I recently watched a newly minted executive host his first leadership team meeting. Despite his preparations and forethought, it tanked. Over the coming weeks, he was able to recover and “re-start” the team, but I wondered what led him to derail in the first place. In our debrief, so many of his hindsight conclusions started with “I thought that…” revealing some of the misconceptions he had about what it meant, and didn’t mean, to actually lead a team of leaders. When the rubber hit the road, the gap between what he intended to do, and what is instincts led him to do, was much wider than he expected.
From that experience, and in many observations of leaders and teams before that, I’ve learned a ton about how not to lead a team. So this is my grown-up team-leadership wish list. The advice I find myself most offering to clients whose teams are flailing. The missed opportunities I’ve most seen circle the drain on teams that had enormous promise. The leadership choices that can make or break the cohesion and energizing dynamic of a team. It is my version of the quintessential team leader’s guide to being a wonderful leader of a team.
Be sure it’s actually a team. Having you for a boss doesn’t mean your direct reports are a team. Having interdependent work that requires that they rely on and collaborate with each other makes them a team. If you have a set of individual contributors reporting to you, it doesn’t mean you can’t foster a spirit of cooperation, collegiality, and esprit de corps, but they’re not a team. To foster true, and quality teaming behavior, you need to make sure the work they do actually requires collaborative behavior. You definitely want to avoid a pure “hub and spoke” model of leadership, where you are critical to every type of interaction, and all decision paths lead to you. But if the work your people do isn’t interdependent work, the way you’d approach creating cohesion is different.
Make it safe to fight. Once you’ve determined where the interdependence lies among those you lead, and where real collaborative behavior is necessary, the first thing you need to make sure of is that conflict can surface and be addressed. Psychological safety is necessary for people to feel they can speak their minds, disagree with a colleague, offer dissenting views to prevailing thinking, and contribute in your team meetings with a spirit of open dissent. When it comes to you as their boss, they can freely say “hard things” – including addressing things you do that aren’t helpful. One of the things you must do to create these conditions is to regularly ask for feedback from your team, and then act upon it. And at least once a quarter, do a round-robin “air clearing” session where everyone on the team spends 15 minutes with everyone in a short-series of 1x1s to check in, share feedback, and offer suggestions for strengthening their connections.
Find ways to say “I care about you” to each other. Not necessarily with the words, (though that’s fine too!), but with actions that make the words true. At Navalent, we freely express our love and regard for each other. My partner and co-founder Mindy says in our video, “We love our work, and we love each other, and that changes the work.” The mutual regard you require among your team does a lot to determine the strength of your team, especially how well they respond during setbacks or unforeseen challenges. If you allow mediocre relationships to fester, the team is weakened. Of course you can’t force “love” – mutual regard, friendship, or deep care, but you can model it, and you can reinforce it when you see it. And accept that it will take time (sometimes years) to create. Make sure that it’s not “so tight” that onboarding new members is impossible. But, make your team feel like a place folks can’t wait to be, where they feel a deep sense of regard and care from you and their colleagues.
Pull the weeds. Firing people that report to you is one of the hardest things a leader must do (especially if you hired them), but if you let sub-par performance languish, you’re being cruel to the underperformer, and to the rest of the team. You’re also confusing them about what standards you actually care about. The reality is that, especially as teams evolve and things change, some folks aren’t able to adapt, or contribute as needed. Don’t ignore that when it happens. Be compassionate, but be decisive.
Don’t create false egalitarianism. One of the worst mistakes leaders make, under the guise of creating a sense of inclusion, is to establish a sense of “being equals.” As human beings, equality is great, and necessary. But as part of organizations, everyone knows equality isn’t real when it comes to the importance of certain work, the level of performance from the most seasoned professionals, or the relative criticality among projects. Acknowledging that not all work or talent is equal, and therefore resourced and rewarded differently, is honest, and liberating. Treating everyone “the same” is one of the most disrespectful, un-inclusive things a leader can do, no matter how well intended you may be.
Create belonging in every direction. Cohesion on a team is a vital ingredient to high performance. A sense of belonging to one another is strengthened when it forms in all directions – vertically and horizontally. If you create a “hub and spoke” cohesion, then the team belongs “to you,” and that’s unhealthy. They also need to belong to each other. A sense of belonging forms when people no longer feel the need to self-edit, hide themselves, or guarded. They trust the motivations of you and their colleagues, and innately believe they “have their backs.” As a leader, you can foster this among your team, not just with them, by how you make key assignments for projects, pair people with folks they don’t routinely work with, and create pathways among the team that reduce reliance on you as decision making or problem solver. This is especially important if your team is distributed or virtual and doesn’t interact daily. Balance the use of video and chat technologies like zoom and slack with in-person time together. The cost is well worth the investment.
Amputate collusion immediately. One of the inevitable side effects of cultivating a strong team are the moments where it regresses to collusion. “Clique-yness,” gossip, and other forms of back channel communications are a cancer. And as the leader, you may not even realize you’re part of it. When someone comes to you and says, “Hey, have you noticed Sharon’s kinda ‘different’ (see air quotes) this week? I don’t know what’s going on, but do you have any coaching for how I can get around her mood?” You may feel tempted to “help” and take the bait. The only appropriate answer as a leader is, “That sounds like a great question for Sharon. Shall I call her in so you can ask her?” The moment you let your people know that you won’t tolerate one ounce of that stuff, they will step up to more mature, open, and direct communication with each other, and with you.
Stay connected to the bigger stories. The story of your team is nested within numerous other stories. The story of your department or region. The story of your company and industry. The purpose you serve ladders up to those purposes. Each member of your team brings their own story and purpose, that nests within those larger stories. These broader stories help sustain bigger perspectives, keeping us connected to a larger mission and grounded in the impact we can ultimately make together. During intensely demanding seasons, or challenging setbacks, staying connected to the broader stories of which we are apart creates resilience and reserves of optimism when hope flags. Talk about these broader stories regularly as a team. Ask about how people stay inspired by their purpose. Affirm those who embody your shared purpose when you see it. There’s always a bigger story to celebrate.
Leading a team is one of leadership’s most difficult requirements. And to be sure, one of its greatest privileges. To help curate the stories of treasured colleagues for a season of their career can be one of the greatest contributions you make in your career as a leader. Pay very close attention to how you do it. Your team will be telling stories about you at dinner tonight with their loved ones. Do you know what they will say?