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Team Leadership

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William Sciambi, April 2018 - According to Gallup, “the cost of poor management and lost productivity from employees in the U.S. who are not engaged or are actively disengaged, is about $1 trillion per year.”

Engagement means employees invested in their work relationship. As the leader of a team or organization, you bear the responsibility for the health of that relationship. Your role as a coach and mentor is more important than your role as the “boss”. An engaged workforce is more productive, more entrepreneurial, focused on your team goals and fulfilling the company mission.

Below are what I have found to be four critical touchpoints for anyone leading a team, whether it is a first level manager or a corporate CEO. Follow them in some form and you will discover that employees will be confident, motivated and engaged, whether you are in the office or on vacation. Ignore them and you will find your job as a leader more difficult and less effective.

Lead by Example

There is no substitute for the willingness to demonstrate, whether by words or actions, that you are capable and experienced at every job within your organization. Now, most likely, you won’t be able to actually do every job, but a willingness to try is as good as success where your employees are concerned.

The best military commanders know how important it is to lead by example and is why all military leaders are groomed through the ranks from private on up. No general is asking anyone to risk their life in a situation where they haven’t risked their own. This is the highest form of leadership by example.

If, as a manager, you haven’t actually performed every task of those serving under you, at least engage your employees enough to understand their duties and know what effort goes into each job and what a positive outcome looks like. Only then will you be able to appreciate the challenges each member of the team faces. From there, it’s a short walk to fixing problems as they arise from the point of view of the employee.

I also can’t emphasize enough how taking obstacles out of the way of your staff’s ability to do their jobs is a hugely effective way of leading by example. By removing institutional obstacles (I call them “Proxies”), you are letting your employees know that you understand what they face every day and that you are helping to make them more effective at doing their job.

Ask Lots of Questions

Television and movie producer Brian Grazer has, what I consider to be, a unique and deeply engaging leadership style. He has been quoted as saying, “I don’t like to boss people around. I don’t get motivated by telling people what to do. Instead, I ask lots of questions.” There is truth and honesty in this approach and I know from experience, that it will make you a more effective leader than any other single thing you can do.

Asking open ended, clarifying questions shows both intellectual curiosity and a willingness to learn from the hard data delivered to you from your team in the field and on the front lines. Any leader who thinks they know it all isn’t going to be effective at managing adversity.

More importantly, markets and technology are advancing at record pace. Feedback from those who are actually handling your operations is more important now than ever. Therefore, a leader who is constantly asking questions like, “Where is the pain coming from? What are the challenges in dealing with that problem? How can we deal with/solve/manage the issue?”, will be a more effective leader.

Once you’ve asked the questions, you are able to more authoritatively suggest solutions and get your team to commit to an action plan which they feel they’ve had a hand in constructing. Famous quote: “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people with nothing to say”. Bill Carney

Play to People’s Strengths

I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that more than half of employees who are fired after six months or more on the job, are failures of management. If your organization did a thorough job of vetting new hires, employee success hinges more on leadership than on some defect in the team member. In other words, the manager didn’t do his or her job in recognizing the employee’s strengths, then guiding, instructing and managing them to success.

Every employee has strengths and weaknesses. The job of a good leader is to recognize those strengths, develop them, and minimize their weaknesses. I’ve managed top sales performers with profound personality disorders. But they possess talent and motivation (attitude) which makes them good at what they do. Ironically, these traits also often make them disorganized, unruly and impulsive. It’s the job of a great manager/coach to corral their strengths and channel that energy in ways which fulfill the goals and objectives of the company while minimizing the disruption to the organization. Expand the guardrails if need be, to allow them the room to succeed, while keeping them within the white lines of your organization.

Too often I find managers complaining about their employee’s weaknesses or faults rather than focusing on what they do best. Being an effective leader means knowing your strengths and investing in others' strengths.

Build Relationships

It is well known that people leave managers, not companies. As a leader, it is imperative that you build relationships within your organization. This doesn’t mean you need to be everyone’s friend. It does, however, mean that you need to build friendly professional relationships, which recognizes and values the personal, as well as the professional development of every employee. If you don’t build a relationship with everyone, you can lose important members of your team because of one bad manager before you even recognize that there is a problem.

Today’s labor force is increasingly dominated by the millennial generation (38%). Current Gallup workplace surveys have discovered that this cohort wants a coach (not a boss) who is focused on their professional and their personal development, guides them to find a purpose in their job and helps them develop their strengths, rather than criticizes their weaknesses. Reward and recognition are more important than salary and bonus. They want you to know about their family, their hobbies, their weekend, and their vacations. Sometimes they just want to get lunch.

This kind of engagement requires leaders to have ongoing conversations rather than yearly reviews. It means that communication with employees several layers below you is imperative for you to build relationships. The most significant tool you can use to facilitate this kind of cross-level communication are “skip level meetings”. The skip level meeting encourages one on one communication between managers and employees one, two or three levels removed from their direct reports. While the idea has been around for many years (usually in the form of the boss saying, “My door is always open”), it is important that you implement these as part of your workplace culture.

The skip level meeting is designed to improve communication and the flow of information. Using thoughtful questions, you can find out how your managers are really doing, beyond what they tell you. Get feedback and insights to help your managers, and their teams, improve. Get a pulse on what’s happening on the front lines. Build trust with those lower in your organization, so they stay engaged and contributing. Learn where there is dysfunction, insufficient communication, or confusion within parts of your organization. Personally demonstrate you value everyone in your organization.

William Sciambi