Episode #068: Dr. Gordon Curphy: The Rocket Model: Practical Advice for Building High Performing Teams


Does building a high performing team require knowledge of rocket science? Tune in to this week’s episode of The Team Coaching Zone Podcast to discover the answer with guest Dr. Gordon Curphy–the Managing Partner of Curphy Leadership Solutions. Dr. Curphy is the author of 19 books including The Rocket Model: Practical Advice for Building High Performing Teams released in 2012. He is also the creator of Team Assessment Survey (TAS-II) based on the Rocket Model. Dr. Curphy has 30 years of experience working with more than 1500+ leaders, 200+ teams and consulting to a long list of leading organizations in a diverse array of industries and sectors.

Themes explored in the podcast include: Gordon’s journey from being a professor in the United States Armed Forces, to joining PDI, to working with the Blandin Foundation and then to setting up Curphy Leadership Solutions; Gordon’s 2012 book The Rocket Model: Practical Advice for Building High Performing Teams; why high performing teams tend to be more the exception than the rule; the importance of having a team model; a compelling story about two ship-wrecked crews in the Antarctic; 8 elements and 3 stages of the rocket model: 1) Context, 2) Mission, 3) Talent, 4) Norms, 5) Buy-in, 6) Power, 7) Morale, 8) Results; the Team Assessment Survey (TAS-II); using the Rocket Model and TAS in team coaching and in leadership development programs; a story coaching a leadership team in a $billion retail organization facing a critical turnaround; lessons learned about when team coaching fails; resources for extending learning on the Rocket Model and utilizing the TAS-II; certification in the TAS-II; thoughts on future trends in teaming and more.

This is a rich episode laden with “value bombs” that all team leaders, team members and team coaches will surely not want to miss!

Listen Now


Part 1: Getting to Know the Guest: Dr. Gordon Curphy

About Gordon

  • Managing Partner, Curphy Leadership Solutions
  • Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
  • Author of the 2012 book The Rocket Model: Practical Advice for Building High Performing Teams
  • More than 30 years of experience researching, teaching, and consulting to leaders, teams and organizations
  • He is the author of more than 19 books, has sold more than 100,000 books on leadership and teams
  • Has worked for: The United States Air Force Academy, The Center for Creative Leadership, PDI, The Blandin Foundation, Korn Ferry International
  • Established Curphy Leadership Solutions in 2002
  • Has done over 1500 executive assessments, has worked with more than 200 teams, has provided hundreds of coaching and consulting interventions to leading organizations
  • Has a BS, MA, and PHD degrees
  • Curphy Leadership Solutions: working succession planning, executive coaching, leadership development, team coaching, organizational development, action learning programs

Journey to Working with Teams

  • Went to the US Air Force Academy for school and to play hockey: created great lessons about leadership and teams
  • Taught in the US Air Force Academy as a Professor after graduating: 20 years
  • Joined Personnel Decisions International: spent 8 years there, his “post-doc” on business in the real world
  • “A recovering academic”: likes research but very much has a practical bent
  • Was in Saudi Arabia on 9/11 doing consulting work: took him a week to get back
  • Joined The Blandin Foundation; 20-30 staff members sitting on a $600 million dollar trust and fund philanthropic initiatives: Gordon worked with rural schools and hospital systems and teaching basic concepts about leaders, teams, working with stakeholders, etc…
  • Gordon’s wife, also a PhD in Industrial-Organizational Psychology with a distinguished background at CCL and PDI, joined Gordon’s company a year ago

Part 2: About the Rocket Model and Coaching Teams

Inspiration for Creating the Rocket Model

  • Ran an exercise about the “dream team” vs the “nightmare team” experiences in many companies: the lists were pretty similar across industries.  Got curious about how often the dream team experiences happened: found that it was about 10% or less – that was interesting to Gordon and something to get more curious about.
  • We grow up being on all kinds of teams in family, school and business and yet only a small number are high performing.  What is that about?
  • Would ask executives how do you create Dream Teams and he found that most couldn’t answer: “deer the in the headlights” look
  • Started to do some research on what was out in the field on teams
  • Realized that you need to have a model to starting putting things together and to have a framework or a lens to engage with real teams
  • Both prescriptive if its a new team and if it is a existing team can used as a diagnostic
  • Great story in the e-book about two ship-wrecked crews in the Antarctic and how their different approaches to teaming led to two very different outcomes: great natural experiment in team work

The Rocket Model Framework

  • http://www.therocketmodel.com
  • Model consists of 8 components and organized into 3 stages: solid research behind these components in the literature
    • Component #1: Context – have to have a shared understanding of the context; what’s the situation
    • Component #2: Mission – what is the team all about; the purpose; critical because it powers the rocket
    • Component #3: Talent – the hardest component; 6 things you have to get right about talent: # of members, right reporting structure, clear roles and responsibilities, right skills, right followership, rewards
    • Component #4: Norms – unwritten rules by how teams operate; some essential ones – operating rhythm (risk of over-collaboration), communication, decision-making, accountability, self-adjustment; team norms are an under-utilized lever
    • Component #5: Buy-In – how committed are people to the goals, roles, and rules
    • Component #6: Power – really has to do with resources (budget, space, equipment, hardware/software, etc…) and in particular the authority it needs to accomplish its mission
    • Component #7: Morale – how is the team getting along; lot of teams suffering from artificial harmony which is particularly true with teams at the top
    • Component #8: Results – all comes together at the top of the model with results
  • Developed an instrument to assess the model The Team Assessment Survey II (TAS-II)
    • 2005 to 2012 – had an earlier version of the model and refined it over that time; working with all the activities around the components
    • in 2012 wrote the book with Robert Hogan
    • In 2013 began with an updated model that includes a database of norms, translated into multiple languages
    • Goal will be to have country specific, industry specific and function specific norms
    • 3 kinds of feedback: 1) reference on international norms; 2) individual write-ups of the components and references to specific exercises and sections in the Rocket Model book; 3) raw scores and item level results and levels of agreement and written comments
    • Typical report about 25 pages and designed to be self-explanatory
    • Created an e-book to go along with it
    • Provides a great roadmap for team coaches
    • The conversation that the model and the assessment creates is what is most important
    • Translated into multiple languages: English, Slovak, Czech, Swedish, German, Dutch


  • Some thoughts on working with a recent client: Red Bull
  • Story of a $billion dollar retail organization that needed to turn things around quickly
    • Working with the leadership team and business president
    • Had been missing their numbers for a couple of years
    • It was clear that the President couldn’t turn this around by himself
    • Convinced book to get the leadership team in to turn it around
    • Did the TAS-II at an offsite: highest score on any dimension was about 10
    • Uncoordinated, fragmented, lacking aligning
    • Business president had never done an offsite before
    • Leader was a great merchant but poor at people
    • Team had never gone out to dinner together
    • Worked through a number of the elements in the retreat and then had monthly sessions followed by quarterly sessions to get all the elements in place
    • Really improved the team’s approach to meetings
    • Began cascading the process down into the hierarchy: got the top 300 people in the company aligned
    • Dramatic improvement between time 1 and time 2 on the TAS-II
    • Doesn’t take rocket science to build a team
    • Working harder doesn’t always lead to greater performance; need to work smarter
  • Insights on when teams don’t work well: contracting working with the team leader – how serious they are about driving real change

Part 3: Parting Advice, Resources, Words of Wisdom

  • Resources: http://www.therocketmodel.com
    • Books, videos, e-books, certification
  • Getting in touch with Gordon: rocket model website and on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/gordoncurphy
  • Future of teams, teaming and team coaching: increasing a VUCA world — essential that team leaders get everyone on the same page with the situation; teams are going to be increasingly required in the future; how do we get people who are already working on teams to work better together or to get organizational results

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