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Agile Development: Article

Team Leadership 101 – Best Practices for Building Better Teams

Building a high performance team is a lot of work, especially for the team leader

From developing a vision to staying focused on short- and long-term goals, from talking about the tough stuff to having fun whenever possible, these eight traits help project leaders build high-performance teams. Which ones do you already do well, and which ones might you work on?

Building a high performance team is a lot of work, especially for the team leader. But as one manager said, it's a lot more work to not build a high performance team. Some leaders consistently demonstrate the traits necessary to make their teams into high performance teams. They can be taken out of one team, dropped into another and within 18 months, they'll have made the second team into a high performance team. Whether their old team stays high performance or not will depend upon the leadership traits of the new team leader.

Develop a Vision

More than anything, team leaders of high performance teams are visionary leaders. They don't start by looking at where their team is; they start by looking at where they want their team to be. Based on that, they work their way backwards, to figure out how to get there.

A vision is a picture of where you want to get to; not the path to get there. It's what the team will look like, when it's arrived. But just having a vision isn't enough; the team leader must become infectious with that vision, getting their team to buy into it and make it their own. The vision may start with the leader, but it doesn't end there. That vision becomes the team's vision, not just the leaders.

Simple slogans are the best way to communicate visions - something short that encapsulates the vision and gives the team something to buy into. One of the best was created by Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines. His vision, and the slogan that went with it, became the yardstick by which every decision in his corporation was made. Everyone from the boardroom to the back room understood that slogan and bought into the vision that it contained. Kelleher's slogan was, "We are THE low-fare airline." You don't even have to be in the airline business to understand that; all you have to do is read it. New employees could have as much understanding of corporate culture and philosophy as the most experienced manager, just by understanding that simple phrase. It captured the vision which Kelleher had for Southwest Airlines, making it something that everyone could buy into.

While not every vision is shared so eloquently, every leader should strive to do so. The clearer and more simply the vision is stated, the easier it is for team members to buy into it.

Be Genuine

High performance team leaders don't live in an ivory tower, separated from their loyal subjects. They are part of the team and know when to open up and lower their guard with team members. They aren't trying to project an image that they're perfect, but are willing to show their own vulnerabilities, especially if it can help out another team member. This actually helps them gain the respect of their team, much more so than trying to appear perfect.

This requires confidence in yourself and being able to laugh at your own mistakes. People who have to appear perfect often feel that way because they lack self-confidence. Yet, being willing to open up and be vulnerable can do more to make a team come together than standing aloof.

Talk About the Hard Things

Every team has difficulties; the question isn't whether or not they'll crop up, but how you deal with them. Team leaders of high-performance teams recognize those difficulties and the problems behind them. They are willing to talk about the tough stuff, even though it's uncomfortable to do so. Their goal is always to work through the problem, gaining victory for the team.

Some leaders try and avoid conflict. All this does is to make the problem fester, like an infection. That infection will eventually cause the team to become "sick" and dysfunctional. While nobody enjoys the conflict, going through it is necessary.

One of the difficult things that these leaders have to do is to confront non-performing team members. There are many reasons why a team member might not be performing up to expectations, and it's the leader's responsibility to find out the reason and do whatever is necessary to fix it. Sometimes that means finding the team member another team where they might fit in better.

A non-performing team member can sabotage the efforts of the entire team if they aren't dealt with. They may be the type of person who causes division or who has to be in the limelight, or even one who rejects any leadership. Regardless of their problem, if it's not dealt with, it's like a plague eating away at the team.

Know How to Listen

Communication is a two-way street. Many leaders speak first, then, if there's time, they'll listen. Not so for team leaders of high performance teams. They know how to listen and generally listen to their team members before speaking. Remember, leadership in a high performance team is a collaborative effort. These leaders don't see themselves as "the boss" who everyone is there to serve. They see themselves as facilitators, allowing their team to take its own direction.

An important part of this is listening. Everyone wants the opportunity to be heard, even the lowest person on the totem pole. When these team leaders listen, they make the team members feel more important, that their contributions are critical to the team.

Sometimes it's not enough just to listen; the team leader has to get others to listen as well. A positive environment can't happen if team members are being negative towards one another. It's the team leader's place to put an end to this as soon as it starts. Maybe the idea that a junior team member is putting forth won't work and won't be acted upon, but they should be encouraged to express it nevertheless.

Ask Good Questions

Questions are a valuable tool. The right sort of questions can lead somebody to look in directions they never intended, to find the answers they so desperately need. Besides using questions to direct people, these team leaders use questions to keep themselves abreast of what is happening in their team.

It has been said that we have been given two ears and only one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk. Listening is an art form, and asking questions is a tool to active listening. Yet, asking a question, without listening to the answer, is one of the fastest ways of showing a team that you don't care about them. Good questions have to be followed up by attentive listening.

Are Dependable

Good leaders have to be dependable. If the team is going to learn to depend upon one another, it has to start with learning that they can depend upon their leader. That means that the leader must carry through on whatever they say. If it proves impossible to complete what they have said, they must explain why, or they will lose their credibility in the eyes of their team.

People will do much more for a leader that they trust. In the military, one of the highest compliments an officer can receive, especially from an experienced sergeant, is "I'd be willing to follow you into battle." Whether we see it or not, our team's activities are a form of battle. We need our team members willing to follow us into that battle and win. That means that they have to trust us, which can only happen when we prove ourselves dependable.

Being dependable also means speaking clearly to team members. Most people can see right through a lot of the lies and misinformation that management passes out. While they may not be able to see what the truth is, they'll know the false when they see it. Being honest with the team is another form of dependability. It shows them that they can trust what you say and you'll stand behind it.

Know How to Have a Good Time

Everyone likes to have a good time. That's a necessary part of team building. Leading a high performance team means leading them in having a good time together as well. However, they never do so at the expense of another person, especially another team member. Sarcasm and other cutting comments have no place in team fun, because they always hurt somebody.

Having fun doesn't have to come at the expense of the team's goals. Many work activities can be made fun, if we want to do so. A lot of that has to do with how we approach those activities. If we approach them as something that we're going to do together as a team, we set the tone for making them fun.

Are Goal Oriented

Goals are the compass that directs the team. Regardless of what team activities are being undertaken, a high performance team leader will always keep them goal oriented. It may be the team's ultimate goal or it may be an intermediate goal that will help the team reach that ultimate goal. It's still a goal and the team leader will keep it in focus. They'll also ensure that their team can keep it in focus as well.

This doesn't mean that the leader has tunnel vision. Team-building activities may seem to some like a waste of time. However, those team-building activities are necessary to forge the team into a high performance team. Therefore, including them in the team's work schedule is helping the team reach its goals.

The above is an excerpt from Michael's all-time bestseller

Leadership effective teams michael

Leadership: Building Highly Effective Teams How to Transform Teams into Exceptionally Cohesive Professional Networks - a practical guide

Find also on Audible

More Stories By Michael Nir

Michael Nir - President of Sapir Consulting - (M.Sc. Engineering) has been providing operational, organizational and management consulting and training for over 15 years. He is passionate about Gestalt theory and practice, which complements his engineering background and contributes to his understanding of individual and team dynamics in business. Michael authored 8 Bestsellers in the fields of Influencing, Agile, Teams, Leadership and others. Michael's experience includes significant expertise in the telecoms, hi-tech, software development, R&D environments and petrochemical & infrastructure industries. He develops creative and innovative solutions in project and product management, process improvement, leadership, and team building programs. Michael's professional background is analytical and technical; however, he has a keen interest in human interactions and behaviors. He holds two engineering degrees from the prestigious Technion Institute of Technology: a Bachelor of civil engineering and Masters of Industrial engineering. He has balanced his technical side with the extensive study and practice of Gestalt Therapy and "Instrumental Enrichment," a philosophy of mediated learning. In his consulting and training engagements, Michael combines both the analytical and technical world with his focus on people, delivering unique and meaningful solutions, and addressing whole systems.