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What it means to be a great team leader and how to become one
A great team leader can be the difference between a high-performing team, and an ineffective one. This article will review the roles and qualities of a good team leader, and provide tips on how to become one.
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Imagine a team where the leader encourages each person to do their best work, helps them develop professionally, provides clarity amid changing priorities, and trusts them to fulfill job responsibilities.
Now imagine a team where the leader belittles people, micromanages their work, withholds information, and pits them against each other.
Which do you think is more likely to be a high-performing team?
A team leader’s ability to motivate, inspire, guide, and coach their teams can impact everything from employee engagement and development to retention and productivity. What’s more, research shows that a team leader has the most direct and significant impact on the experience of the people on the team. That means having the right skills and behaviors in leadership roles can determine how quickly team members develop new skills, whether they feel included and supported, and how creative or innovative the team’s solutions are.
Investing in leadership development can help teams—and organizations—really shine.
A team leader’s day-to-day responsibilities often vary widely by role, but there are many things the best leaders have in common. Great team leaders:
- Manage the work. The best leaders manage their team’s work. They plan, organize, delegate, arrange resources, and ensure the completion of the team’s responsibilities. The team looks to the leader for clarity on what to do and what matters most. They should be able to look across their team and anticipate what will be needed in order to achieve the team’s goals. For example, when a deadline changes, the team leader needs to consider what work might need to be paused and whether team members need to reprioritize how they are spending their time.
- Coach their people. The team leader acts as a coach and advisor, helping team members understand how they’re performing, giving feedback on how they could be more effective, and sitting side-by-side with them to demonstrate skills like problem-solving, listening, collaboration, or specific hard skills “in the flow of work.” They may suggest a certification program for a team member who needs to master a skill or connect them to a colleague across the company who has that expertise. Through their actions every day, team leaders model behaviors and skills for their team members. For example, some companies want employees to be more open-minded or empathetic. The team leader shows the way.
- Communicate information. Team leaders are expected to communicate openly and effectively with their team. They need to share updates, disseminate information, and explain goals and expectations. In fact, many companies rely on managers to convey important news and updates with their teams as a regular expectation of the role.
- Act as change agents. Organizations are ever-changing, and this can pose a number of challenges. Because of their impact on the team, it is incumbent on the team leader to act as a change agent: becoming a champion for change and helping associates see how those changes will benefit them. For example, when organizations are restructured, the group leader can help the team by talking about how new roles and responsibilities will help them grow.
- Inspire their teams. The best leaders help move their teams forward by helping them understand the big picture of what they’re working toward, and why. When a team leader talks about how she finds meaning in the work, it helps team members discover their own meaning in the work. An inspirational leader can help build the team’s resilience, raise the team’s energy, motivate them to do their best work, and keep them focused on the future.
While leaders come in many shapes and sizes, there are some key qualities that they all possess. Great team leaders have:
- Functional and technical expertise. A foundational quality of a good team leader is that they possess the functional and technical expertise for which the team is responsible. The team leader’s ability to coach and advise their team comes from their own skills and experience in relevant areas.
- Emotional intelligence. Not surprisingly, having functional expertise isn’t enough; great team leaders must have emotional intelligence to build healthy working relationships. Daniel Goleman describes emotional intelligence as the ability to understand and manage one's own emotions as well as recognize and influence others’ emotions. In order to do so, one must have self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Team leaders who are emotionally intelligent better manage stress, engage their team members, and optimize their team’s performance.
- Relationship-building skills. Team leaders have to build relationships within their teams, with other team leaders, and across the organization. Ensuring that these relationships are strong enables the team to be successful and helps to build trust and intimacy.
- The ability to give feedback. Great team leaders must be able to give feedback on things that team members do well, and in areas in which team members can improve. They lean into these potentially uncomfortable situations because they know that giving feedback to the team is a gift that will enable them to be more successful.
- A passion for recognizing others. Great team leaders don’t take credit for others’ work. In fact, they celebrate others’ accomplishments and make sure team members get the recognition they deserve. The best team leaders strive to understand how each team member wants to be recognized in order to meet the needs of their team.
- Influence. In order to operate most effectively, great leaders must be able to influence others. This applies when they are motivating their own team to do great work or influencing other teams to contribute in particular ways. Leaders often cannot require certain behaviors but must find ways to influence others to collaborate.
- A growth mindset. People with growth mindsets believe that intelligence, skills, and abilities can be developed; they tend to enjoy challenges and strive to continually learn. Team leaders who exhibit growth mindset help their team members welcome challenges and setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow. They help their teams feel comfortable taking risks and encourage them to make the effort to improve.
- Self-awareness. The best leaders possess two kinds of self-awareness: internal and external. Internal self-awareness enables them to understand their own strengths and opportunities. External self-awareness is their ability to understand the impact they have on others and how they are perceived. Self-awareness gives leaders a clearer picture of where they need help, how they should rely on the team, and where they should aim for improvement.
- Curiosity. Great team leaders are curious and listen to others. Rather than assuming they know all of the answers, they ask questions and strive to learn. Without curiosity and the ongoing desire to learn, leaders stop growing and can become stagnant.
- Strong ethics and an inclusive approach. How one leads matters, and team members look to the example that the team leader sets. For these reasons, it’s critically important that the team leader act in accordance with a strong set of ethics, upholding the company’s values and holding themselves and others to a high standard. In addition, group leaders need to recognize and celebrate differences among team members and ensure that team members can bring their authentic selves to work.
All leaders have the opportunity to grow and become even more effective. Below are 6 tips to become a great team leader:
- Learn to lead yourself first. The best leaders lead themselves before they lead others. What does this look like? Make sure you truly understand your strengths and opportunities and know how you are perceived by others. Take steps to consider what motivates you and the type of impact you’d like to have on others. Increasing your self-awareness in these ways can be a lifelong journey that helps you lead others most effectively.
- Seek feedback: up, down, and across. Great team leaders not only share feedback with their teams; they also ask for and receive feedback from many sources. They strive to understand how they are impacting others. To maximize feedback, leaders should share where they are working to improve and then invite others to let them know when they’re doing things that hurt or help.
- Be open to new ideas. Leaders play an important role in encouraging their team to share their thoughts and opinions. Remaining open to new ideas encourages innovation, rather than allowing teams to get stuck in old patterns of behavior.
- Push yourself outside of your comfort zone. When we’re too comfortable, we’re not learning. When leaders push themselves to take risks, they are setting a positive example for their team and giving them permission to do the same. If you fail, don’t be afraid to say so. Share what you’ve learned from your failures, and that you won’t let them stop you from trying new things in the future.
- Pay attention to team dynamics. It can be easy to get caught up in daily tasks, but group leaders need to take a step back to check in on team dynamics. Ask yourself: how is the team operating? Where are things working well and where does the team feel especially challenged? How are the individuals on my team, and how healthy are the relationships among them? Take the time to build stronger relationships, and manage emerging conflicts before they grow into larger issues.
- Measure the performance of your team along several dimensions. High-performing teams get better results, and they do so by tuning into their process and relationships. It isn’t enough to measure what the team accomplishes. Team leaders also need to consider how the work gets done and what the relationships are like on the team. Team leaders that expect great results at the expense of process and relationships make it difficult for their teams to continue to be successful together over time. Paying attention to results, process, and relationships holistically helps to ensure the team’s long-term success.
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So much of our work is done on teams, and that is only going to increase. As companies try to be agile in the face of uncertainty and rapid change, the role of the team leader is more important than ever. In order to lead their teams well, leaders must try to grow continuously and help their team members do the same. As you think about your own development, consider how you fulfil your various team leader responsibilities and where there are opportunities for you to become more effective. The best leaders continue to learn and grow over time.