Leadership is a contact sport
High performance starts at the top. The performance of a team is aligned to the personality and leadership style of it's leader. Modern management is about leadership and leaders need a real-time understanding of how they’re helping their teams to deliver their goals. Leaders need an unbiased view of the complexities within their teams: skills, competencies, weaknesses, aspirations, communication styles, productive and unproductive habits. Leadership is a contact sport: it's not ivory tower style management, telling people what to do and annual performance reviews sitting over a desk with a form once a year but real-time, everyday, on-the-job coaching conversations.
Leadership is the capacity to inspire others to maximise their efforts and deliver a goal.
From command & control to self-organising
In today's complex and competitive business world, team leaders are under pressure to deliver results. In reality, applying command & control style management only works for simple "things" not complex, multi-stranded, inter-related development. Enter the cross-skilled, self-organising team. Self-organising teams do need support, but they need leadership, not management.
Don't mistake self-organising as free-for-all. Self-discipline, openness, and ownership of consequences are strong behavioural traits within high performing teams. Performance towards agreed goals is tracked, gaps to target are exposed and filled, by the self-organising team. Self-organising is really about helping people get on delivering in the best way that they can, within the agreed parameters.
It means they are:
Empowered to work in the way that they feel works best
Collaborative, creative and open to trying new ways of working
Flexible as they may take work that is not their core competency
Focusing on value delivered
Keen to fail fast (if at all!) and learn from it, a continuous improvement mindset
Taking responsibility for their collective actions and delivery
Be their Coach and Leader
Let's come back to leadership. The performance of a team is aligned to the personality and leadership style of it's leader. As a leader, it is important to work with teams to help them understand what self-organisation really means, agree their constraints/points where they need decision support & assistance. There are some things they can decide and other things they cannot, for instance checking in with the tech architect or security experts. Here's the challenge - humans are programmed to a) seek the path of least resistance and b) look to their leaders when they are confused or uncertain. The problem is that telling people what to do, micro-management, only dumbs them down. The smart team leader needs to find the balance between getting results by "telling" - there's a time and a place for this - and coaching. Remember a coach isn't necessarily a subject matter expert, they are focused on helping the individual to unlock their own potential and find the solutions themselves. And they may come up with some surprising solutions.
Accept that teams will learn from failure
In the early days there will most probably be failures, and it’s all part of the learning curve. Guide the team initially as their confidence and ability to make decisions grows. Trust that their abilities are up to the job, if they’re not then address the skills gap, but however tempting it is don’t directly intervene and “tell” them anything. If the teams start noticing you are asking them to self-organise and acting in the opposite way, you will very quickly lose credibility and they won’t grow. Psychological safety is important. You can read more about this in our post about the Growth Mindset.
BTW, as you might expect there are sometimes teams that go through a period of elation, rather like rebellious teenagers - “you can’t tell us to do things we’re self-organising”. Typically they fail. Set the environment so that they can (safely) fail fast. Expect it and don’t intervene. It is usually a painful but valuable lesson in humility and more effective than telling them what to do in the first place!
Be the kind of leader that people want to follow
Leading high performance teams is challenging - technical expertise, whilst important is not everything - it’s often character that’s more important. As a leader, it's important to be seen to lead by example. Never be afraid to roll up your sleeves and go to work, unblocking things that your team can't. The biggest investment you can make in your people is your time. Spending quality time with your team will impact their performance directly and will have a direct impact on their productivity.
“Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing” — Tom Peters
What helps you succeed as a leader? We'd love to hear from you ...