How you lead your team is critical to making a real difference

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.

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Author: Phil Hartwick
First Published: 2020

A large client of ours is transforming to a ‘new way of working’ in which previously operational front-line people leaders were told they would not be doing any operational work. When the new model was rolled out, leaders were heard to ask; “What will we do then?” This confusion is actually widespread even at much higher levels of organisations and one of the reasons for this is many years of training leaders to lead individuals. We believe the answer lies in learning to lead teams.

Are you managing or leading? And what’s the difference?

We frequently hear senior managers complaining that the managers beneath them are working a level down; that is, they are doing some or a lot of the work that their own people should be doing. Their value as leaders is diminished because they are dragged into managing everyday operational issues and transactions.

Is this you? Are you stuck in the daily rut of dealing with your team’s questions and issues?

Your role as a leader is to not do what your people should be doing but develop them to do it instead. You may feel indispensable to your team, but actually that is not good for them or for you.

Your role is to develop the conditions so that your team can excel without your frequent guidance or involvement.

This is so that you can contribute to the next level up, bringing the most value there. It is at the next level up (the leadership team that you sit on) that you can bring your team’s capabilities and resources to bear to help contribute to the business unit or organisational priorities. You can influence and assist your team in how it can collaborate and work better together with other teams in the organisation.

So how can you do this?

Let’s break this down a bit. We will use our 3-Lens team success model (Achievement, Collaboration, Contribution) to discuss a team leader’s role.

A team needs to achieve

You need to help your team figure out how it can achieve.

We chose the word achieve carefully. When a team is achieving, it means they are reaching important agreed targets, milestones or objectives. Achieving their intended purpose. When a team feels like it is achieving, the members become highly motivated. When a team feels like it is spinning its wheels or just going through the motions, the members disengage.

So as a leader, helping your team understand ‘how to achieve’ is the place to start.

Ask yourself, does your team have a clear pathway to success? Here are three elements that as a leader you can help the team with:

  • Clear direction – such as vision, common objectives and short-term goals

  • Clear priorities – a very short list of what is important to focus on (regularly reviewed and reset frequently)

  • Limiting work in progress (WIP) – restricting the amount of work that the team has going at any one time so that work is completed faster, and the entire team is focused and leveraged on getting priorities done.

A mistake some managers make is that they try to do all of this for the team. When this happens, the team becomes disempowered and becomes reliant on you their manager for the plan. And if it’s not working, it’s your plan, not theirs.

Team is not a team unless it collaborates

So that brings up item 2; collaboration – Collaboration is about how we can work better together – in order to achieve.

As a leader, you have a critical role to help your team collaborate.

We commonly hear people say that they collaborate, but when we dig a bit deeper, we find that they are referring to the occasional planning session or information sharing.

But when people experience true collaboration – where added value is found through innovative thinking and identifying better ways of working, group resource pooling and sharing across functional areas represented in the team – they realise there is more to it.

Our suggestion is rather than talk a lot about it or doing ‘team building’ for the sake of it, begin by working together to building your pathway to success. There is nothing better than working together on one item to learn how to collaborate.

Imagine how strong your team would be if they could describe with clarity how they are achieving success and were truly collaborating on those things that would matter most to this.

Beyond planning your team’s pathway to success, work that teams can collaborate on include how to:

    • have efficient team meetings that everyone values and can engage in

    • share and fix common work problems,

    • share critical work information, including achievements

    • improve tracking and progress against priorities

    • build strong, trusting relationships.

Leaders need to ensure that collaboration adds real value and does not slow and hamper progress at key times. This means ensuring time spent collaborating is selective and purposeful. Work should be advanced by individuals or sub-groups when that is the most efficient way forward.

The team benefits when each member is contributing their best

Team members need to feel like they are contributing to the success of the team and are not just making up the numbers. When each member is given the opportunity and encouraged to contribute their best, unsurprisingly their energy and their engagement lifts. Conversely, when one or more team members are not contributing their best, the whole team suffers.

As a leader, you have an important role to help each of the team’s members contribute their best.

How we get people to contribute their best will vary between individuals, however some of the things we know that can help lift contribution include:

    • Providing an opportunity for team members to discuss their work-related strengths and what they like and dislike about their work. This encourages the team bring each other in to the work they most enjoy.

    • Developing a unified team environment that is psychologically safe (where there is no judgement, hierarchies or belittling) to encourage everyone to feel comfortable to contribute their ideas

    • Coaching to develop each individual to take on more challenging responsibilities and make more of the everyday decisions themselves. This may take some restraint by you as the leader!

Final thoughts

So, in a nutshell, as leader of the team, your role is to help the team:

1. Achieve – work together to develop a clear pathway to success,

2. Collaborate – find ways to together improve how it executes its work, and,

3. Contribute – get the best from each member of the team.

Getting this foundation right for your team is important to tackle as early as possible and doesn’t have to take more than a few months of determined focus.

Once this foundation is set, your team will be able to run the day to day business which will allow you to steer clear of everyday problem solving and decision making.

It will then be time for you to operate more strategically and make a real difference to the leadership team on which you sit.

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