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The definitive guide to leading a team

a woman with long hair is leading a team with four members

Leadership is one of the most complicated human endeavors, both at work and beyond.

There are entire sections of bookstores about leadership, more keynote speakers on the topic than you could possibly count, and roughly a half a million different programs purporting to help you with the crucial work of leading a team.

What do you actually need to know to be a team leader, though? What makes a great leader, and what makes great leadership? It's a complicated equation with many answers and possibilities, but we will try to walk through some of it here.

It is important, again, to understand how many different inputs there are to leadership -- there's at least (at least!) 23 different ways to conceptualize the work of leading a team. We tend to deify great leaders, which is logical and often good, but we can get confused about what exactly "leadership" is -- it's not really a destination, but just another step on a journey.

When people look at leadership and think of it as a destination, they tend to become ego-driven leaders, which doesn't help very much at all with leading a team. In fact, that style of leadership usually just alienates workers and drives up turnover.

We're seeing some of that right now with "The Great Resignation" and staffing shortages in multiple industries. It's not necessarily that everyone decided to get a new job at once. Rather, people were tired of ineffective leadership and being treated poorly by those in leadership roles, and they wanted more from their professional career. COVID helped open some eyes to what really matters, and being mistreated by poor leaders in the name of a paycheck isn't always what matters.

All this said, if you're a first-time leader or a veteran leader, what should you know about leading a team successfully?

Some of the biggest tenets of leadership and leading a team

Typically the biggest aspect a leader needs to focus on is communication. Without communication, it's impossible to build any type of team, from an effective team (hits most of their goals) to a high performing team (hits virtually all their goals).

Communication skills are absolutely crucial to team effectiveness. So what exactly are "communication skills?" This varies by the team you have, but it means being clear, being concise, setting deadlines, setting priorities, and communicating with each team member in the way they prefer to receive communications.

Some employees will be very driven by in-person, 1-on-1 conversations; some employees may prefer an email. Each of the group members will want something different in terms of communication, and the effective leader knows how to communicate differently with each team member because they know their people.

Beyond communication, what else will a good leader focus on? A few examples:

  • Model the behavior you want to see: If you are the type of leader who wants to see team performance at all hours, i.e. a hustle and grind type of culture, then you need to model the same behavior in yourself. We don't necessarily recommend this leadership style because it typically leads to burnout, but the point is that if you want your team to focus on certain areas or behave certain ways, you need to do the same yourself. A team will mirror the leader.
  • Consistent, in-time feedback: The best type of leader gives feedback consistently. This is crucial for both individual and team development. There are a million different theories on feedback out in the wide world, but in general the feedback needs to occur near the action, so that an employee can understand the connection between the behavior and the feedback. This is why performance reviews make little sense; who wants to hear about something that happened seven months ago? John Wooden, one of the most successful basketball coaches of all-time, had a specific theory on feedback that you needed to show people exactly what you wanted from them. It's similar to the modeling discussed above.
  • Care: This is sometimes the hardest for the team leader, because they're so busy with their own tasks and responsibilities. But you need to care about your team in order to be a good leader. One way you can care is by investing in their professional development. Too many in leadership roles don't advocate for their people and don't help them gain the next level of skills they will need to advance in their role or into another role. This is a poor approach to being a team leader and does a disservice to the team, because it's impossible to build a leadership bench in this way.
  • Understand your own strengths and weaknesses and continually try to grow: As we noted above, leadership is not a destination, but a journey. When you first become a team leader, you won't know everything -- and the 10th time you become a team leader, you still won't know everything. Just realize that it's a consistent learning experience for your team, but also for you.

A few notes on leadership style within the team leader

Broadly speaking, there are 11 different types of leadership style:

  • Autocratic
  • Democratic
  • Bureaucratic
  • Transactional
  • Transformative
  • Laissez-faire
  • Charismatic
  • Servant
  • Coach-style
  • Strategic
  • Situational

You can learn more about each specific style at the link above. However, the most important thing to remember is that there is no one-size-fits-all leadership style for a given team leader. Instead, most leaders are a mix of different styles across different situations. In other words, there isn't necessarily one leadership style that's the default gold standard. A style that works great in a certain work environment might not be nearly as beneficial with an entirely different team.

It's best to focus on the individual strengths of your group members instead of worrying too much about leadership style, but if you are interested about learning which leadership style you most align with, Fingerprint does have an assessment for that.

The leader must focus on priorities for the team

If you do a thought exercise around the purpose of leadership, and why some get paid more money to be the team leader, well, why is that? Ideally it's because someone needs to take the strategy of the organization and break that into work chunks to that employees know what to focus on. Someone needs to be able to set priorities. The leader needs to focus there.

Unfortunately, we know from research that only about 8% of leaders can truthfully and tactfully align strategy and execution. That's a tremendously low percentage, but it makes sense if you think about it: strategy can pivot often, and when it pivots, the work needs to be re-prioritized, but there's existing work and processes that also need to be managed. It's a very hard situation for some leaders, and part of what makes leadership so challenging.

You can work on this in part, and be a more effective leader in the process, by checking in frequently with your team. This means asking them about blockers, issues, wins, losses, and what tools and help they need to be successful.

The role of gratitude for the successful leader

Gratitude is an important aspect of work. You spend a lot of time at work. Gratitude underscores the entire human experience. So wouldn't you want to work at a place that realizes the power of gratitude? Most people spend about 55 hours/week or so interacting with work. Who wants to do that in a place sans gratitude?

As a result, a team leader needs to show gratitude to their people. This means checking in on their lives. It means asking how things are going, and how they can help. It means moving roadblocks out of the way. It does periodically mean gift cards, days off, and more. It means creating an environment where the employee has certainty and autonomy about their work; they know they probably won't get fired the next day, and they have a chance to work on things in the way they want, so long as the goals are met. This is what good leadership looks like in the context of gratitude. That's how managers and leaders need to think about leading team meetings and activities too -- always reserve space for compliments and gratitude.

What leadership skills matter the most to leading a team?

Consider this post, entitled "Effective teams and managers: What Google has learned." Now pay attention to this section:

We were getting some signals that managers on the whole were not performing or at least not providing the experience to the people on their teams you would want to have when you come to work. We did research on what differentiates the best managers from the not-so-great managers and came up with eight attributes of success - everything ranging from having consideration for people as people to providing coaching and career development advice. We codified that set of eight, and we give every Google employee the chance to rate their manager on those eight attributes, and we provide them with the feedback. That is an example of a set of eight rules that is empirically based. We know it drives good outcomes, and if you can prove that a set of rules is leading to better outcomes, people will listen to that. It just needs to be based on data and evidence.

If you look for those eight crucial leadership skills, you come to this list: Be a good coach

  • Empower your team and don't micro-manage
  • Express interest in your team's success and personal well-being
  • Be productive and results-oriented
  • Be a good communicator and listen to your team
  • Help your employees with career development
  • Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  • Have key technical skills where you can help advise this team

Those things would all realistically make a very strong leader.

Some other things that the most effective leaders do:

Define priorities: Most companies (even those that make tons of $$$) are bad at this. What are the priorities of the company? Usually the answer is "X-percent growth." OK. So that's the priority. Now we need ..

Some action steps: What are the plans/operational elements that will get us to the priority? And then we need ..

Task alignment: What are people and teams supposed to be working on towards this goal?

Systems for shifting this: When goals, priorities, strategies, or tasks change ... how is that getting communicated?

It can be argued that, for the sake of more effective leadership, senior leaders would not be individual contributors. Instead, they would focus on the high-level stuff described above. (While seeking input from others.) Middle managers and front-line guys/girls would focus on the people and developing them. A lot of the boxes and reporting that middle/front-line guys used to be has been replaced or automated with technology and software suites. And yet, a lot of managers still spend hours and hours on those types of things - essentially box-checking that Oracle could do for them. What if those managers focused on people and aligning people's skill sets to big-picture priorities? What a wonderful time to be alive!

Leadership also involves some degree of self-reflection

Per Northwestern University:

Anybody in a managerial position has two basic responsibilities: prioritize what must be done, and allocate resources to get those things done efficiently. "But how can you possibly prioritize or allocate if you haven't figured out what really matters?" Kraemer asks.
Self-reflection allows us to understand what is important, and focus on what might be done differently.

This means that those in leadership roles need to be checking in on themselves -- both their physical and mental health, of course, but also how they're doing and what their team is feeling. If you just barge ahead on tasks, you're not serving as a good leader. Check in with yourself and your team. Know where things truly stand. That's a crucial element of team leadership.

How Fingerprint can help those leading a team

One of our strongest use cases is team performance, as well as resolving conflict and communicating better. Those are all essential aspects of leading a team and leadership in general, so we invite you to give them a try!

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