“Can Team Leadership really be boiled down into four steps?”
Leaders are always busy, and whatever we are involved with, things only seem to grow more complicated over time. As complexity grows, it can help to view our roles as leaders in the simplest terms possible.
What should we be doing right now? What should we get ready to do next?
With that approach in mind, here’s a simple four-step process we can use as a way to think about the problems we face and the kind of team leadership we need to provide to resolve them.
Small Book, Big Impact
Back in my early days as a leader, I came across a small book that did a great job of simplifying many aspects of leadership into easy-to-handle chunks. The way author Colonel Dandridge Malone described how to tackle team leadership is a good example. Here I’ve adapted and expanded on his four simple steps to team leading as described in Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach.
He wrote his little book for young leaders in the Army back when we were still driving around in Jeeps, but I think his ideas still apply, whether we are in uniform or out. When a problem arises, here’s how to tackle it as a team leader.
So often when a problem crops up we are tempted to jump right in, start issuing orders, and launch people in all directions. That flurry of activity may look and feel good, but be careful: action without intention is just busy-ness, and possibly counter-productive.
Another danger is jumping straight to a solution because we think we know the answer; perhaps we do, but it might be to the wrong question.
It’s important at this stage to take a moment and really think about the problem to be solved and the task to be accomplished. Look for unspoken assumptions that may or may not be true. Ask “why” a lot. And most importantly, think about what success should look like when done. When we can clearly describe the outcome we are looking for, we can move on to the next step.
With a solid grasp of what we are trying to achieve, now’s the time to start thinking about how to get organized to accomplish the job. Start by looking at critical skills that not everyone can perform, time-sensitive tasks that might hold up the project, and places of greater risk where the project may be more open to setbacks.
Then look at the resources available, and prioritize the what and the when, starting at those critical points. Match people to the specific tasks, and write down what the expected outcome is for each of those key elements.
It can help to express this in SMART Goal format that includes how we will measure progress, and when specifically something is due.
Now that we have a little organization, it’s time to form teams and deputize leaders. Wherever two or more people are working on a task together, somebody should be in charge. The bigger the team, the more important this becomes.
Generally speaking, we can effectively manage five or six other people; when our span of control rises above that number, our ability to supervise diminishes.
Next, we should look at what we are asking our team leaders to do. We need to be sure we are giving them both the responsibility to get the job done, and the authority to make appropriate decisions. Of course we need to stay aware and engaged, but if every minor decision has to come back to us, we may be holding on too tight.
Finally, it’s time to think about who to deputize in these leadership positions. It can help to think not only in terms of who can do the job right now, but also who we want to help grow into that capacity in the future. Use delegation as a development opportunity to help our teammates become more capable.
Once we’ve launched our teams, the work is not over; delegation and leadership are never “fire and forget.” Some of our most important work comes with what happens next. The challenge here is to strike a balance between staying informed and micromanaging.
Having delegated the job, we have to resist the temptation to jump back into the middle of things unless we absolutely have to. When we butt in, all we are teaching our teammates is that we think they are inadequate to the task. This can rob them of confidence and deny them the opportunity to learn.
Instead, if they are on track, offer regular and genuine positive reinforcement. If they seem to be veering off the path, take them aside, and then course-correct by asking smart questions.
The goal is to get them thinking; we want to tap into the valuable resource that is their brain, and not just rely on our own. The questioning approach also allows us to help guide their thoughts without stepping in and taking over. It leaves them firmly in charge and responsible for the outcome.
As leaders, we are in charge of how we use available time, so here are two quick thoughts on managing it effectively.
First, the more compressed the timeline, the more important time management becomes. In the Army we always used a one-third – two-thirds rule. Leaders and staff can take up to one third of the available time to analyze, plan and issue a complete order, leaving the remaining two-thirds available to the next level.
Even better may be to take only one fifth of the time to maximize the opportunity our team has to execute. Map out how much time you have, do the analysis quickly, then “get it out there.” The longer a task sits in our laps, the harder it becomes for our teams to execute.
Second, as we do our backwards planning to determine what has to happen when, it can help to build in time to test an early prototype, run a rehearsal (or two), or anything else we can do to get an early look at how the team is progressing. We magnify our chances of success when we plan in opportunities to course-correct along the way.
This is a bonus step that’s not in Colonel Malone’s original four. If the project is a success, it’s important to pass along the recognition to the teammates and leaders who helped make it so – they deserve it.
Recognition has the most impact if done promptly and publically. Shining a positive spotlight on supporting players, not just the rock stars, is another way to strengthen the bonds of the team.
If the project bombs, we have to swallow hard and recognize we have to take responsibility for the outcome. Resist the temptation to shift blame and point fingers – that’s a quick way sabotage trust. If we want loyalty and trust on our team, it begins with us.
However it turns out, if we really want to build a learning organization, now is a good time to sit down and deliberately talk through what we’ve learned as part of an After Action Review, so that the next time around, we can accomplish even more, and do it better.
Team Leadership – The Takeaway
As problems and challenges arise for us to resolve, it can help for us to break what we have to do into smaller segments.
Carefully Analyze what has to be done so we know we’re solving the right problem.
Organize the resources, focusing first on the critical points of the project.
Deputize people and teams to get the job done, and get them started quickly.
Continually Supervise by asking good questions, getting early looks at the outcome, and then extracting the lessons from the experience afterward.
And finally don’t forget to Recognize those who deserve it.
In taking this simplified approach to team leadership, not only do we get the job done, but we develop the capabilities of our team and its members to do more in the future.