Select Page

When it comes to the question of leadership, most attention is aimed at the C-suite, for obvious reasons. CEOs and their executives make all the big decisions after all, and are paid the big bucks accordingly.

But what about at the other end of the corporate pyramid? Every large organisation has perhaps hundreds of team leaders, charged with the responsibility of getting stuff done day in, day out, at the sharp end of the operation. Keeping customers happy, fixing emergencies, that kind of thing.

While no single team leader towards the foot of the corporate hierarchy is particularly critical to operations, as a collective they are absolutely indispensable. They are the first line of management, the most numerous, and the least experienced in people skills. They have usually been promoted from the ranks for being a strong performer on the front line, not because they look like outstanding management material.

Being a frontline manager is a tough gig. It can sometimes seem like a poisoned chalice, with plenty of frustrations. A boss told me once that a good day in management is coming in to the office with fifteen problems and going home with fourteen. My memories of line management are not all rosy. You can get squeezed from below with your people dumping their problems on your doorstep, and from above with your manager pressing you for better results, now!

If you’re lucky, you get to access some line manager training early on, or have a great mentor to guide you. But more often than not you learn it on the job, and learn from your mistakes.

With the benefit of experience and hindsight, not to mention a lot of wisdom gleaned from a variety of insightful business books (ranging from Superbosses by Sydney Finkelstein to Nancy Kline’s Time to Think), here’s my perspective on what makes a great team leader. Hopefully some of my thoughts resonate with you, and help spur you on to enhanced success and fulfilment.

Getting Started – You need to define your vision.

Whether you’ve been in the job a week, a year or a decade, you have to have a vision of what’s possible. Your team is responsible for delivering something of value to your company – otherwise you wouldn’t exist. How can you transform that? How can you totally outperform expectations? How can you become the most respected and rewarded team in your business line? How can you increase the value to bring to your company not by 10%, but by 100%?

A leader without a vision is really just a manager, keeping things ticking over and passing up the opportunity to make a big difference. That’s not exciting. If you’re struggling to define a vision for what’s possible in your area of responsibility, find a mentor or a leader higher up in the organisation and get their advice. Ask “What’s possible for my business to achieve?”.

Whether you are in sales, operations, accounting, it doesn’t really matter. You have operational objectives and you can either miss them, meet them, beat them, or wildly outperform them. Which would you prefer? If you work in a profit centre, define a vision of what a hugely successful customer business would look like, and go for it! If you work in a cost centre, define a vision of how you could deliver much more for better value (using technology?) and go for it!

There are many great reasons to lead with a vision – I list eight of them in this article – and they are not the exclusive preserve of the CEO. Grab a vision for yourself and obsess about making it a reality in your world.

It’s all about your people – and not just the star performers

More than anything else in your organisation, your people will make your life as team leader either an absolute delight, or a total nightmare.

Most organisations have a good mix of A, B and C players. A-players are the stars, creating huge value and on the fast track to more responsibility and senior roles. The B-players are the steady performers who are important to the organisation mainly because of the sheer number of them. They come in, get stuff done, and go home. The C-players are the malcontents, under-performers who like to complain and are generally cynical about everything the company tries. They are the most discontented in employee surveys. They do enough to survive, but little else.

If you think about it, most A-players in your company are already flying up the ranks. Maybe you’re an A-player, promoted early into your first position of real responsibility? Since C-players won’t be getting any promotions, they will exist principally at the foot of the corporate pyramid. This means that your team is going to be comprised mainly of B-players but also a few C- players. Congratulations!

If you’re not already doing it, you need to be figuring out the following: who amongst your B-players can you grow into an A-player, and how can you convert your C-players into B-players? Be in no doubt, C-players drain time, energy and spirit from the team. Two or three of them in a team of ten will seriously impact the mood and productivity of the whole group – all of which reflects back on you (badly).

C-players aren’t necessarily lost causes, however. They often feel that their job is dull and meaningless, they’re taken for granted and they’ve got no chance of advancement. And these beliefs lead to an attitude that inevitably sucks. They moan at team meetings, never put their hand up for a project, gossip about how bad you and the company are behind your back. But does it have to be this way?

The secret to better performance? Unlock purpose and flow

Here’s a fundamental belief of mine, and one that could serve you well: everyone can perform better.

People are rarely aware of their own potential, let alone perform at it, so everyone has room for improvement. If you choose to believe this is the case, you’ll look at your C-players and start to ask how you can help them become B-players.

The trick with C-players is to give these lost souls a renewed sense of being needed and valued in their jobs. Explain to them why their contribution counts. Explain how what they do fits in to the wider mission of the business area and the firm.

Simon Sinek explains this point in Start with Why. He compares two stonemasons, each building a wall. The first, complaining, sees his job as a back-breaking, monotonous one that pays the bills but nothing more. The second loves his job, even though it is usually back-breaking and sometimes monotonous work, because he is building a cathedral. You see how different the two are? By seeing himself as part of a wider mission – to build a cathedral no less – he is inspired by his work.

How many people in your team see their job just like the first stonemason – just paying the bills but nothing more? Chances are that the C-players do. You can help them on the road to becoming B-players by showing them how they are helping to build a cathedral.

Every role in your team – however limited or monotonous it might seem at first glance – exists for a reason. It is your job as team leader to ensure that the person filling the role understands how they fit into and contribute to the wider mission of the business, and the organisation.

You might be thinking that this is unnecessary, fluffy or just pointless. If you do, you are taking an extremely narrow view of what work can do for people. Of course, a job is a means to an end, to make ends meet. But it can be so much more than that.

Work helps people find achievement and the opportunity to contribute to something inspiring and meaningful. Work seen this way is a vehicle for people to tap into something deep-rooted in all of us: to find purpose in our lives.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly describes some of his most important research (groundbreaking at the time) in his book Flow. He discovered that subjects of his studies were at their most fulfilled and engaged – and happy – not during leisure time, but at work. That’s right, work has the capacity to make people feel better than any other activity. The key to unlocking this extraordinary benefit of work was shown to be work activities that were challenging enough to avoid boredom setting in, but not so challenging that they invoked frustration.

The challenge you face as a team leader, then, is to identify and assign work which is in that sweet spot between too easy and too hard. Work, essentially, that brings out the best in your people. You will be able to remember those days when you enjoyed breakthroughs, really moved something forward, solved a challenging problem. Those are the times when you are in Flow, when you are so immersed in your work that the time seems to fly. Finding this kind of work for your C-players can help them rediscover energy and enthusiasm, speeding them along the road to becoming B-players.

You’re probably thinking that most office work does tend to be tedious, and it’s simply not possible to give everyone fabulously enjoyable and challenging tasks. The dull, routine stuff still needs to get done after all, right?

Well yes, up to a point. Basic administrative work still needs to get done in all organisations. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do an audit of this kind of work in your team, and get some ideas on how to minimise it – without bringing down the wrath of other stakeholders, or internal clients. Take e-mail, for example, the bane of all office workers lives. Being busy handling e-mails is not work, and those who think they’ve had a good day because they’ve kept their Inbox clear all day are unlikely to be creating value for the firm, contributing to the mission. Take a decision for your team to ‘batch’ e-mails – allocating perhaps a couple of slots per day for e-mails to be answered. This is more efficient than allowing yourself to be interrupted by e-mails all day long, and frees up time for more meaningful work.

The potency of projects

So what kind of meaningful work is there for C-players (and B-players and A-players, come to think of it)? One word: projects. Projects are critical because – when specified well – they move things forward on a sustainable basis.

When done well, projects bring tangible, measurable results. Projects aren’t about day-to-day, tactical stuff, they are about strategic work, things that deliver major improvements in a business or operation.

Projects can be meaty, often requiring multiple skills and therefore teamwork and collaboration. Businesses only exist on the basis that two people create more value together than they would separately. So by making collaboration the core of how your team operates, you enshrine a proven value creation concept and minimise the scope for selfish, competitive types who are just in it for themselves.

What kind of projects would suit your area and team? Well, ones that move you towards realising your vision, of course. The difference between where you are today and where you want to get to is nothing but a series of (strategic) projects, some interlinked, all pulling in the same direction.

It’s not down to you to think up these projects either. This is where your team contributes. Ask them to list the types of work currently being done, and then ask a second, extremely powerful question: “How can it be improved?”. And then ask your people to come up with possible solutions. The best solutions then become projects. And as these projects are completed, the team takes big strides towards realising your vision.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport describes exactly this kind of work as being the only truly value creating work in a knowledge economy. The opposite, shallow work, is commoditised or easily replicated by machines (if not now, then soon). You need to work out how to get your people involved more in deep work and less in shallow work. They’ll be more fulfilled, contributing meaningfully to the business, get more recognition and should even feel happier. Your C-players will become B-players will become A-players.

Of course, doing the above well requires you to demonstrate several specific qualities as a leader: the ability to listen, to trust your people and to delegate.

You have twice as many ears as mouths, use them

Listening well is incredibly important, and is a massively undervalued trait according to both my professional experience and broader surveys of employee engagement (“my boss doesn’t listen to me”). Team leaders think they know more, and they often insist on telling everyone what they know, to prove it. That’s flawed thinking. Meetings where the boss talks and everyone else sits in subdued silence are, by and large, a wasted opportunity.

There’s every chance your people can suggest smart ways to improve how things get done – after all they are the technicians at the coal face. But how will you ever find these out unless you deliberately cultivate an environment where people feel they will be heard? Don’t have team meetings where you tell everyone what to do, instead have ‘ideation’ meetings where you brainstorm and encourage ideas to be put forward.

The very essence of knowledge work is getting the most out of our minds, as opposed to our hands. Ask yourself if you are really tapping the full extent of your team’s knowledge and capacity for creative thinking – there’s every chance you can do better.

Don’t let power corrupt you!

If you’ve been recently promoted into your first leadership role, you’re probably feeling a sense of power that wasn’t there before. You’re the boss, and you can suddenly tell people to do things. What’s the point of power if you don’t use it, right?

Well, tempting as it is, you need to use your power sparingly, if at all. Bosses who shout at their people or demand that they do things are not going to convert C-players into B-players, or B-players into A-players. They’ll create resentment and a desire to switch to a different team.

Here’s the paradox of leadership – the best leaders give away their power. They hand it down to their people. They delegate not only responsibility but also the authority to act. The best leaders empower their people, encouraging them to step up and take charge. I certainly recall many episodes when I was slow or reluctant to do this, and I regret every one of them.

So with your team, you need to figure out who you can give more authority to for what purpose, and give it to them. Give them responsibility for running projects. This allows your people to grow and become better. You’ll create future leaders who are ready, willing and able to step up when you’re away or distracted by something else.

Critically, you need to avoid micro-managing anything that you delegate. Focus on the outcome, not on the how – by meddling unnecessarily in someone’s work you’ll undo much of the goodwill you created when you handed the responsibility down in the first place. Trust that your people will work out a smart way to get things done, and be on hand for guidance if required.

Be a coach to your people

Lastly, think about how you can be a coach to your people. Out of all the management styles, the coaching one is in my view the best suited to supporting all the approaches described above. Great coaching starts with active and purposeful listening, and then goes much further. It is founded on a belief that performance in the individual can be improved. And its focus is on encouraging behavioural change, exactly the sort of thing that is required for C-players to grow into B-players.

Coaching is not directive – it places great store in people having the answers (to improved performance) within themselves. Telling people what to do may serve an immediate need for action, but it stunts their professional growth, pure and simple. Coaching is about handing people the responsibility to come up with their own solutions rather than relying on others to do the hard work for them. Coaches champion their people and work in their service – much akin to the Servant Leadership style that rose in popularity in the 1970s and found great CEOs such as Sam Walton as it’s exemplar.

A coaching style also requires a lack of ego. This is a tough pill to swallow for many in a position of authority, as they are often (mainly?) ego-centric and competitive go-getters. Most leaders would probably associate a lack of ego with weakness. However, as Jim Collins demonstrated most forcefully in his research in Good to Great, the greatest of all leaders – Level 5 Leaders – are in fact characterised not by ego, but by total personal humility.

Pulling it all together

Leading a team is not easy. Particularly if it’s your first time, and you’re learning by your mistakes as you go along. But don’t worry, that’s a path well trodden, and you’re in good company. The greatest leaders certainly made mistakes along the way too.

My suggestions above are hardly an exhaustive examination of what it takes to be a great team leader – after all this is just an article, not a book. But there should be some useful nuggets in there to guide you as you develop your own unique leadership style. If I was to be in a position of team leadership again, I would certainly take all my own advice.

And one final tip – be yourself. Trying to mimic how other leaders behave – even ones you look up to – is much harder than it seems. Be authentic and true to who you really are – in this respect at least there’s no need to ‘fake it until you make it’.