This post is aimed principally at those who have been appointed to their first management role. Maybe a sales team leader, maybe a leader of a customer success team. But having said that, I think there are plenty of manager who’ve been managing teams for years, but still haven’t grasped how to become a leader rather than a manager.
Are you thinking, “Yay, I get to tell people what to do instead of being told all the time. And boy, they’ll sure do it, ‘cos I’m not taking any nonsense. I’ve been the best at doing the work (which is why I got promoted) and hence I’ll be smart about telling them how to do it better. Besides I’m a really nice person and they’ll soon realise what a great manager I am. Right?”
My first management role was in France. When I saw faces collapse at some of the inane things I said, I cringe at the memory. Luckily I just blamed my poor French and started again.
Below are some of the things I’ve learned in the intervening 25 years.
Humans are strange old things. You can tell them what to do, and some of them will do it, up to a point. But if they actually want to do it, and moreover, understand WHY they’re doing it, they tend to do it better and faster. But you can go further than that. If they not only understand why they’re doing it, but BELIEVE in why, then you’re getting onto a different level. Finally if they believe in why, and also believe that you are there to support, encourage and coach them, boy, they’ll pretty soon think of you as their LEADER and performance will soar.
When people consider you their leader, they are likely to follow what you say, and perform their best. If you give them big challenges, they will try to meet them. There’s good evidence that the bigger the challenge, the more people will strive to achieve it. They feel emotionally committed to the cause, and to their leader. It’s like being part of a family.
This enables your team to produce more output, higher quality, more creativity and get to that place that really high performance teams reach. Think of the crack SAS teams you see in the movies, or the top football teams. And your boss starts to see you as a leader destined for higher office!
So when appointed “managers”, how do we get to that place where we’re “leaders”.
Here’s the thing. You can be appointed as a manager by someone else, but leadership must be earned. You can’t be appointed leader. Ask any football manager. Again, leadership must be earned.
“OK”, I hear you muse. “So should I read some books on leadership? Study Churchill? Get a meeting with Alex Ferguson? What’s the way to become more “leaderish”?”
No, you don’t need to do this. You just need to engage, support and coach your team members.
Firstly, you need to engage your team.
That means explaining the WHY of your team’s work. What do I mean by the WHY? I mean the purpose, why you exist. Usually you will know what your team does, and often times you’ll know how your team does it. That’s why you are the manager, right. But to be the leader, you have to understand and communicate, WHY your team does what it does. And moreover, translate this into clear, simple and inspirational language that your team can easily grasp and remember. Here’s a great Ted Talk from Simon Sinek that explains WHY.
In one company I led, I asked each of the heads of department to sit with their teams and create inspirational WHY statements that aligned to the overall company WHY statement. They produced them collaboratively, and we made them into signs that hung permanently above their desks in the open office plan. It was clear to all what was the core purpose of the Customer Success Team, the Telesales Team and the IT Support Team - but more importantly, it was their own, self created purpose.
This is not always easy, but is worth the pain. If there is no company WHY statement that you can align to, don’t worry, make one up for the purpose of your team defining theirs. (good ideas can flow upwards you know).
But engagement won’t simply follow with understanding why. That’s necessary but not sufficient. The next thing is to come up with a goal - sometimes called a vision - of how your team could perform in such a way as to deliver the purpose near perfectly. That vision serves as your North Star. Something that you are heading towards, something consistent people can understand as a long term goal.
A long term goal is great to have, but often still doesn’t fully engage people. Why not? Well don’t forget that your team members are a level junior to you, have less ability to control things and may see the vision as something laudable, but not really practical or engaging TODAY. They’re thinking, “It’s far away in the future, I’ve not much chance to influence it, and I probably won’t be here when it happens anyway. Good luck, but I’ll just keep plodding along and googling ‘how to be happier at work’ ”.
The really good leader breaks down the vision into smaller steps, nearer term mini-goals that are achievable. Given the pace of change and requirement to be more agile, many companies are now using 3 month goals across the board. But for a junior team even shorter term goals, like monthly, might be appropriate. Google uses such a method which it calls OKRs - short for Objectives and Key Results. If you’ve an hour twenty spare, here’s a great explanation of how OKRs work.
Reaction: “OK so these ARE things I can influence, and have an impact on. Hmmm, despite myself, that’s interesting, and worth doing. And if you give me some measurable targets around the mini-goals, I can see I’m making real progress here. I didn’t sign up to that target, but at least I’m starting to be engaged now!”
But the great leader goes one step further in engagement. The team now understand the purpose and vision. Usually they have good knowledge of the work,, and will probably be pretty good at coming up with the mini goals themselves to move closer to the vision. And if you ask them to do that, they’ll likely have a lot more commitment to those goals - including any targets they suggest. Who likes to suggest a target and then miss it! “Hey, now that’s satisfying, and even FUN”. If you've got 24 minutes spare, listen to how some of these principles helped David Marquet turn around a failing US submarine team.
So the true leader gets to a point with his team where everyone understands the purpose of the team, the vision that the leader has for performance in the future, and has participated in coming up with steps to bring that vision to reality. Houston - we have ENGAGEMENT.
OK so we’ve got engagement and are off and running with the mini-goals. That’s only the start of the leader’s job. Inevitably there are problems, hiccups, mistakes, changes, opportunities along the route. The uninitiated manager sits back, happy in the knowledge that orders have been given, and work is proceeding according to plan, and should be delivered, oh, anytime soon.
The leader, on the contrary, is regularly checking in with each member of his team, providing encouragement and support. Yes folks, that’s right, teams don’t support their leaders by doing better work, leaders support their team members to do the work better. In a strong leader, that support will include fighting on their behalf to remove issues, blocks, distractions. It will include having respect for their time - not using it up without due regard. It will include defending them in front of your boss (even when they have been mediocre), and giving public credit to team members wherever possible. As the saying goes, there’s no i in team.
In teams that work together for extended periods, there’s a further thing that leaders take care of. The best leaders show almost pastoral care of their team members. They are concerned with how they develop, what their ambitions are, how they are feeling about the company, life and the universe in general. Great leaders are coaches who strive to develop people to be the best they can at whatever they choose to do. They know that people grow, change, have ambitions, fears, insecurities, personal lives, and all this needs to be understood and taken on board. By talking regularly to their team members not only about the work but also about their life, they build trust and empathy with their team members. They make it part of their role to spot strengths and figure out how they can best be used. They find ways to explain and coach whatever weaknesses might be inhibiting progress. And they are smart enough to know that their view is not the only one that counts, as different colleagues will have different - and equally valuable - inputs to give. Leaders will set time aside regularly, usually at completion of a mini-goal, to have 1:1 check ins. And if there is feedback to give, they give it as soon as possible after the event that triggers it. Read about Alex Ferguson's coaching principles. They ensure that their team members are stretched, developed, motivated, encouraged and rewarded.
In conclusion, managers who take the time to engage, support and coach their team members in the way described above, will rapidly find themselves moving into the category of leaders in the minds of their team members. The impact will be higher output from their team, and much more enjoyable working environment for all.