A high-performing team by definition is made up of people who are good at their jobs. So do assemblies of hand-picked stars even require leaders? Team experts and business owners say good performance depends heavily on whether the leader knows how to lead a team and has the required skills to do so.
“Every team needs someone to establish a North Star and help them understand where [they're] going, think of ways they can get there and then engage the team to help them get there," says Autumn Manning, co-founder and CEO of YouEarnedIt, an Austin, Texas-based provider of employee engagement software.
Being accountable is the first trait of good team leaders, according to David Urban, dean of the Jones College of Business at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
—Joe Alexander, CEO, Nest Bedding
“Somebody has to take the responsibility of moving a team in the right direction toward an appropriate outcome," Urban says.
Tracy Duberman, president and CEO of The Leadership Development Group, a talent development consulting firm based in New York City, says a key ingredient for any team is having a supportive team leader who supplies guidance, counsel and structure.
“Teams are only as good as their leaders allow," Duberman says.
If a team isn't performing up to expectations, a business owner should suspect the leader does not, in fact, know how to lead a team, says Joe Alexander, CEO of Nest Bedding, a bedding and mattress company headquartered in Albany, California.
“You will rarely find a high-performing team without strong, active leadership," Alexander says. “Conversely, many times when you have a struggling team, a change of leadership is usually what is needed to take things to the next level."
Skills to Lead a High-Performing Team
Communication aptitude tops many lists of traits seen as essential for team leaders. Manning wants leaders to be able to clearly articulate their vision of how a team's work fits the company strategy. Urban highlights listening skills, as well as having a knack for getting others to speak up and feel heard.
A second talent cluster falls under the heading of trustworthiness.
“Leaders who people want to follow out of respect do best," Alexander says. "The next most important trait is empathy. A great leader listens and makes their team feel valued."
Manning adds that leaders who can convey a sense of being transparent and open are most likely to gain team members' trust.
A third broad category consists of interpersonal skills tied to relationship building. Urban urges high-performing team leaders to recognize the expertise and accomplishments of every member.
“If they weren't high performers they wouldn't be on the team," he says. “Recognizing and praising them for that at the outset will help break down any defense mechanisms that might exist and start them thinking positively about the task at hand."
Talent specialist Duberman offers a list of important characteristics delineating how to lead a team. Echoing practical and academic observers' viewpoints, she says team leaders should have the ability to:
- create psychological safety;
- assess each team member's strengths and goals and align them to the team's work;
- provide continuous feedback;
- set the stage for the team's work, co-designing timeframe and process;
- focus on results while engaging in open communication, creating shared vision, resolving conflict and developing clarity in decision making; and
- create mutual accountability.
How to Select a High-Performing Team Leader
Clearly, the task of figuring out how to lead a team and finding people to do it is essential. Manning estimates she spends 20 percent of her time at YouEarnedIt on recruiting leaders.
“It's at the top of my list of things that make up my week," she says.
The task of identifying people who know how to lead a team usually falls to individual business owners. How do they do that?
“Business owners should select for the competencies of high-performing team leaders," Duberman says.
Duberman says team leaders' work history and past results should demonstrate they have the necessary skills in communication, trust building, conflict resolution, decision making, coaching, authenticity and accountability.
However, a leader may not necessarily need an unblemished track record. That's because another useful talent, she says, is the ability to use failure as a learning experience.
Manning often employs a shortcut when considering whether to hire a prospective team leader. She seeks to find out who has worked for the candidate or is working for them and would accompany them to a new position.
“High-performing talent follows good leadership," Manning reasons. “So one of the questions I ask is, 'How many people will follow you?'"
Urban suggests another common-sense approach: “One of the best ways to go about it is to ask other people who might be a good leader," he suggests. Thus armed with a name, a business owner can investigate what makes people think that person knows how to lead a high-performing team, Urban says.
Alexander advises business owners to at least avoid selecting team leaders in this way.
“The mistake most business owners make is taking their top performers and making them leaders," he says. “Just because someone is successful doesn't mean they are going to be a great leader."
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