Teams are ubiquitous in today’s work environment. Scarce is the role that does not in some fashion operate as part of or with another team. Even more scarce is the role that is not under some influence of a team leader.
Regardless of whether a team is a work group (e.g., the compensation team) or a project team commenced with a specific deliverable, leading a team is one of the most critical yet taken-for-granted skills in management today. As one new manager said to me upon being promoted from an individual contributor to a team leader, “So now what?” Sadly, it’s a sentiment I hear often as newly-minted team leaders struggle to fill voids created by training and development agendas that don’t feature the essentials of leading teams effectively.
Leading a team is much more than a title or sitting atop an organization chart. As a leader of a team, you set the standard for how the team operates, collaborates, delivers. Whether you mean to or not, your team follows you, perhaps in some ways you may not intend. In other words, to quote the proverb, “You reap what you sow.”
In over 20 years of leading teams of every type in a variety of situations and cultures, I’ve come to appreciate there are some tried-and-true, non-negotiable ways to inspire and power your teams to greatness. There are no new revelations here, but what is new is stressing the importance of what Nike has proclaimed for years: Just do it. My add, “and do it well all the time.”
These few words … so simple in concept but oh-so-hard in practice. On the next page are seven ways I’ve found to be foundational yet game-changing in team leadership (because so few leaders do them all consistently and well).
Strive to make these behaviors on the next page a new management habit. If you’re already doing them, strive to do them better and teach other managers who aren’t how to.
1. Know your team. Really know your team. Their talents, their aspirations, their fears, their kids’ names – who they are as people. It all matters. Taking time to get to know every member on your team and what they bring to the broader group and purpose means you have tremendous insight in how to help each team member maximize his/her potential and chances for success. It also shows you care about them for more than their contributions as “workers,” humanizing the team experience. (I recently ran into a former team member I’d worked with over 15 years ago, and she was amazed and touched that I still remembered her favorite color was purple.)
2. Ask what your team needs – and deliver it. As a leader you need to understand what gets in the team’s way of success. Ask team members individually and collectively what they need. Listen to what they share and give them what they need – be it clarity, direction, resources, political air cover, freedom to use their talents, recognition. Ask directly and mean it when you offer to help. If you can’t help with something, say so and explain why. If you can help, help.
3. Give feedback. People in general appreciate transparency and want to know where they stand. Honor this by giving tangible, timely, example-based and constructive feedback. Don’t wait for a “mistake moment” – real-time feedback is really-appreciated feedback, positive or otherwise. Don’t rely on the flawed “no news is good news” conflict-avoidance practice. It doesn’t work. Resist the urge to use the generic “great job” and point to specific things that have gone well: “We beat the deadline by four days and came in under budget.” Do the same when offering not-so-great feedback: “We missed the deadline by two days and couldn’t give the client a realistic estimate of when they will have the proof. We don’t want to disappoint them again so let me know if there are any signs we’re heading off track in advance as we move forward.”
4. Be clear on the vision and deliverables. The simplest way to think about this one is to ask yourself, “If we don’t know where we’re going, how will we know when we get there?” Engage the team in drafting the vision where possible and articulate it clearly and simply. Check for understanding among all members. More importantly, directly discuss with each team member what he/she contributes in pursuit of the vision and deliverables. Every one should be able to answer the question, “How do you contribute to achieving X?” If they can’t, it’s your failing as a team leader.
5. Be a role-model. It’s as simple as “do as I do” as you role model the behaviors you are trying to drive on the team. Hold yourself and others accountable for operating in a collaborative and constructive way. Create safe space for candid conversations, respond to mistakes as learning moments, and be the kind of leader you’d want to work for. Transparency and authenticity always rank on high on lists of traits for best leaders; you can’t go wrong in role modeling these behaviors on any team. (and even life in general).
6. Operate with transparency – always. Speaking of transparency and authenticity, research shows leaders who are honest, candid, vulnerable and courageous (ingredients to authenticity) are universally respected and admired. These leaders are effective communicators who encourage their teams to be transparent, speak with candor and are OK saying, “I don’t know” in public. When you operate this way you as the team leader you encourage your team to follow suit. Only when the real issues are on the table does meaningful solutioning happen. That can’t and won’t happen if teams aren’t operating with transparency, following a bad example set by the team leader.
7. Celebrate success along the way. Leaders can be known for driving forward in relentless pursuit of team goals. While important, it’s equally important to take time-outs to celebrate progress. As I remind myself on long road trips, take note of the miles already traveled gives a pop of energy to conquer the road ahead. This same dynamic works for teams. Whether it’s a small cake to offering a team two extra vacation days “on the house,” who doesn’t appreciate a chance to celebrate in life?
Someone once asked me in an interview, “Why should anyone want to work for you?” If you’re ever asked that question, and you’ve created these great new team leadership habits, you now have seven reasons (hint – answers above).