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.)
In COVID times: Given so many employees are working remotely and lacking an authentic “human experience” from the workplace, it is more important than ever to respect and honor your team members as not just employees but real people. Make time for them regularly and use video as much as everyone is comfortable with to bring more human dimension to your interactions. Schedule time with them if for nothing more than to say, “Thank you for all you’re doing. I know these are very challenging times.”
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.
In COVID times: The pandemic has highlighted the need for people leaders to understand the many challenges team members may be facing — spoken or not. Caring for employees beyond the workplace has been legitimized as the lines between “work” and “life” have converged. While you may not be able to help them solve all that troubles them, the simple act of asking and showing support is a great start. Share your own best practices and methods of how you’ve been coping. Remember, the pandemic has been a great equalizer. It doesn’t care what level someone is. The enormity of challenges brought on by the pandemic have touched many of us in equal ways. Sometimes just having your employees understand they are not alone in their challenges is a comfort to its own.
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.”
In COVID times: Make this a priority! Many employees report being greatly stressed worrying their managers don’t feel they are being productive or delivering because they can’t be “seen” working remotely. Clear this fear from cluttered minds by being proactive and acknowledging the great work you know your team is delivering regardless of whether you see them regularly or physically.
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.
In COVID times: The workforce is more overwhelmed than ever; be ruthless in prioritizing what’s most important for your teams to focus on. That means being crystal clear on the deliverables that will drive the vision. Don’t be afraid to say no or not now; the workforce is working with diminished physical and emotional capacity, huge distractions and information overload. Be realistic in what teams can deliver in this state.
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 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).
In COVID times: Continue to be a role model and show others how you are adjusting to the pandemic times. No one has all the answers, but many are figuring it out as they go and developing coping strategies that others can utilize. Share what is working for you — knowing it’s also OK to admit when you don’t have an answer - and continue to be a strong role model.
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 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.
In COVID times: You should ALWAYS operate with transparency, pandemic or not. You will never achieve trust without transparency. Without trust, you’re just a person with a title on paper and will never gain followership that makes the best leaders so effective.
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?
In COVID times: People need a reason to believe, fuel for hope. Be it. Express gratitude for things big and small, call team members out for accomplishments, thank them for just hanging in there and doing the best they can to power through. Send them a gift to lift their spirits, even if it’s an e-gift card for a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Surprise them when you can - anything to bring a lift to these heavy times.
And always spread kindness. It’s more contagious than COVID-19.