How to Be a Good Team Leader
Learning how to be a good team leader could be the most important skill you master in your career, especially if you aim to climb the corporate ladder. No matter how talented you are in your functional area of expertise, you'll never rise through the ranks without strong management skills.
And yet there isn't a single, sequential pathway to the top. Good managers come in all shapes and sizes, with varying philosophies about leadership, employee motivation, team building, and more. The idea might best be expressed by borrowing a famous quote about motherhood:
"There's no way to be a perfect manager, but a million ways to be a good one."
See "How To Be A Better Project Manager: 81 Tips From PM Experts" for leadership advice from all kinds of managers.
Whether or not perfection is your goal, start by incorporating these five foundational tips. You may never need to draw upon the 999,995 other ways to be a good team leader.
1. Recruit the Right Talent
"Be as thorough as possible in recruiting and hiring the right people and then creating an environment where no one wants to leave," says Chris Thomas, president of the Intrepid Agency in Salt Lake City, Utah. "This may seem idealistic, but at the same time the value of strong teams cannot be overstated."
You can't build a strong team if employees are ill-suited to their positions, whether that's due to a mismatch of skills, interests, or temperament. If your internal HR department has recruiting tools available, use them.
All too often, when an employee doesn't work out, the problem can be traced back to missing steps in the interviewing and recruiting process.
References weren't checked. Not enough candidates were interviewed. Managers decided to "go with their gut" rather than appropriately weighting the talents, skills, and knowledge needed for the position, and then searching for those specific attributes.
2. Forge Genuine Relationships
This one's easy. Genuinely care about each of your team members as individuals, and allow them opportunities to develop their strengths.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has found that the following consistently rank among the [top five aspects of job satisfaction], alongside compensation, benefits, and job security:
- opportunities to use skills and abilities,
- relationship with immediate supervisor, and
- the work itself.
Likewise, in the bestselling book, First, Break all the Rules, authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt W. Coffman found that "the manager—not pay, benefits, perks, or a charismatic corporate leader—was the critical player in building a strong workplace. The manager was the key."
Start by genuinely caring, and the rest will follow.
3. Value Visibility
To be an effective manager of people and processes in any field, you need to have insight into three essential things:
- What each member of your team is working on.
- Where projects stand in terms of completion.
- The available bandwidth of each individual and your team as a whole.
Without this information, it's impossible to have a true picture of what your team has already accomplished, what they're working on now, or how much bandwidth everyone has. You won't be able to manage team productivity or forecast future work.
You can easily fall into the traps of burning out your top performers and failing to notice or address underperformance, both of which contribute to poor team morale.
Today's project management solutions can provide the transparency you need to overcome these pitfalls.
4. Enforce Expectations Consistently
Once you have visibility into individual and team performance, you have to be willing to set clear expectations and hold everyone on the team accountable. One of the biggest detractors to team morale is when managers allow poor productivity or destructive behavior to continue without consequences.
Buckingham and Coffman's 1999 book (mentioned in tip two above) introduced what is now called the Gallup Q12 Employee Engagement Survey, which has been used by businesses worldwide for more than 15 years to gauge workplace satisfaction.
By translating the first six questions in that survey into action items, you'll find the six core essentials in creating a strong and vibrant workplace:
- Set consistent expectations for all of your people.
- Treat each person differently (based on their strengths).
- Match roles to talents and abilities.
- Challenge your people.
- Care about, acknowledge, and recognize individual accomplishments.
- Terminate an employee when necessary.
5. Reward and Recognize
Be specific and immediate with your praise. This is the best way to ensure employee contributions are noticed, individuals and teams feel valued, and productive behaviors are reinforced.
When you notice outstanding behavior, speak up in the moment—whether verbally, via a sticky note, or using a recognition feature in your work-management solution.
Official, company-wide employee recognition systems can also help create a healthy team culture. If you have such a program available to you, use it.
Becoming a good team leader takes time and practice. You won't be an inspiring and charismatic leader overnight. But if you'll start by incorporating these five tips into your management practice, you'll have a strong leadership foundation to build upon.
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