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People First: How New Leaders Can Cultivate A High-Performing Team

People are promoted into their first leadership role due to their competence as individual contributors. Often, they enter these roles driven to demonstrate their personal capabilities. Their focus is on performance, not on people. 

Yet, leaders lead people. This role, therefore, requires a different mindset and a new set of priorities. To develop a fully engaged, high-performing team, the leader must focus on developing relationships. Often, new leaders skip this piece and push forward, giving direction instead of learning about their team. This was my experience as a new leader.

In 1991, I was promoted from my engineering role to lead a manufacturing team. I was young, confident, and prepared to do what was needed to turn around a languishing department. Process inconsistency had me studying theory, learning everything I could from experts, and driving investment in technical capabilities. I had a clear vision of what the department needed and a misguided view that execution was up to me. The result was marginal improvements in output and a team who felt ignored and disrespected, and who only did what they were told. And my job was all-consuming and exhausting.

A Focus on People

25 years later, after much reflection and growth, my leadership had evolved. I acquired the ability to reflect and learn, evolving into a leader who prioritizes people and places trust in the team. I firmly believe that a leader holds two key responsibilities:

  • To ensure team alignment with organizational strategies with clear local priorities and expectations.
  • To create an environment and culture that enables team success.

In following this approach, I focused on how I could serve the team and how we could advance the business. This focus creates a team of people who matter to one another. It creates engaged owners who know that what they do is important and why. And they know I have their back. In this environment, we openly discuss tactics and challenge each other with candor, and all are empowered to execute. It creates buy-in, engagement, and initiative. This is not only rewarding for the team, but it also creates a sustainable existence for the leader.

Practices that Promote Teamwork

Below are 5 tips to get started on how a leader can create a great team culture:

  1. Focus on the 2 responsibilities above and in everything you do such as tying decisions back to strategy and personalizing it with each teammate. Also, when determining the team strategy, invite the broader team to participate. Inclusiveness in strategy invites broader perspectives, creates rich discussion, and helps create a better plan with greater buy-in.
  2. Consistently spend time with each team member, investing in the relationship. Understand their skills and challenges. Notice and consistently reinforce the positives. Connect every week with each person and take note of challenges that require your support. And address performance issues in real-time with respect and candor.
  3. Welcome all new team members and communicate values important to the team and organization. Make sure their onboarding includes growing relationships with co-workers.
  4. Do not walk past problems. When they arise, be curious and investigate the system that enabled them. Discuss the situation conversationally with individuals to promote problem-solving and minimize judgment. When successes occur, notice them and give appreciation. This practice teaches all to address things directly.
  5. Ask for and receive feedback without defensiveness or emotion but with curiosity and commitment. This makes it safe for people to deliver difficult but important information to you. And it models a behavior to be receptive and appreciative of feedback.

The Payoff

In this environment, the dreaded (and ineffective) merit review is unnecessary. Knowledge of performance and feedback happens in real-time. Employees will engage both their minds and their hearts in their work. And over time, you will notice that things run themselves with all taking personal responsibility and treating each other with respect and candor. You will know you are making progress when meetings are full of rich discussion and high participation.

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