You have to find your way before you can lead the way.
For the past two years I’ve been learning how to build and lead a team. The first year was mostly learning things the hard way: Through trial and error. By now I have plenty of examples of what doesn’t work, and a couple that do. But after groping around in the dark for long enough, some constants have emerged.
While I still fuck something up at least once a week, I’m beginning to understand what any good leader needs to do. These are a few fundamentals I’d like to share with anyone else out there who’s learning how to lead.
It doesn’t matter if you lead a small team or an entire company. It doesn’t matter what your team or company actually does. It especially doesn’t matter how much education, experience, or charisma you have. Every leader must continually learn how to do the following 7 things well:
- Define the vision
- Motivate the team
- Unblock things
- Develop talent
- Manage performance
- Build strategic relationships
- Learn and adapt
1. Define the vision
Regardless of the type of leader you are, if you don’t have a clear vision for what you want to accomplish as a team, then you’re just administrating processes. A good administrator can certainly achieve good results. As long as the numbers are all green, your job security remains strong. But if you want to actually influence the future of your team and/or company, that future must be vivid and real in your own mind. Without a guiding star, you can’t point to anything concrete, or properly articulate a vision that others can understand and agree with.
Only then can you do the next most important thing as a leader…
2. Motivate the team
Regular paychecks are reason enough for most people to show up for work. It takes a lot more to extract top performance and provide longterm satisfaction from your team. Their only automatic responsibility is to fulfill their responsibilities. It’s your job to inspire them to higher aspirations and achieve the vision you’ve defined — not through force or punitive measures, but by earning their trust, dedication, and loyalty.
It’s hard work. It takes time and unrelenting patience. And what works now may not work again in the future. The point is that your team shouldn’t be responding to your commands, but following your call to action. If they share your vision and entrust you with their future, your team can achieve basically anything.
3. Unblock things
A motivated team can do many things on their own, but sometimes something or someone stands in their way. Maybe a certain process is fundamentally broken, an important tool is missing, or a specific person is preventing someone on your team from moving forward. Your chief responsibility is to identify those obstacles and remove them. Just by changing a process, approving new software, or moderating a much-needed meeting, you can turn a frustrated, demotivated team member into a positive, motivated change agent.
Occasionally, the obstacle can be internal. Everyone has a bad day, a bad week, or a bad year. Otherwise exceptional people may struggle to delver exceptional results because of personal issues, emotional conflict, or virulent self-doubt. A good leader recognizes when a team member is struggling personally, and then reaches out with empathy and acceptance. Although it’s ultimately up to the individual to move forward, sometimes all they need is to know that someone else is there to support them in the process.
Whether external or internal, your ability to effectively unblock things preventing your team’s success is the “secret sauce” that will unleash their potential.
4. Develop talent
Everyone on your team has the potential to improve their existing skills or develop entirely new ones. But if you don’t take an active role in developing talent, low performers will never grow and top performers will plateau. An effective leader recognizes the weaknesses and potential of each and every team member, and then provides the necessary opportunities, guidance, and/or encouragement for them to improve.
It starts with assessing skills. Most people are really good at a few things, proficient at many things, and terrible at couple other things. For example, a designer might be superstar at creating beautiful interfaces, and competent at defining the overall user experience and interactive elements — but then totally suck at communicating their rationale to the rest of the team. In order for such a person to reach their potential, they must learn how to present their ideas and resolve disagreements constructively. Otherwise they’ll struggle to advance their career or add more value to the team/company (which inevitably leads to a role vacancy). Therefore, a good leader will help that designer develop their presentation skills through coaching and practice.
Those who are really good at many things, and reasonably good at everything else, need your help to progress to the next level in their career. If you’re confident that they can execute all their current responsibilities expertly, then you should be giving them opportunities to do completely new/different things outside the scope of their designated role. By inviting them to participate in other activities in a leadership capacity, or as a key advisor in initiatives important to the overall company, they will continue to grow as individuals and become more committed, valuable team members in the process. Because let’s face it: keeping the exceptionally talented is one of your top priorities. If you fail to challenge them, they will eventually leave (usually at the worst possible time and for totally avoidable reasons).
In the end, you should expect everyone on your team to leave one day. The difference is that they should do so because they’re fully prepared for the next challenge or phase in their career — not because their talent was undervalued or outright ignored.
5. Manage performance
Raw ability is meaningless if you can’t measure its effect or value. Each and every person on your team should know exactly what they’re being held accountable for. The company’s goals and your team’s outputs must be quantifiable (or at least qualifiable) to translate them into meaningful performance. Without results you can measure, you can’t fix what’s broken, celebrate any real “success”, or have true accountability.
Once you have explicit measurements, you can focus on what’s important and minimize the risks. You can align motivations and extract more value from every contributor. More importantly, you can create a fairer, more transparent environment for all. If you harness a collective desire to exceed expectations —while unleashing their potential — your team will overdeliver no matter what the expectations are.
6. Build strategic relationships
Power structures exist within any group, team, or company. Sometimes they can interfere with your personal goals or your team’s work. Other times they can provide strategic opportunities to effect positive change elsewhere. Every leader should always know which power structures need to be nurtured, repaired, or cultivated.
Bad leaders only tend to strategic relationships in order to build their own reputation or career. But good leaders tend to them for the good of the company and/or the team. They spend the time necessary to meet with existing and potential stakeholders to establish trust, find common ground, and build a coalition of support. They do this because they know that without sufficient support, their team cannot ultimately succeed. And the very best ones do this preemptively, well before they ever need any actual support.
7. Learn and adapt
The one skill that allows any developing leader to become a great one is the ability to learn form one’s mistakes and try a new approach. If you suck at any of the things listed above, the worst thing you can do is ignore them. Doing that will either destroy you or your team (or both). Being a tenacious student of failure is the figurative key to your literal success.
If you need training, sign up for a class. If you need guidance, find a mentor. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it. For as long as you’re improving, you will only get better, stronger, and more confident over time. Insecurity will only stunt your development and eventually sink your ship.
Personally, I suck at many things. I often have difficulty communicating a strong vision, struggle to motivate the team, or fail to build the right relationships with the right people at the right time. Sometimes I try to unblock something, but just end up making everything worse. And developing talent or managing performance often requires more “tough love” than I’m inclined to provide.
At least now I can finally see what I need to work on with more clarity, even if I don’t quite yet know exactly how to.