Critical Practices for Leading a Team

When talking about leading a team, many focus on long-term intact teams. These may be organizational support teams, sales teams or service teams – regardless of mission, they are designed to stay together for a long time.  It is equally important to be able to effectively lead temporary teams – teams that are convened for a specific project or to develop a specific product or solve a specific problem.  Once a temporary team achieves a specific outcome, it is disbanded.

Defining Success for Different Types of Teams

One key practice for leading a team is knowing what type of team it is, as this will shape some of your approaches.  Here are examples of different teams:

  • A temporary team is stood up to update an organization policy or new program.
  • A specific problem is found with a product, or a service is found to be too slow compared to the competition. A problem-solving team of experts from different groups is convened to address the issue.
  • A project team is convened to develop a very specific service or product to address an emerging market need.
  • A long-term team is established to provide ongoing customer support for a new service.

A manager leading a temporary team may emphasize different criteria than one leading a permanent team.  Here are some examples.

A manager leading a temporary team may focus on:

  • Establishing short-term concrete goals, objectives and milestones; and embracing task achievement as the priority. While trust and respect are always needed for peak team performance, the long-term relationship management that is generally needed for intact teams is not as essential here.
  • Emphasizing competencies that help the team accomplish its immediate goals in an effective way.
  • Coaching team members on ways to smoothly integrate within the team, build camaraderie and to get to know each other’s skills quickly to facilitate team success.
  • Working with team members to identify the next type of team they want to be part of and what skills they want to build in this and future temporary assignments.
  • Emphasizing team start-up and disbanding activities as they initiate and end projects in a certain cadence over time.
  • Providing specific daily direction and feedback for a person’s performance review without being the person’s ongoing supervisor.

A manager leading a permanent team may focus on:

  • Establishing long-term goals with short-term delivery points that keep the team motivated.
  • Emphasizing long-term relationships and emotional safety on the team.
  • Coaching teams on learning each other’s styles and needs over time.
  • Working with team members to develop new skills within the longer-term cadence of a permanent team.
  • Engage in recruiting to balance team skills over time as attrition occurs.
  • Providing long-term supervisory support and performance feedback over time.


Ten Factors for Assessing Your Team’s Progress

As the manager of a team – temporary or intact – it is important to periodically pause and assess how it is doing.  Here are ten ways to assess your team’s success at any point in the group’s process.

  1. Strengths – What strengths do you see across team members? How does that positively support their work?
  2. Goals – What are the most important interim or final services or products the team delivered in the last quarter? Half Year? Year? How did you know those were the most important? How do these outcomes relate to the team’s overall mission?
  3. Process – Are team processes working? What is happening effectively? What is not? What improvements are needed based on this?
  4. Problems – What are the most important problems that the team has solved in the last few months? Does the team move on to new problems once it has addressed old ones? What problems continue to repeat themselves?  What do you want to do based on that?
  5. Blind Spots – It can be hard to detect blind spots when you are part of a team, so consider asking for external feedback. What performance elements does the team tend to miss or ignore? When problems occur, what kind of systemic trends do they point to?
  6. Relationships – How would you describe the team’s relationships with each other? How are these relationships helping to achieve goals? Which relationships need strengthening?
  7. Conflict – When and why does conflict occur on the team? What conflicts tend to repeat themselves? Are conflicts generally about technical tasks or relationships?  How does the team deal with conflict when it occurs?  Is that approach generally successful or are adjustments in approach needed?
  8. External Connections – Who does the team depend on outside the team? How are those connections maintained and supported? Is that working?
  9. Feedback – How regularly do you invite feedback from the team? What do you do with that feedback?  How do you give the team feedback, and what do they generally do based on it?
  10. Leadership Planning – What are you doing to develop the next generation of leaders? Who on the team is ready to lead the group next? What are you doing – or what could you be doing – to support their growth and success? What do you need to teach the team before you move on?

These ten factors are important for developing and advancing your team’s work. Pryor’s Motivating Employees Through Employee Engagement Surveys also suggests useful approaches for gathering information from employees.  A monthly review of these ideas helps you continue to develop the team’s work in a systematic and ongoing way.

Establishing Your Team Leadership Cadence

Each leader needs to know his or her own style, and the style most needed by the team – whether it be permanent or temporary.  Here are some different models of leadership that can be a good fit for teams – or a mismatch depending on the team’s composition and history.

  • Formal leadership. Formal leadership is when you serve as the designated person in charge of the group, as the project manager, a supervisor or other formal leader. Effective formal team leaders know when clear direction is needed, when they should let go and let the team perform, and when they should gently facilitate the team toward a collaborative group outcome.
  • Emergent leadership. Self-directed work teams are popular in many workplaces. In this case, you may loosely oversee or sponsor a team, but beyond that, the team self-organizes and figures it out. In these cases, a natural team leader may emerge, or a different leader may take over for different project components.
  • Floating or agile leadership. Floating or agile leadership is when different team members take on the primary leadership role, depending on the activity or phase of the work. One person may lead during project meetings to keep people on task. Another person may lead and give feedback on the technical aspects of the work. One person may head up communications, and another may manage project tracking and budget management.  The key here is role clarity – so people know who is in charge of what.  In fact, the formal leader in this setting may do just that – she defines and monitors who is leading what – and then gets out of the way!

Pryor’s library of Management and Leadership Training provides good insights about leveraging different leadership styles with different types of teams. Your style of leadership may be shaped by your role in the organization, and whether you are leading one permanent team as a supervisor or leading multiple temporary teams as a functional lead.  Learning your own preferences over time lets you shape a team-leading approach that supports your own career development.

Five Tips for Building External Awareness on Your Team

Many teams become preoccupied with their own work and forget about the shifting needs of its customers or audiences. Teams can also forget to access the possible insights and synergies that can be gained from other teams in the organization.  This leads to the risk that the team’s product or service doesn’t actually meet practical needs – or that the team gets lost in the larger bureaucracy and loses support.

Here are five ways to build external awareness on your team:

  1. Actively prepare overview briefings and talking points about the team’s work. Build in time for the team to develop overviews about its work. Be sure that everyone on the team can briefly describe the team’s project or service and why it matters to who. These summaries should capture both the technical uniqueness of the team’s work and the overarching goal and reason for being.
  2. Schedule time to talk about the external environment. Specifically talk about the potential impact of the team’s work on stakeholders, or external events or activities that may impact it. Consider who else should know about the team’s work, or other teams that may have useful advice.  Stakeholder management and building coalitions are important competencies that support the team’s success.
  3. Invite in guest speakers. Consider organizing a group session with another team doing similar or even competing work, or a guest speaker that represents the voice of the customer. Invite in a senior leader to provide a broader perspective about how the team fits into the larger organization or market. After these visits, take the time to process the experience with your team.
  4. Use a team “scout.” There is usually at least one extraverted team member who enjoys connecting with external people to bring up information that can benefit the team’s work.  This person needs to be someone who asks good questions, recognizes how the team’s work fits in within the larger landscape and recognizes the right information to bring back at the right time.
  5. Celebrate success and key milestones externally. Building external awareness by celebrating team success with external stakeholders – this can be done through regular status updates and alerting key people to important delivery points. This maintains support over time, and helps the team continue to evolve its talking points as the work unfolds.

These externally focused activities build both individual and team skills and competencies in political savviness and communications. They also result in tangible outcomes with practical benefits – an advantage for any type of team!