The Startup Coach
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The Startup Coach

Leader Attitudes and Behaviors That Promote Effective Teamwork

Belief in the efficacy of teamwork. For a team to be effective the leader has to genuinely believe that the synergy of teamwork is powerful and real — that there’s going to be leverage gained, and better quality decisions made, as a result of getting the team to work together on problems and challenges in a unified, collaborative way. This means trusting that by putting together a powerful team of smart people with deep domain expertise and helping them work together more effectively, you can get more good decisions, stronger commitment and productive output than any individual can accomplish alone. Outstanding leaders have recognized that they need the support and input of other people, so they surround themselves with competent team members whom they work through and utilize effectively.

For tech entrepreneurs, many of whom are introverted loners accustomed to doing things on their own, this will require a huge attitude shift. They trust themselves — with good reason, as they are capable and smart — and they enjoy working on their own. But at some point as their company grows in scope and complexity, it dawns on them that they cannot possibly know everything they need to know or do everything that needs to be done, and that having a team of people to work with who have experience and expertise, in areas where they do not, can produce better results.

Choose team members carefully. Inexperienced leaders often surround themselves with people who previously were their co-workers at a previous company, or people they knew in college, who are very bright but have little or no experience as managers and leaders. Most early stage companies don’t usually start out by bringing in a team of experienced, knowledgeable team members. If the entrepreneur has done it before, he or she might be able to raise enough capital to bring in seasoned talent, but more often the team consists of people who are doing the job for the first time and are learning on the job.

Willingness to challenge old ways of thinking and doing. Becoming an effective leader requires not only an attitude shift, but also letting go of old habits and behaviors and embracing new ones. Your old familiar ways, as well as your beliefs about how you lead and manage, will need to change as the company grows. This includes many factors: your role, how you communicate with others, how you add value, how you make decisions, what is the optimal organizational structure, how you work through others, how you use your time, how you view systems, processes, and policies, how you set direction and plan, what is the optimal organizational culture, how much you control, and so on.

Many early stage companies develop values, norms, or take philosophical positions that later come back to bite them. Several of my clients have taken strong positions they later needed to change. One well-known company had committed to consensus decision making when they were 20 people. When they grew to 600 people, they realized that this was naïve and unworkable because they had to call huge group meetings to make too many decisions. Another committed to avoiding hierarchy and status differentials by having an almost completely flat organization, only to find that this was not workable and that some layering was necessary when the company grew.

The two co-founders of another of my clients had a very top-down management style and took a strong stance against having meetings. Needless to say, this was not workable — all decisions had to go through them, and they became a massive decision-making bottleneck.

To lead an effective team you’ve got to challenge your assumptions, and recognize that how you operated at one stage of the organization’s growth may become an impediment to what it needs from you at a subsequent stage. In the early days of the organization’s development, for example, you may have been central to the organization’s decision making and communicated with your direct reports one-on-one. This can lead to hub-and-spoke management and a decision bottleneck at a later stage.

I have worked with CEOs who secretly believed that people can’t be trusted and will not perform at their best unless they are motivated by fear and coercion. As one direct report wrote of her boss on a 360 evaluation, “It was a revelation to him that he did not have to be a tough and demanding tyrant to get people to cooperate.” Does this apply to you? Or — maybe you need to be tougher, more demanding and less laissez-faire? This is often a problem for leaders who are strong relationship builders. Chances are pretty good that whatever your natural or current leadership style is, it will require adjustment as the organization scales. Examine your habits and beliefs and look for ways that might serve you better.

Commitment to communication and open dialogue among team members. With your team, you will make thousands of decisions. You will naturally strive to have an abundance of accurate and relevant data to base your decisions on. But research we will discuss later has shown that as important as facts and data are, having an effective, disciplined decision-making process is even more crucial. As part of that process, ask yourself the following:

  • Have you defined the problem, and the goal you are trying to accomplish?
  • Have you clarified what success looks like?
  • Have you established criteria for what the optimal solution to the problem would be?
  • Have you collected all of the relevant data?
  • Have you generated all possible solutions?
  • Do you listen to each other’s viewpoints and build on each other’s ideas?
  • Have you objectively evaluated the alternative courses of action?
  • Can you embrace the role of a facilitator of dialogue, in pursuit of the best answer?
  • Have you considered what might go wrong?
  • Have you established who owns each action and set up timelines?

Delegation and empowerment. In today’s business world, leaders may still have to make unilateral decisions at times, but more frequently than in the past, they must be willing to push decision making down, and empower subordinates to make independent decisions. If you do this skillfully, it will ultimately lead to smarter decisions and more motivated team members. Many leaders, and particularly founders and entrepreneurs, tend to be strong-willed and driven to be in control of everything. Again, as the organization grows, it becomes impossible to be everywhere and on top of everything. If the leader is stuck in the weeds and mired in the details of things that should have been delegated to others, then things like strategic planning and facilitating teamwork and building an organizational culture are probably not receiving enough attention. It’s vital to learn to delegate and empower others.

This means going beyond delegating just tasks. You must also delegate responsibility, ownership, and decision-making authority. With your team, reach agreement on the results you expect and give your direct reports the freedom to decide how it should be done. This requires having trust in the commitment, motivation, and capability of subordinates, rather than trying to maintain tight control over every detail and dominating the decision-making process. (Otherwise known as micromanagement.)

If all decisions need to go through you and require your attention, you can become a roadblock rather than a force for progress. Effective leaders grant autonomy to those who have demonstrated good judgment and shown that they can get results. They focus on the best and highest use of their time, and gain leverage by delegating and empowering their direct reports.

Invest in building personal connections with team members. Effective facilitators of teamwork take the time to build a personal connection with team members. Get to know your people, through one-on-ones that go beyond task updates and problem solving, and focus on team members as people, whether through informal, unstructured discussions, dinners together, or team events. Find out what they care about, what they are working on, what excites them, what frustrates them, what they are interested in doing or learning in the future, where they want to go with their career. Where do they come from? Let them know that you are there for them when they need help or assistance. Create an atmosphere in which people feel a bond of personal connection, not only with you but with each other. This has to start with you, setting the tone.

Show empathy and readiness to get involved with subordinates’ problems. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes before you make judgments or demands. Try to understand where they are coming from — their problems and concerns, their difficulties and frustrations. Be aware that not everyone is going to be happy with some of the decisions you make. Listen to their resistance and try to understand their perspective and genuine concerns. You will not get the most out of your people unless they feel that you care about them. Loyalty is built by your behavior towards them. In our research, this was very highly correlated with being an outstanding facilitator of teamwork.

  • To be a more empathetic leader:
  • Show a genuine interest in the lives of the people in your organization.
  • Listen with real attention and be slow to understand. Be fully present. Don’t interrupt. Listen for both content and feelings that might be under the surface. Think of ways to be supportive. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Don’t be too impatient and quick to judge. Pay more attention to the messages their body language is communicating.

Remember, your team members are human beings and they are emotional as well as rational people. If you understand the emotions that your team members are feeling, you will be a much better communicator and team builder. Take the time to develop rapport and trust, and not be focused exclusively on task accomplishment and results.

Be willing to listen, and adjust to subordinates’ needs, concerns and preferences. This is particularly important when you meet resistance. Try to understand why they are resisting, and if their resistance represents a concern that is important for you to consider. Maybe they have an insight or see a problem that you need to know about. Don’t just go into persuading or selling mode, but, as Stephen Covey said, “Seek to understand before being understood.” And don’t just rely on position power to get them to do what you want. Listen. Learn to influence people without using your formal authority or position power. Making unreasonable demands, micromanaging and intimidating may get people to conform and perhaps get the result you want, but you won’t get their best effort, and it won’t gain buy-in for your plans and initiatives.

Balance concern for the individual with the needs of the organization. Yes, it is important to pay attention to the needs and concerns of employees and team members. But as the leader, you also need to be cognizant of the needs of the organization. This is sometimes a very hard balancing act.

“Arjun takes deep interest in understanding the strengths of his team and fosters cooperation, communication, trust and a very supportive work environment.”

“How can I help?” — Commit to providing coaching and support. New leaders frequently find themselves leading an executive team with too little experience and no frameworks or road maps for how to be successful in leading their team or function. Ultimately you will have to find people who have deep domain expertise, and a base of experience and insight to lead their function capably.

However, at the beginning you may not have the brand, money, or track record to attract highly experienced people. There is a real “war for talent” going on. Experienced “A” players are difficult to find and attract, and hard to retain if given the autonomy they expect. The lack of availability of top talent often requires you to help “C” players become “B” players through coaching and mentoring, whether it is from you or outside partners. They need feedback, advice, coaching, training, and support in order to grow. But you may not always have the time to wait for them to develop. Don’t let your loyalty blind you to the fact that one of your direct reports is over their head.

No matter how carefully you build your team, the truth is that everybody you have around you will have some weaknesses. Throwing people into the deep end of the pool and watching to see if they sink or swim is not an effective management development strategy! So one of your jobs is to continually ask the question, “How can I help?” and follow that up by providing the feedback, coaching, and support that people need, as well as any management and other training classes that might help them become more successful.

There may come a time when you, too, feel the need for help. If you are new to a leadership role, it’s likely that you will sometimes feel over your head and overwhelmed. If you are wrestling with a specific problem that you can’t seem to solve, try to find someone who has faced it and solved it. Or find a competent coach to help you navigate the rapids and get you through.

Set an example of transparency and forthrightness. One of the characteristics of high-functioning teams is openness. Team members need to feel safe and willing to share their opinions, concerns, problems, and their questions and mistakes with you as the leader, as well as with their peers. It’s important for the leader to create an atmosphere where people are helping and supporting each other, being honest and open about what they think, what their views are, and what their problems are. If the leader is intimidating, overly critical or harsh, or treats people disrespectfully, people will not open up or feel safe. If the leader doesn’t share information and create an atmosphere of openness, you can’t expect team members to do so. When it comes to openness and transparency, the leader’s behavior sets the tone.

Give credit to the team for achievements. If the leader wants to take credit for all achievements and doesn’t recognize or acknowledge the successes of the team, team members don’t feel their efforts are appreciated and may even feel violated — that leadership has taken advantage of them. So, give individuals and the team credit for their achievements, and take responsibility upon yourself for mistakes and failures; do not blame the team.

On 360-degree evaluations, I would sometimes see remarks by subordinate raters that ran something like this: “When there is a review of his team, he tries to hide material he has received from others in order to take credit for their work.” Or, more succinctly, ‘He takes credit for others’ ideas and suggestions.” This is exactly how not to be a loved, respected, and successful leader!

Originally published at https://www.hagbergconsulting.com on August 14, 2020.

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