Leading teams can be exhausting. Riddled with challenges, short on recognition, but nevertheless rewarding. Getting the most out of your team is dependent on a host of factors, making it more an art than a science. While there is plenty of research that suggests what makes teams effective, this perspective is from that of my experience as a U.S. Marine, and some critical variables I’ve learned that can help maximize your team’s potential.
Most agree that diversity on a team helps foster greater strategic communication leading to better results. The opportunity to handpick participants, creating your ‘dream team’, is a rarity. More than likely, your team members have a range of talents and experiences that you aren’t tapping into. The goal is not to homogenize the team, but to seek out those differences and leverage them for the organization. The more perspectives the higher likelihood for better results. As the leader, it is your responsibility to find out who your team is, where they have been, what interests them, and makes them tick. You do this by being honest, open, and approachable, and may be surprised at the positive impact.
Lead the team you have
John Navagh said, “Coach the team you have, not the team you wish you had.” It’s your job as the leader to focus on continuous improvement and increased efficiency. If you want to grow the team, you can’t be afraid to put people in positions where they can be more effective or improve the dynamics of the team. Balancing the well-being of the individual with that of the team or organization can be delicate at times and the impact should always be considered. Experience alone can be a costly way for a team to learn. Leaders like coaches must recognize the skills a player needs, but lacks, and develop them. Experience and deliberate development then can have an exponential impact on individual and team performance.
Knowing how to task
When tasking a team, it’s important to instruct them based in part on understanding their individual knowledge and experience. The loudest or most assertive may not be the most knowledgeable or experienced for a specific task and might even result in impeding the input needed from the real experts. Soliciting collective input from appropriate sources will likely result in a much more informed and effective solution. Encouraging dialogue and providing the forum are your responsibility to the team and the organization. During one engagement, an extremely vocal individual was responding so negatively that others just stopped contributing to the conversation. Once the leader recognized what was happening, they were able to curb the naysayer effectively and re-engage others without losing the critical input that was needed to move their initiative forward.
It’s important to be specific when tasking team members or giving them feedback on their performance. Vague direction can lead to misinterpreting desired outcomes or the level of urgency. Telling your team members exactly what you expect of them dramatically increases the probability of them successfully meeting or exceeding your expectations. As an aircraft maintenance shift supervisor during combat operations in Iraq, I explicitly instructed my Marines that any movement to the flightline, must be as fast as possible. An extra 30 seconds that the helicopter was on the ground, could easily mean more casualties for those we were supporting. For most of us now, we are not dealing with “life or death” scenarios, but a sense of urgency goes a long way in improving team efficiency and effectiveness.
While being specific regarding the desired outcome is critical to success, bringing out the best in your team requires that you allow for autonomy and encourage them to think outside the box. Create an environment where individuals have the freedom to determine the “How”. This is empowering and helps improve leadership and intuitive decision-making abilities. Be sure to acknowledge and celebrate their wins, while constructively coaching them through learning from their mistakes. In one instance, a Project Manager was having difficulty “controlling” the efficiency on his night shift. After weeks of leaving explicit instructions, he saw no improvement. When he finally approached his night shift Lead, he learned that they spent a significant amount of time trying to follow the directions to the letter. He then gave only the desired outcome, and the parameters, and the shift’s productivity quickly improved.
Mentoring is continuous
Mentoring is more than a check in the box. As a leader, you must take an active role in continuously building your team members up with positive, meaningful feedback as well as constructive criticism. Be sure to address specific behaviors and their impact on the team. If you wait until their annual review to discuss deficiencies or give them praise, you run the risk of poor or ineffective behaviors taking root or missing the opportunity to leverage and replicate good practices. In either case the whole team suffers. You must continuously follow-up with the team if you want them to follow through with your guidance. It is your responsibility to support them and ensure that they have the tools and resources required to succeed in their job.
These recommendations aren’t intended to be a panacea for leadership, but rather definitive needle-movers where you and your team can experience immediate results without dramatic effort. The effectiveness of a leader is best measured by the success of those they lead. A leader’s “style” should be flexible and determined by consideration of all the factors that influence the team, organization, and environment. These are relatively simple ways to bring out the best in your team.
Focus on improving relationships with team members. Get to know them on a more personal level and their respect will transcend the employee-supervisor relationship.
Listen to their suggestions. Don’t give the impression that you know what is best all the time, or your team will stop sharing ideas for improvement.
Explain the “why” your team is doing something to foster a greater buy-in and enforce shared values.