A team leader is a bridge between organisational strategy and the individuals who execute it. Yet in a commercial world where teams are expected to produce more with less, many people – including many team leaders themselves – underestimate the value of the role.
For the first in a new series of blogs, we’ve interviewed Yellowday Associate Trainer Steve Hallett about how he helps people to become effective team leaders. Steve has over 25 years’ experience of training team leaders and an engaging approach that ensures delegates gain functional knowledge they can immediately put into practice. Thanks Steve, for sharing your insights.
Steve, in brief, what is a team leader and what is their role?
The team leader is the first rung of the leadership ladder. Many new to the role are tempted to see themselves as a better-paid version of what they used to be. They’re not; their new role is to lead people to maximise their potential.
Often, new team leaders don’t realise the value of their total human capital; that is to say, the size of the combined salaries of their team, which can be significant. The first thing a team leader needs to do is appreciate how important they are within their organisation, and that figure is a good indicator.
A further temptation for an inexperienced team leader is to become task-centred, meaning the bulk of their effort is about process, methodology, systems and purchasing. But that is to neglect the core of the job: building and developing a team and the people within it. Our course addresses this. We have a saying: you manage processes, but lead people.
Do today’s unpredictable markets make team leaders more strategically important than before?
Volatile economic and political landscapes make things difficult for everyone in every organisation. And although defining organisational strategy may be beyond the pay grade of a team leader, it’s often team leaders who put together the plan to get there, and, when their plan is agreed, communicate it with the wider team.
The next stage is where the team leader becomes even more critical: any strategic plan is predicated on the assumption that everyone in an organisation will do what they’re supposed to do, all the time. The team leader carries out the ongoing monitoring and support, coaching, development and motivation that allows people to deliver that plan. Only someone at the sharp end of management can do that.
A manager who works a fifteen-hour day but interacts little with their team will never deliver that strategy. Work as hard as you like; if you’re obsessed with processes and tasks but not proactive with your people, you’ll fail. Team leadership is about hearts and minds.
Is team leadership a neglected area of management, and have you seen the perception of it change?
When times are good people find budget to develop their staff, especially in a business with high churn. During these times, team leaders will be hired and invested into. But when times are bad, team leaders can be among the first to go. It should be clear by now why this is a bad idea!
In my years of training, the perception of team leaders has changed from chargehands whose job it is to make sure people do things, to a dizzying blend of mentor, coach, motivator, provider of pastoral care and more. We live in a commercial world where the expectation is to produce more with less, and you can only square that with better leadership and higher-performing teams. So, team leaders are agents of growth.
What makes a good team leader, and why?
The crucial thing is this: can you take the leadership actions? Classic, so-called leadership qualities are only a bonus. The good news is that it’s simpler to take leadership actions than it is to develop leadership qualities. If you can communicate with flare, great. But simply communicating at all is better than most people can manage.
A good team leader understands the value of their team, in both its human capacity and its financial cost, and works with that knowledge and insight to gain the greatest possible return from their people. To invoke a cliché, a happy team is a productive team. Team leadership is about actions that are, in theory, simple: be appreciative, give praise, and do it properly. Listen. In fact, don’t just listen, but show that you are listening. It matters to your people that you are there for them. Don’t shy away from having difficult conversations, and where you can, communicate face-to-face.
How do you equip people with the skills to become a better team leader?
One of our biggest learning areas is getting people to recognise that team leaders shouldn’t be afraid to take those simple leadership actions. Don’t be embarrassed to do the obvious stuff. It really matters.
One of my favourite exercises in our training is where we ask delegates to think back to a leader who was important to them – a first boss, someone they were apprenticed to, a teacher or sports coach. We ask them what made that person stand out. And almost without fail this inspiring person ticks the leadership boxes: they gave direction, they listened, they helped, they believed in the individual, they persuaded the individual they could achieve whatever they wanted. People remember these things because they matter.
At this point we tell our delegates: if it worked for you, it can work for the people you manage. What matters most is not possessing leadership qualities, but rather, not being afraid to take the specific leadership actions. You don’t need to be a great orator, but you do have to communicate on a regular basis.
Our course is very interactive and very practical. It’s light-hearted and includes tutor input and demonstrations, practical exercises, syndicate work, roleplay, case studies and analysis of film clips. We emphatically avoid death-by-PowerPoint. Our delegates remember more and pay closer attention when we engage with them directly.
Can anyone be a team leader?
I wish I could say yes! In truth, there will always be some people who aren’t right for the job. But there are an awful lot more who don’t recognise that they could make a great team leader, if only they were given the opportunity.
There will always be some people who perform best as senior specialists. I still see first-class frontline people who have been turned into team leaders because they were good at their job. And now they’re unhappy, because they’re better at being a brilliant specialist. Leadership is a people game: it’s no good if you don’t like people, and there’s nothing worse than an unhappy team leader.
A lot of good employers will put people on our course before they are made team leaders. It’s a very wise move. If a delegate gets excited by the possibilities of leadership as they learn about it, it’s a strong signal they might be suited to it.
What’s the best feedback you have received?
Many of our clients today are senior people I first met when I trained them on team leader courses 25 years ago, and many are kind enough to be complimentary to this day. Some tell me the course sparked their enthusiasm for management. One individual confided that, prior to our course, he thought leadership was simply about telling people what to do!
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