Teams are a new buzzword of the twenty-first century corporation. Everyone works in teams. Your success at leading teams is a critical part of your track record as a manager.
So, how good a team leader are you? Have you identified strategies for leading teams well? Do you consciously apply those strategies when you lead a team?
Imagine top-tier soccer players weaving down the field with the ball — or an accomplished actor
immersed in a part. They make what they are doing look effortless. The same is true with teams. A successful team drives toward its goal, united. It has been said that a successful team has many hands but one mind.
But team success doesn't happen by accident. Effective teams have leaders who consciously apply a set of strategies for leading their teams to success. Three of the many strategies that they apply are:
Building team identity,
Encouraging clear communication, and
Monitoring the effectiveness of team leadership
How do you apply these strategies in practice? Let's look at Tom and his team, which had been
working on a project for nine months. After the team missed several milestones and significantly exceeded its budget, upper management halted the project and gave Tom and his team two weeks to assess progress and define a strategy for achieving its goal. The team was meeting for the first time since that announcement.
Tom took a deep breath as he looked around the table. The members' faces showed a mixture of anger, willingness, and lack of engagement. He checked to ensur that members who were conferenced in by phone could hear. Then he said, "Look, we all know that this project has not gone as well as we wanted — and there have been plenty of extenuating circumstances. Now we've been asked to identify what's gone wrong. I really want to make this work, so let's get started."
Several people started to talk at once. Elaine persisted while the others stopped. "Uli and I needed Rory to finish his upstream work for us to get ours done." Rory responded, "But how could I finish my work when we never reached consensus on the design options I outlined a month ago?" Uli interrupted, "But I thought we did agree. Maybe it was when you were out sick. Did you read the minutes?" Yuko could be heard over the conference phone. "Actually, I think the biggest issue is that our scope has increased by at least half since we started. It's been a moving target since day one." Joseph broke in, "Excuse me, Yuko, but can I go back to the question of the minutes? It's not just Rory who may not have read the minutes. Most of us have action items from these meetings. And yet half the time they remain uncompleted by the next meeting."
Elaine shifted impatiently in her chair. "I don't see how this is a productive conversation. Can we move on?"
The discussion continued in this vein for half an hour, with frustration levels rising in the room. Yuko had said nothing since her first comment, and the three other team members who were conferenced in had never spoken up. Tom suspected they were multitasking with their phones muted.
Tom interrupted the discussion: "A lot of interesting points have been raised, but I can sense your frustration. I want to meet with each of you individually to get your honest opinion about what we —
and I — need to do differently. Also, I suggest we set up two groups. For the next three days, each group will generate options for moving forward. Then we'll come together as a team, review all our options, and hash out a strategy to propose to upper management. What do you think?" The mood lightened. Tom felt the energy level beginning to rise. As he left, Tom thought, "That was the right move. But I have made other mistakes — and I need to learn from them."
Let's return to the three strategies: building team identity , encouraging clear communication, and
monitoring the effectiveness of team leadership.
Tom was right that he needed to look honestly at his own leadership of this team. A tell-tale sign of
poor leadership is low participation by team members. During the meeting, several people never spoke up. Indeed, Tom himself did not contribute much. And perhaps most telling, Tom framed the team's challenge poorly at the start of the meeting. The executives had asked Tom and his team to assess progress and define a strategy for achieving its goal. Notice the difference between that directive and what Tom actually said to the team: "We've been asked to identify what's gone wrong." The way Tom framed the problem triggered a great deal of finger pointing.
Also, to build team identity, it was Tom's responsibility to ensure that all team members felt like they were being heard and taken seriously. Yet in this meeting, Yuko brought up an apparently critical issue of project scope, which Tom failed to acknowledge.
Tom, however, did take two very important steps toward saving this team. He publicly acknowledged that he bore responsibility for the team getting off track. And he clearly intended to review what he had done and make changes. In addition, instead of assigning individual tasks, he asked the team members to collaborate on possible strategies to move forward. Shared tasks are a way to strengthen team bonds and build team identity.
The conversation among team members indicated that decision making, communication, and accountability were other issues that needed to be addressed. To encourage clear communication,
Tom might set up a central workspace for posting minutes, decisions, and action items with clear deadlines. He also could work on his own communication skills, such as listening to team members, encouraging participation, and guiding discussions. By setting up individual discussions and being open to feedback, he took an important first step.
The effectiveness of a team reflects its leader. Tom's team could get back on track, once Tom starts to apply strategies to build team identity, encourage clear communication, and improve his own performance as a team leader.