Have you ever had the experience of working on a team with a really bad team leader? I certainly have, and I’ve heard many depressing “bad team leader” stories from others. I’ll share a story I heard from a young consultant – I’ll call her Sheri – who was part of a large project team with a particularly ineffective team leader. There were about a dozen people on the team and everyone worked remotely. Other than weekly team calls, Sheri never heard from her team leader. She was given a very vague assignment and was not given any opportunity to ask questions. Sheri tried sending instant messages and emails to her team leader to ask questions, but he never once responded. Sheri would submit work products like financial models and PowerPoint slides, but the team leader gave her very little information on what he thought of her work or how it was incorporated into the overall project deliverables. Sheri never had the opportunity to meet or speak with the client, and the team leader didn’t share any feedback from the client on what they thought of the work. Of course, Sheri never received any feedback from the team leader on her performance during the project. The only “feedback” she got was a mediocre performance assessment score two months after the project had ended, with no explanation given as to the reason for the mediocre score. At the time I spoke with Sheri, she and several others on the team were already well into the process of looking for another job…and who could blame them?
In today’s work environment, more and more work is being done collaboratively in teams. And many of the factors that drive employee engagement are significantly influenced by team leaders. Employees want meaningful work. They want flexibility in how, when and where they work. They want to have fun at work. And they want to work with people who will help them grow their skills and inspire them to do great work.
As a result, team leaders play a critical role in employee engagement. Since they have regular interaction with the people on their team, team leaders are often in the best position to develop employees’ skills, provide real-time performance feedback, coach employees to improve their performance, challenge employees to take on “stretch” assignments, and mentor employees on their career goals. Team leaders are also often in the best position to sense when employees are not engaged and may be at risk of leaving their job.
Companies need to do more to support team leaders
Given the high degree of influence team leaders have on employee engagement, companies should do everything they can to help employees be great team leaders, yet this is too infrequently the case. Often, companies provide little training and support to team leaders on how to be effective in their role. I have heard many stories about – and experienced firsthand – situations where inexperienced team leaders have been thrown into the deep end with little or no support, and it’s up to them to “sink or swim.” Unfortunately, in many of these situations, the team leaders clearly “sank,” which had a detrimental impact on the rest of the team. And the problem isn’t limited to new team leaders. In many cases, team leaders may be very good at some aspects of their role, such as keeping the client happy, but they are particularly ineffective at managing the people on their team. Yet this goes unchecked because their performance isn’t measured on how effectively they engage the people on their team.
Sheri’s story was clearly a worst-case scenario, but based on the stories I’ve heard over the years, I suspect it’s not all that uncommon. And even more common is the scenario of the “so-so” team leader, who provides some guidance and feedback for team members, and may genuinely want to effectively engage the team, but hasn’t been given the training or support on how to do that. With the job market heating up these days and employees having other options available to them, even having a “so-so” team leader may be enough to convince employees to look at what else is out there.
So…what can companies do to ensure that team leaders are effectively engaging employees? In short, companies need to do three things:
- Provide training and resources to team leaders
- Provide team leader coaching
- Hold team leaders accountable for employee engagement
Provide training and resources to team leaders
Formal training on team leadership can dramatically improve the effectiveness of team leaders. At least some training should be live (in person or by webinar / teleconference), so that team leaders have the chance to ask questions, as opposed to online self-paced training. One option might be a multi-day team leadership “boot camp” for new team leaders, supplemented with ongoing monthly presentations for all team leaders. In addition to training, companies should provide templates, information and examples that team leaders can leverage over the lifecycle of a project, such as team building exercises, project plan templates and suggestions on coaching and feedback.
Of course, people management is just one aspect of team leadership, and training and resources should cover a comprehensive list of topics, such as:
- People management: team building, providing coaching and feedback, dealing with underperforming team members, assessing team member performance
- Client management: stakeholder management, executive presence, presentation skills
- Project / financial management: project contracting, project planning, metrics tracking, budget tracking, revenue generation
- Thought leadership: best practice methodologies, harvesting intellectual capital
Provide team leader coaching
While training and resources are very important, they are not enough. An equally important type of support for team leaders is coaching, especially for new team leaders. A new team leader is inevitably going to encounter several unfamiliar challenges and may not know how to handle them. Having an experienced team leader as a coach to go to for advice will help team leaders navigate these challenges. How long a new team leaders gets coaching depends a lot on the person, but I would recommend a minimum of one year. More experienced team leaders should take on the role of the coach to newer team leaders.
When I was learning how to be an effective team leader, I had a coach that I met with biweekly, and sometimes on an ad hoc basis when I needed immediate advice on how to handle a challenging situation, such as a difficult client or an underperforming team member. It was reassuring to know that my coach was available to help me whenever I needed it. In addition to giving me advice on handling sticky situations, he coached me on team leadership skills, such as leading a team kickoff meeting, building out a good project plan and preparing for a client presentation, where he played the role of the client and threw curve balls at me like cutting me off with challenging questions.
Incidentally, companies should also provide training and support to the coaches on how to be an effective coach, because the quality of the coaching that team leaders receive makes a big difference. It’s important that coaches understand what’s expected of them, and if they aren’t going to be 100% committed to the coaching role, they shouldn’t be coaches. Coaches should also be given coaching resources, such as suggested topics to cover with the team leaders they are coaching.
Hold team leaders accountable for employee engagement
In addition to supporting team leaders through training and coaching, it’s critical to hold them accountable for their performance. Of course, team leader performance should be measured across all of the dimensions listed above. The problem is that team leaders are often not measured on their people management performance, the dimension that most directly drives employee engagement. Team leader performance is often assessed by a supervisor who may not have much visibility into how effectively a team leader managed the people on the team. As a result, team leaders may put less focus on the people management aspect of their role.
The best way to assess a team leader on people management performance is to ask the team members for input. For example, did the team leader provide adequate direction and guidance to team members? Did the team leader motivate team members to perform at their best? Did the team leader provide helpful coaching and feedback to team members? This type of input from team members can be gathered through 360 feedback or employee satisfaction surveys. There are dozens of software products that companies can use to easily collect 360 feedback.
Unfortunately, not every team leader has the passion or talent for people management. Someone might be a strong team leader across other dimensions but may not have the skills or the desire to lead and manage the people on her team effectively, despite training and coaching. Sometimes in this situation, someone else on the team with strong people management skills may naturally step up to fill the role of people manager. In other instances, where this doesn’t happen organically, it may make sense to assign someone as a “deputy team leader” who has the skills and the passion for leading the other team members. The team leader responsibilities can be split, and performance metrics adjusted accordingly, with the team leader focusing more on client management / thought leadership and the deputy team leader focusing more on people management. Of course, this requires a strong working relationship and frequent communication between the team leader and deputy team leader. And it may not work well in all situations, depending on the personality of the team leader and the culture of the company.
I believe effective team leadership is critical to employee engagement…what do you think?
There are many different factors that determine how engaged an employee is, but a really effective team leader can play a major role in improving employee engagement. Likewise, a particularly ineffective team leader can significantly decrease employee engagement. Companies need to recognize the importance of the team leader role and give team leaders the support and the incentive to effectively lead, motivate and coach their team members.
I’d love to hear your feedback…do you agree? Do companies do enough to support and incent team leaders to effectively manage their teams? Do you have additional suggestions on how companies can ensure that team leaders effectively engage the employees on their teams?
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