Brett Knowles, pm2 Consulting
Brett is a long-time thought leader in the Strategy Execution space for high-tech organizations, beginning in the late 80’s while teaching at Harvard and being involved in the initial Balanced Scorecard research and books. His client work has been published in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fortune and countless other business publications.
Pub: September 8 2021
Upd: November 14 2022
The biggest mistake that most organizations make as they attempt to develop effective team leadership is they focus on the” how” before the “what”.
When it comes to developing effective team leadership, defining what is the goal of the team it's a critical first step. Improving teamwork is less about focusing on improving teamwork than it is about establishing the outcome for the team. One cannot simply say “improve teamwork” and expect anything to happen. The same way you can’t say “I want to improve my team leadership skills” and expect to be better the next day.
Determine your team's work strictly in terms of its end goal - what is the outcome this team is chartered to deliver?
“Don't think about relationships between this team and the organization, outside stakeholders or even within teams’ individual relationships” - British phrase
Jim Collins, in his fabulous book “Good to Great” presents the principle of “first who... then what”. His premise is that great organizations make sure they have the right people on the bus, and then get the right people in the right seats before one figures out where to drive the bus. Using Jim's metaphor, in this conversation about teams and team leadership, we're focusing on where to drive the bus.
Once we've determined where we are going to drive the bus (what the goals are for this team) we can then sort out who are the best people on the bus to sit in which seats (who should be playing what roles in the team in order to drive maximum effectiveness).
The team's goal should be defined in terms of the ultimate outcome of their work. The “what” of their activity, not the “how”. For example, the goal for a team might be “Build loyal fans of our brand and products”. Now the trick to be a good team leader and to get to this inspirational goal is often to think about some of the specific activities they will do and then repeatedly ask yourself the question “why”, until you get to the highest level you expect this team to achieve.
This goal will look an awful lot like the “objective” in your OKR (objectives and key results) management practices.
Once you've established a goal, or North Star, you can use that as a navigational instrument to begin to determine the right people, culture, values and timing to set structure for the team, thus driving effective team leadership.
In no particular order consider the following structures to improve your team leadership skills:
ı Put the Right Team and Team Leaders in Place
The whole nature of teams it's to create something that your organization has been unable to create before. To make this happen, within your team leadership style you need to create an environment where diverse ideas can be developed, presented and executed by the team members.
You will need to create a team that has the ‘breakfast index’ of diversity to bring new ideas to the problem.
This means that being an effective team leader is not for the faint of heart. Team leadership will be dealing with different work styles and attitudes as well as various opinions and working habits. A good team leader will need to balance the introverts and extroverts as well as those that work different pieces and styles.
Research indicates that successful teams are led by leaders that recognize these differences and put team leaders qualities and techniques in place to allow each person to have a voice and for the team to receive their ideas in a risk-free environment.
ı Set Key Performance Indicators
One of the most important team leaders skills to have is clarity. It is critical that during the chartering process, the team's expected outcomes are clearly defined in terms of S.M.A.R.T. Key Results and project milestones with clear durables and dates.
Careful consideration needs to be given to these KPIs because they provide a focus for the team - this is where their efforts will be placed. To create an effective team you need effective KPIs.
Teams, by their nature, are often distinct from the organization and, as such, these KPIs are likely to be cross-functional in nature, either because those are goals that we’re after, or they force all areas to work effectively with this new organizational element - the new team.
ı Create Team Values and Ground Rules
Because teams are bringing together people from various parts of the organization, it is important to set the common values and ground rules for the team early in the team's existence. There is surprising diversity in values and ground rules even within your organization. We have often seen teams get derailed because they assume a certain set of behaviors or ground rules that are not shared across the new team.
These rules might be as simple as: common operating hours, agreeing to means of communicating with each other (Slack, Teams, texts), agreeing to start and end meetings on time, etc., or as nebulous as: how to operate with integrity, dealing with conflict, problem solving guidelines and other interpersonal challenges.
ı Create Team-Building Opportunities Outside of the Office
If you think about sports teams and their unique team leadership style, part of the magic of teams is that the individuals find a way to sacrifice their own personal needs in aid of the success of the team.
Team members need to light one another and trust each other to both get their own work done and support the rest of the team in getting their work done.
Building the team is often difficult to do while you're in a work context, because people come to the team with different levels of power and capability. If you can move them to a different environment where power bases no longer dominate, or even are reversed, you can begin to work on the underline team camaraderie and relationships.
An interesting technique perfected in the “agile” IT practices is that of each member sharing a few of their successes from the previous week as a way to build and nurture the team relationships and, at the same time, help others understand their role and what they value.
You'll be surprised how much rapport develops with that one simple activity.
ı Facilitate Communication Across the Team
Patrick Lencioni, the author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable”, said:
“If you can get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry at any time, in any market, against any competition, at any time”.
Once you've established the team goals and clear KPIs, you need to keep those top-of-mind for all team members. There needs to be clear, frequent, and unified communication across the team.
A great way to start is with meetings that require solid preparation, having an agenda and timing that is adhered to, and continuous follow-up of each agree to action. Having effective meetings sets the tone for effective communication both in and outside of meetings.
The opposite is also true, if your meetings are unproductive, boring, and repetitive, it sets the tone for all communications within the team.
ı Work as One
While key performance indicators and communication awareness are important, they contribute to a single, greater outcome: working as one team.
Working as a single unit is imperative to your team’s performance and overall organizational success. To accomplish this, you must get every team member on board.
ı Openness to New Ideas
Again, one of the core reasons for the cricket team is the organization requires a different outcome than the traditional organization has been able to deliver. As such, the core activities of a team are to manufacture new ideas and a good team leader must be open to reviewing them.
Creating new ideas is a coin that has two sides - one is the ability to surface new ideas, and a second is the ability to allow those ideas to be accepted and tested on an equal basis regardless of whose idea it was.
Now, a corollary to this is that the team must learn how to fail fast, so that ideas that prove to not move things forward are quickly cast aside, saving capacity for other ideas which are flourishing.
ı Embrace Different Communication Styles
Everyone communicates differently, especially in this work from home environment. Understanding those around you is a powerful tool that must be part of your leadership style to lead to more effective teamwork and communication in and out of the conference room.
Communication is so critical, that it is often worthwhile having everyone in the team take some form of communication/personality test to help everyone get a running start to better communications.
One of the most valuable strategies I ever implemented centered around communication; specifically, helping each individual know their communication style and the pluses and minuses of that style, helping them learn how to identify the communication styles of their teammates, and most importantly, giving them the tools for effective communication.
The payoff was almost instantaneous; teammates went from being frustrated with each other to understanding the value each person brought to the team, even if they had a vastly different style.