I have been managing large complex globally distributed teams for over 15 years and many times forget how complicated and scary team management can be for a new comer. This article is an opportunity for me to take a step back and provide some tips to help first time people managers built better, stronger and higher performing teams.
What is a team?
Before we talk about strategy, let's ensure we are all working with the same definitions. Team is:
Contrary to popular belief, most employees actually prefer to work in a team (rather can being a lone wolf). Working as a team creates the feeling of belonging and can actually make work more gratifying.
One of the benefits of building strong well designed teams is that they can be autonomous. With proper design, preparation and training, the team can work as an autonomous entity delivering quality results, self measuring performance and helping itself to constantly improve.
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Many organizations consider leadership as a reward for solid technical performance but this is a mistake. Reward for solid performance should be recognition, financial or equity based. This mistake means many times managers are minted because of technical achievement in their field of expertise and not because the person shows leadership qualities. The reality is a good manager should exhibit leadership skills first. A good leader must allow his/her team to posses the technical skills while the manager coaches, builds and guides.
2 types of teams
There are 2 types of teams and it is important to understand the difference between them. The first type of team is the project team which is assembled for a temporary project and then disbanded. Although effort should be put into building a high performing team, don't waste too much time knowing that this group will be disbanded. Spend just enough time to make sure the team delivers the expected quality and move on.
The second type of team is the work team which a group that is designed to work together for long periods of time (often times for years). This is the team most companies build internally and this is the one where all your time and effort should be spent. This is the kind of team that will deliver the most reward if properly designed, cared for and nurtured.
Skills for first time managers
What are the skills you should look for in first time managers? In its simplest form, you will be looking for 4 characteristics that model the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle of continuous improvement. The 5 skills are:
- Planning - The ability to clearly create a winning game-plan and communicate that game plan
- Organizing - The ability to organize a team around that plan
- Developing - The ability to develop team members and ensure they can deliver to the plan
- Monitoring - The ability to set monitoring guidelines and evaluate performance
In addition to the 4 core skills mentioned above, effective managers must exhibit very specific leadership skills. These may seem simple (when read as a list) but it is truly difficult finding individuals that exhibit all 4 skills mentioned above plus these leadership skills:
- Having active listening skills
- Ability to convert the larger organizationals goals into achievable team specific goals (explaining how the team contributes to the overall organizational goals is complicated and a difficult skill to master unless you are business minded)
- Open to positive criticism (all leaders, especially people managers, must be genuinely open to criticism from bosses, colleagues and employees)
- Staying on message (just like driving a car, managing a team means you have to constantly re-adjust to keep the team on target. This is sometimes seen as a leader who is flip-flopping therefore the manager must be able to stay relatively on message all the while navigating the corporate land mines)
- being the model for morals and ethics (as the manager, there must never be a situation where you morals or ethics are called into question. You must be seen as the reference to morality and uphold the highest ethical standards)
- being just (rewarding good performance and acting on bad performance)
The manager is expected to be a leader but also have enough technical knowledge to also step in and make "good calls" when needed.
Issues new managers must overcome
Having coached and nurtured several dozen new managers over the years, there are some common obstacles I see new managers encounter over and over. Here are some of the most common obstacles you can expect.
- the reticent manager - the very first question I ask new manager is why they wanted the promotion. Some will give you an honest answer while others will try to skirt around the real motivations. The best case scenario is that the newly minted manager sees this as the next step in their career. The worst case scenario is that the new manager didn't want the position or responsibility but saw this as the only way to get a raise. You will have to dig until you get an answer you are confident is accurate and then work with the person to develop the required beliefs, skills and approach.
- the refusal to share power - Many new managers see the promotion as the opportunity to finally be the big cheese. The reality is that the highest performing teams are managed by leaders who are willing to share power and also share the authority to make decisions. Many new found managers have a tough time accepting the fact that their team will make decisions impacting his/her career.
- understanding the teams true role - the manager must represent the organizations executives to his team and explain how the team fits into the grand enterprise scheme. Every team wants to feel important and sometimes explaining how a team contributes to the overall picture is difficult. This is a challenge that less business savvy managers often face. They themselves do not understand so they are unable to explain it to their teams (recipe for disaster). Failure to communicate a "good" message here can disenfranchise a team and make them useless. The team must understand how they fit into the overall company plan and the targets must be set accordingly.
The first 180 days
Whether you are a new manager, director or VP, there are some tasks that you must perform in the first 180 days of your tenure to maximize your chances of success.
- Win support - the manager must win the support of his/her leadership and go as high as reasonable. Senior management must be convinced that you are the right person for the job, that you have built the right team and that your strategy is right. This is a tough sell and this is where many managers, directors and VPs fail.
- lead with purpose - understand why the team exists and then sell the team members on this vision. The team needs a clear purpose that it can grab onto and believe in.
- choose wisely - I would rather hire someone with the right attitude (with less skill) then someone with high skill (with a bad attitude). If you are taking over an existing team, use the first couple of months to clean house.
Nothing presented here is rocket science or revolutionary but these types of things rarely are. Most of what I have presented is common sense to an experienced executive but not so for someone being thrust into the spotlight for the very first time.
I hope someone out there finds this information useful and it creates the foundation for a great future leader.