If you’re new to team leadership and aspire to a high-performing team of fulfilled individuals (including yourself) then read on.
In this article I am going try and summarise what I have learnt in 25 years of leadership, including key insights from leading thinkers on team performance. It’s what I wish someone had explained to me when I took on my first team leader role, when I thought that leadership was about telling people what to do and then checking they had done it (yes, dear reader, I was that naive).
In those early days I put all my leadership effort into the situation in front of my nose: the task, the plan (normally my plan), communication. The results were … adequate. I had some excellent people on the team and they executed my instructions very effectively. It’s just that I was running a Ferrari in first gear.
Moving into second gear: trust and autonomy
I like Charles Feltman’s definition of trust (1): “Trust is choosing to make something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.” In this case the something is the team’s performance and your reputation.
An industrial psychologist once told me that I had a tendency to trust people too much. I replied “In my department I rely on people using their initiative and imagination. If my default was not to trust them, I would lose too much in terms of enthusiasm and creativity.” There’s one or two people who have not lived up to my hopes (‘betrayed my trust’ is too strong) over the years, but the upside has outweighed the downside by an order of magnitude.
The reason that my default became to trust people was that I noticed that I was more motivated when I was given headroom in which to perform and, operating from the position that everyone thought the same as I did (see fourth gear below lol), I tried treating my team members in the same way!
Tim Ferriss sums this up “It’s amazing how someone’s IQ seems to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate that you trust them.”
Moving into third gear: listening and candour
Jack Welch, legendary CEO of GE called lack of candour “the biggest dirty little secret in business” and said “Lack of candour basically blocks smart ideas, fast action, and good people contributing all the stuff they’ve got.” (2)
More recently Ray Dalio, CEO of Blackwater Associates, has built the world’s largest hedge fund on the explicit principle of “Radical Truth and Transparency.” (3)
The reason I’ve grouped it with listening (though trust is also a prerequisite for candour) is that unless you are going to listen attentively to people who have great ideas and/or tell you what is going wrong in your business, they will soon tire of holding their hand up. They may even leave to join or start a business where they will be heard.
Fourth: individualization and diversity
Eventually I got the message that not everyone was the same as me: everyone is working to a mental map that they have constructed based on their unique genetic makeup and life experiences.
George Marsden, a much revered former boss of mine, used to say “Know thy staff.” If you follow his creed then you will be aware of the skills the different members of your team can bring to a project, their preferred way of working, and what stresses they may be experiencing out of work that are impacting on their performance, for example relationship issues, health worries, childcare challenges.
In getting to know your team on a personal level you will help create the environment of psychological safety in which people feel able to voice their ideas. And the greater the diversity of your team the greater the richness of those ideas and the higher the probability that within those ideas you will find solutions to the challenges your business faces.
Getting to know your staff can be more challenging in the current WFH situation that many companies find themselves in, yet needed more than ever in order to counter feelings of isolation.
Fifth: being ambitious for your staff
There’s a paradox that applies to employee development. The harder a manager deliberately limits the development of her staff with the intention of retaining them for as long as possible (yes, I have known people who have done this), the quicker they leave.
Almost all of us like to feel we are learning and growing as our lives progress. It’s a key aspect of our mental wellbeing. So, I became ambitious for my staff. I looked to allocate them to stretch projects and training programmes. I took a course in coaching and mentoring (far too late in my career — I should have taken the course in my 20s) so that I could support them more effectively.
The result was that staff stayed longer. While they felt they were still learning and growing they hung around. When they moved upwards, or even out of the company, to a more senior role I felt that I had accomplished my task as a leader.
Nigel Nicholson of London Business School observed: “The most revered bosses view their leadership as a service to the people, a custodianship within the firm’s life span. What matters is that the gene pool he leaves is stronger than when he arrived, not that he accumulated personal riches or was famous for a day or two.” (4)
Sixth: the why
In the TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, Simon Sinek explains the motivating power of an organisation’s why from the standpoint of employees and customers. However, the same principle applies at divisional or team level. Time taken to explain to your team the relevance of its tasks to the overall goals of the organisation is an investment well made.
Seventh: be the change you want to see (and be authentic about it)
In truth I don’t know how many gears a Ferrari has, but I think seven is a credible place to finish.
In navigating my way through the gears, I came to realise that my staff were picking up on my cues. I brought my whole self to work, they did. I became candid about what was working and what wasn’t, they did. I raised my level of curiosity and embarked on a journey to high performance, they joined me willingly.
But the leader’s intent and enthusiasm have to be genuine. It’s only recently, with the discovery of mirror neurons (5), that we have come to understand what emotionally aware people have known for a long time: authenticity is hard to fake. Your staff will know if it’s all a show and the only interests you have at heart are your own.
The standard of team performance that we might aspire to was described by Nigel Nicholson as “a spirit of energized sharing … Individual members seem to know exactly what their distinctive contribution is, but at the same time, they have a feeling of ‘losing’ their egos in the group. The group takes on a life of its own.” (6)
So far we’ve not even started thinking about how we set goals, review performance, and learn lessons. Perhaps that will be the subject of a future article. In the meantime if you have any comments on this first instalment, please drop me a line.
Feltman, C. (2009). The Thin Book of Trust. Oregon: Thin Book Publishing Company.
Welch, J. with Welch, S (2005). Winning. New York: Harper Collins. p25
Dalio, R. (2017). Principles. New York. Simon & Schuster. p321 et seq
Nicholson, N. (2000). Managing the Human Animal. London: Texere. p269
Siegel, D. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Random House. p59 et seq