Key Principles of Team Leadership

John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans

I’ve learned a few things over the years mentoring teams at companies big and small, speaking at conferences around the globe, running a small company, fathering 5 kids, and leading a local non-profit org.

Here are a few of these principles.

Listen before leading

Listening is the great enabler of leadership. It fosters answering the right question, giving proper feedback, empathizing with those you lead, and so much more.

I’m a designer by trade. Design is fundamentally all about problem solving. Leadership is essentially the same thing, and it’s impossible to solve a problem without first defining it. Listening allows for definition, comprehension, and understanding. Pause to listen before leading.

Enable cross-mentorship

I’d be a fool to assume I have all the answers or that I alone could impart all the mentoring my teams need. Team members can be incredibly powerful mentors for each other. Sometimes their knowledge and experience resonates more profoundly among peers than the same coming from you as their leader.

One of the best decisions I’ve ever made in regards to cross-mentorship was way back in 2002-ish when I was leading a team of 10 designers at a dotcom startup. We established the practice of setting aside an hour every Friday morning to have one team member present something they were learning. Everyone was in the rotation schedule and each presenter chose their topic.

In one of these meetings, Blake Scarbrough presented this crazy thing called “CSS” that he had heard about at a recent conference. His instruction eventually led to our entire organization adopting CSS layouts well before the rest of the industry, and I credit that Friday morning as the incubator for eventually co-authoring a best-selling book on CSS.

Be judiciously transparent

Transparency is fantastic. Few things engender trust in your leadership better than honesty and openness. However, there are times to be transparent and times to share only what’s needed. This applies to so many scenarios: conveying opinions from management, sharing feedback about completed work, and even (especially) when mentoring team members in one-on-ones. The list goes on.

Generally speaking, I’ve found it helpful to error on the side of saying too little. It’s usually easier to share additional info when needed, but it’s incredibly difficult to retreat or repair when too much has been said. The one exception to this rule is at the onset of a hire, the beginning of a project, or the implementation of new processes. These are times to err on the side of transparency and over-preparation rather than withholding important information.

Align with company vision

In nearly all cases, your allegiance to the organization outranks your loyalty to the team. Occasionally companies have teams that are designed to operate as rogue installments with nearly complete autonomy. Where this is authorized, it can be tremendously beneficial to exploring new opportunities and shaking up the company in a positive way.

However, when teams—or rather team leaders—take it upon themselves to operate as sovereign divisions, rarely are the results healthy. Unless you’re the CEO, you’ll report to a leader above you, and this individual should be able to trust that you place the company’s well-being above that of your team members. Further, great leaders recognize that teams who align their vision with overall company vision generally produce quality, output, and employee happiness that can’t be matched by individualistic autonomy.

As a leader, if you can’t align with your company vision or its well-being for that matter, maybe it’s time to move on. On the other hand, if you struggle to align because the vision is unclear or hasn’t been communicated thoroughly, it’s your privilege and responsibility to help correct this up, down, and across the organization.

Become an expert manager, too

Let’s be honest: there’s a big part of leadership that isn’t fun, and that’s largely the management stuff. Slogging through paperwork. Prepping adequately prior to firing. Submitting timely reports. Email. (Sigh, email.)

Management and leadership are not necessarily the same. One is administrative, the other is instructive. Both are imperative to leading great teams. You owe it to team members to be organized, timely, and thorough in your managerial responsibilities.

Diversify through small decisions, not just big ones

Instilling diversity in the fabric of an organization is challenging, especially if the organization is far from diverse. But it’s a mistake to assume sweeping changes are the only way to create a richly diverse organization.

After all, diversity isn’t just about making diverse hires. That’s a great start. But it’s also about everything that happens after the hire. How are members of underrpresented communities treated within the organization after they’re hired? This is where small decisions hit their stride. Bend over backwards to do the little things — in addition to the big things — that will not only welcome diversity within your team but also promote it cross-functionally within the organization. The shortest phrases, the smallest decisions, the most subtle tone all result in significant changes over time. (Listen to episode 1, episode 5, and episode 7 from this season of Hired.fm for additional thoughts about diversity.)