion. Nothing wrong with that. That is perfectly identifying what the challenges are now for people and taking ownership and responsibility so that our meetings are more effective.

Why not look at those things? How do we use AI? For virtual meetings, we see it where they’re highlighting certain parts of the meeting and things. We have to also make sure that we’re using the tools that are available to us and understanding what people’s needs are. Brené Brown said check-in emotionally. Where are we emotionally so that we can say, “Get that off our chest. I’m frustrated. Now that I’ve said it, I can settle into this meeting.” There are different tips and tricks with meetings that I found that help to make those meetings more effective. Have you seen any of those other types?

Yes. I typically do that. I’ll do a check-in. Also, what we want teams to get to is a level of transparency that is comfortable for the first period of time. We ought to be able to say out loud to each other, “Do we have everybody that should be in this conversation? Do we have people here who don’t need to be here?” Nobody wants to say that. It can help your effectiveness if you can free flow and say, “I don’t need to be in this meeting. Great. I’ll talk to you later,” rather than, “I’m taking it personally. I’m worried you’re going to talk about things and I’m not there. How are you going to be successful without me? I want to talk about that strategy even though this is a tactical meeting.”

TBT Magie Oleson | Leadership Teams

Leadership Teams: It can help your effectiveness if you can free flow and say, “Hey, I don’t need to be in this business meeting.”


The other thing I recommend is to use your strategy discussions where you’re away from the day-to-day to check in on how your meetings are going. Take a little bit of generous time and go around and talk with your leadership team about what’s working well because you are going to get something right right away. It’s those stubborn challenges that you’re going to have to give a little more attention and love to. That is the piece where people then exit and they don’t turn it into a habit. When you can address those challenges and start to get the habit of being open, if you can take an hour to talk about your meetings when you’re not at a meeting that has to have other stuff done, you will start to customize those tips and tricks for what’s going on with you and develop new habits.

You have to hold each other accountable. That’s what it is. You have to have an environment where you’re able to challenge one another in a loving way in order to focus on the right thing and solve the right problem. It’s okay to ask the question, “Are we solving the right problem? Let’s step back and see what that problem is.” What you said there is an important permission to challenge. Hopefully, they’re not going to show up to the meeting. They’ll challenge it before they show up to the meeting and not waste people’s time in the meeting. That’s also a personal responsibility that people have. It is to address those types of things before and outside the meeting.

Another tip and trick is we’re struggling around video. If we’re doing a lot of virtual, I have spent time in organizations where no one is on video in any of the meetings except for higher level up. It’s not an all-or-nothing, but if you want to grow high-performing meetings, you want to work together to figure out what is right for you. If you are never on video and if you’re never in person, you are missing that energetic exchange. That’s a fact of life.

Whether you believe in that kind of science or not, that’s a fact. You will have different outcomes. How are you going to overcome that? When people are not on video, we think that we’re doing them a favor or helping them, but actually, they’re more productive and can be more engaged if at least some of the conversations are strategically designed to be more engaging.

It’s for sure that we need to strategically engage in our meetings. Otherwise, you’re going to have people who are multitasking. Like you said earlier, you have to repeat or have a meeting after the meeting because they weren’t paying attention. That’s a waste of everybody’s time. When we talk about high-performing teams, is there anything else that you wish that I would ask you that I haven’t asked you yet?

The leader, him or herself, looked forward to being a leader and it doesn’t feel like what they thought it was going to be. They think, “That’s how it is.” I wish that most leaders would understand that it is possible. It is happening. They’re not hearing about it at pickleball with their mentor, in other groups, or at dinner. They have not been on a high-performing team or had a high-performing leader, so they think it doesn’t happen. They’ve had consultants come in, they’ve had coaches, and it didn’t happen, so they think it doesn’t happen or someone else should make that happen.

The truth is it can happen. We know what we need to know. Now, open yourself up to being able to spend the investment of time and energy. Step a little bit back away from the crises and away from the day-to-day to focus on building a future for yourself. That’s weeks out. It does start to become habits because we can offer the knowledge and the practice. It’s awkward to make changes. It’s awkward to be called on about your behavior. It’s awkward to call someone and hold them accountable. Once you build trust and develop support and collaboration in the ways that we know how to do that, it is easier and then can become more of a second nature. The clients that I have seen have this happen, they would never want to go back to the old ways.

What was the single piece of greatest advice that you got as a leader?

I heard a lot of advice that was not helpful. The single greatest piece of advice I heard was to trust my instincts and verify. I’m intuitive, so I have answers, but I don’t necessarily know if they’re correct and I don’t necessarily know how I got them. I have learned to go with my intuition and then seek answers or seek outside experts to be able to do a crosscheck. The other thing I’ve learned in becoming an entrepreneur is we don’t get there by doing it alone. We don’t get there doing it all ourselves. That took me the longest time to learn. “I’ll add people or I’ll add help. I’ll look for help later.” No, we need help now. Leaders can get the help they need so they can do the kind of leading they want to do.

Last question is this. How do you define productivity and why?

Productivity is the idea that you are able to do the things that you do for the goals that your leader has based on your role. It’s not necessarily being busy all day. It is, “I was hired for this role. I am clear in how my leader sees I fit into the goals of what our team is doing. I know what my part is. My leader has made sure that I have everything that I need to do that. My leader knows how it’s going.”

Productivity is the idea that you can do the things you do for the goals your leader has based on your role. Click To Tweet

For me, we are hardwired to have this internal satisfaction when we know that we’re adding value. It’s not that I’m busy all day because we can feel in our gut that that doesn’t feel right. When I know that I’m busy, I can see where it’s adding value, and I also know how someone thinks I’m doing, that is when employees have a lot of productivity and a lot of engagement. They even get joy out of that, which we don’t necessarily talk about a lot.

It sounds like there were a couple of pieces that you had said in there, “My leader knows how to give me what I need. My leader knows what I need to be doing.” To spring back, we also need to manage our leaders and help our leaders. If we know what we need, then we need to ask for it if they’re not asking the right question. It’s a two-way conversation. We can’t expect them to know what we need if we’re not communicating.

I hear a lot of people like, “My leader gave me something else to do. I can’t it do anymore, but I took it on anyway, and now I’m burning out.” That’s on you too. We have to understand that if you have to hold your hand up, your leader might not know all the things that you’re doing to hold your hand up and say, “Here are the top priority things that I have.” There has to be that give-and-take conversation so that they can say, “This is going to be more important than this, so let’s put this aside for now.”

You can’t wait till the quarterly or the annual. It needs to be very informal and engaging. I like leaders to think, “What do I need to do so that I am connected to my people and they feel comfortable telling me those things?”

Also, asking more quality questions. “Do you need anything?” The questions that go at that surface level often don’t trigger people to think about what they need. By asking more effective quality questions, we get to a little bit more of the nuance, and then people are like, “I could use that.” I don’t know what the circumstance is. It could be something at the next level with a little bit of detail.

After a few of those instances, it starts to become okay. It starts to feel, “I know how to do this.” Both people start to be a little bit more open and are faster time savers to get to the information and be able to move forward. It builds up momentum and habits when you feel like it’s okay. You’re learning to do that in a new way.

How can people reach you?

I’m at You can download a case study, and see Top Team Accelerator videos. I’m also on LinkedIn, Margie Oleson.

Thanks, Margie, for being here.

Nice to meet you, Penny.

Thank you all for being here. That’s our goal, to help you to be better leaders and to challenge your people to bring their best. Why not start with meetings? If you have effective meetings, that’s going to cover probably a good 50%, if not 75% of your day. That’s pretty powerful. We heard some great tips and some things to think about and step back. It’s a reset moment. Let’s reset our meetings. Step back, think about how you’re running your meetings, what’s working, what’s not working, and then start shortening them. Make them 25 minutes. Make them very specific for the content that you’re talking about. Double-check, “Are we having the right people? Could you skip the meeting altogether and send an email out?”

Be more thoughtful. Challenge every single meeting. Disney cut all meetings. They said, “No more meetings.” They said, “We can slowly add them back.” However, it didn’t go all the way back. They were very purposeful about, “Do we need to meet? What are we meeting about? Why are we meeting? What’s the result that we want?” That’s what you want to do too. Check out Margie’s website and her information. Get to work. We’ll see you in the next episode.


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About Margie Oleson

TBT Magie Oleson | Leadership TeamsMargie Oleson is a dynamic executive coach and leadership virtuoso armed with a doctorate in Organization Development. With a strategic blend of expertise and innovation, Margie empowers leaders and their teams to forge robust foundations for collaboration and productivity. At the heart of her legacy lies the Top Team Accelerator, a transformative force driving senior leaders and their teams to master change and drive enduring advancements in diverse industries from Aeronautics to Fintech.

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