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Taking on a Lead Role

Imagine you are newly promoted to lead a small team responsible for getting an important task done. If this task doesn’t get done right, people could get hurt. Being in the lead position means you bear the responsibility of making sure the task is accomplished most efficiently while minimizing the risk of anyone getting hurt. You hear from your predecessor that one of the team members is never there, always has excuses, and seems to do their own thing. They tell you that they should be talked to as soon as possible before they end up causing a real problem. How do you handle this?

Set Rules Upfront?

Some may try to establish some rules up front; there are many recommendations out there that emphasize that. In new management positions or leadership roles, we are supposed to set clear expectations and lay down the law before anyone gets comfortable with us. Want a team to take us seriously? Emphasizing the areas we are serious about in the beginning is the general rule.

Let’s even go out on a limb and assume that our predecessor was someone we knew and trusted well. We understand their general way of thinking and leading. We agree with their principles and believe that if we had to make a bet, everything they are saying about the situation would be the same as we would assess ourselves. Emphasizing their suggestions up front, before anything else, would make even more sense.

However, there is a catch. We need to recognize that even if the recommendations of our predecessor are spot on, even if certain things should be established as soon as possible, there’s something else we should do first.

Team Connection

Even if our predecessor told us everything we need to know, the team doesn’t know us. They haven’t connected with us at all. We could make the perfect calls every day, but if we didn’t work to establish a connection, there would likely be something missing when tough situations occur.

We aren’t advocating for getting into the weeds of someone’s personal life, who they are dating, or what president they voted for. Instead, we want to find out what it is that makes the team member excel and what their goals are in relation to the team. Are there things in their personal life that affect these goals? Do they have other personal goals that conflict with the team’s goals? Is their team role effective? How do they interact with other team members?

Talking to the team to understand these areas firsthand *before* establishing rules and expectations is a great way to start earning respect. If we set rules and expectations before we’ve even spoken to them on an individual level, we are ignoring their thoughts and feelings. Doing so can be a very negative precedent to establish (unless we want robots).

Respect Bank

If we ignore our team’s thoughts and feelings, we are taking for granted that little thing called ‘respect.’ Many leads and managers demand respect without even knowing it. Whenever we establish rules before a team gets to know us, we are asking them for respect, but on loan, like credit. We are saying, “You don’t know me, and I don’t know you, but follow me anyway and do x, y, and z.” Asking anyone to follow us without providing anything in return is a good way to start off on the wrong foot.

What leadership should do instead is give respect to others by making sure everyone has a voice. Ask everyone for input and see how they operate firsthand. Ask questions on a very basic level and get to know everyone. Establish that changes may come, but only after we’ve done our homework and worked with everyone to understand individual needs. At no point should someone’s first day look like a list of demands, rules, or expectations unless they’ve already worked with everyone in some form.

For large teams where it is unreasonable to expect the leader to know everyone’s individual strengths and weaknesses, that means that the team needs more leaders and more groups. A lead with 100 team members needs to separate things into groups such that the primary touchpoints are a manageable number, 10 groups of 10, for example. Smartly dividing things is a key way to connect efficiently with the team.

Establish Responsibilities

Every team member should have a role, an area that they focus on and are responsible for. The best teams will have roles and responsibilities seamlessly interconnected. On a baseball field, for example, each player on the field is keeping track of their area of responsibility. If they don’t, players could literally step on each other trying to catch a ball. It is no different on teams. If those areas aren’t well defined, team members will be stepping over each other, or they won’t be well utilized.

In some situations, general responsibilities are already defined but sometimes redundant due to the size of tasks that need to be handled. In these cases, we need to then go to a more granular level of detail. There shouldn’t be any team member who doesn’t have something they are fully responsible for (this includes juniors and apprentices).

These responsibilities also should take into consideration individual strengths and weaknesses. The lead needs to account for all of these factors and always help everyone understand the why behind what is being done.

Direction Without Directing

The ‘why’ behind things is what being a lead is all about. The reasons we do things add up to a larger goal or purpose. When we answer the ‘why’ behind everything we do for a team, we are building a picture of our ultimate goals for the team.

If we’ve done it right, the team will understand and make decisions based on the purpose we’ve identified, and we won’t have to ‘direct’ them. They will see the direction and move because they want to, not because they were told. If there’s a reason they don’t want to go in a particular direction, it is also the lead’s responsibility to help them understand why and to be flexible enough to take into account what the team member wants.

As a lead, we have to adjust and adapt by listening to the team and giving them ownership. If we can’t, for some reason, we need to be able to get the reasons across, to help the team understand why we can’t do what they’d rather do. If we are successful, then there is no ‘directing;’ the why ultimately provides direction without directing.

Firing a Team Member

Likely the hardest thing that any lead will have to do is tell someone that they don’t make the cut or can’t be on the team anymore. Depending on the work environment, some places are quick to fire, while other places would never fire anyone.

We have to balance this, knowing that both firing a team member and keeping a bad team member is a failure on our part. If we fire a team member, it means we were not able to get them up to speed, get them motivated, or work our goals into their goals. When we keep a bad team member, we are not holding them accountable and setting a bad example for the rest of the team.

Having clear expectations and ensuring everyone is consistently held accountable to those expectations is the answer. Make sure we’ve done our best to work with their strengths and weaknesses or find more appropriate responsibilities. We have to clearly tell them the things we need them to do and work on, give them an explicit time frame to improve.

Culture and Complaints

The way we praise, the way we criticize, the type of gossip we allow, and how we interact daily molds the culture of the team. Whether it is intentional or not, the leaders naturally drive culture on a team. If we stay in the office for 12 hours a day, we are building a culture of staying late, even if it isn’t our intention. If we answer emails at home after hours, we are building a culture of being online outside of work.

Ignored or improperly addressed complaints similarly end up having a significant impact on culture. If a squeaky wheel gets no oil, everyone hears it, and it could have other negative effects. Yet, if we always focus only on the squeaky wheel, we could end up neglecting other areas.

To ensure that we maintain a healthy team culture, complaints have to be consistently addressed. Firstly, complaints should be things we are unaware of. If we were aware, we should have done something about it or already been transparent about what can’t be done about it. Secondly, if things we aren’t aware of are coming up as complaints (aside from personal issues), we need to improve our awareness. Are we missing certain key input? Are we not listening enough? Are we not asking the right questions?

We should be working to cultivate a culture that is transparent and fair, a culture that can talk about real problems but also that doesn’t prioritize squeaky wheels unless they are supposed to be.

Being Fair Versus Being Two-Faced

One of the biggest issues with complaints is when it’s about other team members. When that happens, we can quickly fall into the trap of pitting one team member’s perspective over another’s. The moment that happens, one of them will lose respect for us. What if both team members are correct? What if something does need to happen?

This is a ‘two-faced’ trap where we try our best to appeal to both parties, yet by doing so, we end up making it seem as if we aren’t fair. For instance, Bob feels disrespected by Sally, and we tell Bob, “that’s not right; we’ll talk to her,” then turn around and tell Sally, “Don’t worry about Bob. He’s just being temperamental,” we are being two-faced, and the moment that gets out, we lose massive respect.

Instead, be truthful and articulate about what we do or don’t agree with. If it’s a very sticky situation, why not bring them both together and hash it out together? Although transparency is great, it isn’t our place to pass things on that were told to us in confidence, nor is it our place to placate others with white lies.

Privacy Versus Transparency

Disagreements between two team members don’t necessarily need to be brought in front of the entire team. Similarly, being transparent doesn’t mean we openly berate or criticize one another. Maybe team members want to talk but don’t want everyone to know how they feel.

For example, there is no reason to tell Sally that Mary is jealous of her salary. In a case like this, we have to assume that some of the information is going to get out – maybe Mary ends up telling other people about her annoyance. The result could be toxic gossip about Sally and her unreasonable pay.

Although our example is simple, the point is to underscore that transparency is for sharing generalized topics, not for sharing personal details, thoughts, or feelings. With Mary’s jealousy about salary, we can first work to understand the general topics: Why and how did Mary agree to her salary in the first place? Has Mary gotten appropriate reviews and/or raises? How does she know Sally is or isn’t worth it? How did she learn of Sally’s salary? Ideally, these questions will lead to broader ideas that underscore possible issues like clarifying roles, pay scales, or bonuses, fixing the evaluation process, or addressing raises. All of these broader generalized concepts should be ‘transparent’ so that everyone is on the same page.

Being the Lead

Taking on a lead role can feel daunting, so let’s quickly review the key takeaways:

1. Get to know the team individually before ordering them around, if possible. If not possible due to time constraints, keep in mind that we are drawing from the respect bank, and we need to pay them back.

2. Establish seamlessly integrated responsibilities for the team. Make sure they understand the why behind everything.

3. Hold team members accountable consistently. That includes letting them go if needed.

4. Resolve conflict by being transparent whenever possible. Don’t hold one team member’s word over another’s. Have them work things out together if needed.

Finally, and most importantly, leading others means we give the team ownership, while simultaneously accepting responsibility when things go wrong. In other words, the team members are the reason for success; the leader is the reason for failure.

If taking responsibility for the team’s losses and problems is not something we are willing to do, we should not be a lead.

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