Small team leadership: the forgotten art?


Blog post by David Webster from The Centre for Teams

If the 2007 crash taught us anything, it was that small groups of people can have a huge impact on others. How small teams are led – be it the leadership team of a bank, an oil rig or a charity, or a project team in an ad agency – has a fundamental impact on its success and that of the enterprise as a whole. And yet somehow we don’t attend to this art – has it been forgotten?

The new territory

Work now is more complex than it was even 20 years ago – many are now members of several teams, ‘matrixed’, all with important briefs, making significant calls on team members time and capacity; and members of the same team are now likely not to be in the same location for at least some of their work. Ensuring success despite these shifts is now the game.

Who helps the team succeed?

While there are a 1000 programmes to develop leadership, many deal with self-management and many more with progressing the organisations’ longer-term response to its environment – few focus on the way in which most of us experience our work –the small team. There are few conversations about how to be a great team member and fewer still on how those teams can effectively be led. Somehow the art of small team leadership has been forgotten.

Bringing back the Art: The Top Five for the Small Team Leader Artist

So here is a small contribution to the gap – an aide memoire for the leader seeking to get the best of his/her team – be it a senior leadership team or a project team, short term or long term, virtual or real.

1. Where are we really going?

In these days of empowerment and employee engagement, it is easy to forget that what is most sought is clarity of direction – where are we going? Whether this is created by a comprehensive programme of team conversations or whether it is declared and understanding deepened through discussion matters much less than the end game  – it must be clear, understood and accepted by team members.

2. Job descriptions are irrelevant – what do you really need from each other to deliver?

Roles, particularly at a senior level, are always negotiated though we act as though they are not and avoid the negotiations that are required for expectations to be clear. Be honest, when was the last time you looked at your job description? Much more important are the conversations in the team: between the leader and the team and between each team members. At a simple level, these need to cover, for each person, their objectives, their requests and their offers. And the rookies’ error is to leave it there – as a leader you need to model and encourage a continuous exchange of good quality feedback to ensure that mission-critical relationships (where the currency is trust) are constantly improving.

3. Understand and create the team’s destination and its journey. ‘Is it storming or performing?’

Most have come across the Tuckman model of small group development (which by the way is only one of many) but can you describe it to your team? Have you ever discussed this? I bet you have a plan for the delivery of Y project by X date (if you don’t, you probably need that) but do you have a Roadmap for the team’s journey? Do you have a clear picture, which is truly embraced by the team of it working at its peak and a deeply felt understanding of what that journey will be like? Have you ever taken a step back at a meeting, which is going southwards and discussed if this difficulty is normal at this time in its life, for the team? If you do, solutions are easier to find, tasks easier to complete and the difference between people easier to use for effective decision-making.

4. Engage with the world and help your colleagues do the same.

All teams desire to have influence on the context and a team only exists in context – what is in that context that will help the team or challenge the team? How clear are the needs of senior management? Your internal and external clients and customers? Your staff? These are all stakeholder groups and your ability to understand and manage relationships with them and learn from them is crucial. The best way to start doing this is to develop a stakeholder plan and have it part of the regular conversations with the team.

5. …and Slow Down to learn, Slow Down to speed up.

When was the last time your team meeting contained the question ‘what do we need to learn as a team that will help us succeed?’ This question appears to be more acceptable to ask individuals (in the annual appraisal probably, though less at other times…). We are always learning, all the time – we do stuff, reflecting on it, we make connections and decide how to respond. Mostly we don’t talk about it and it happens automatically – and most teams are caught in the doing stuff and making decisions part of the cycle. Without reflecting and making connections between things we fail to come to real shared views or genuinely common goals, and we fail to understand how we can be really effective in our work together – and the result? Poor decisions, half-baked activity, the poor use of team member capability and at its worse, sabotage team effort as frustration rises and comes out in peculiar places.

So there we have it – not the only top 5 but a pretty good start in championing the art of small team leadership…

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