Strategies for Effective Teams: How to Build a Team of Leaders

Posted: Nov. 4, 2021, 2 p.m.

Strategies for Effective Teams: How to Build a Team of Leaders

You’ve probably heard the term “teamwork makes the dream work.”  Well, being on a leadership team is the ultimate version of that idiom. If you are a leader working with other leaders, you are in the room where it happens -- you are part of the team that makes big decisions that affect the trajectory of an organization and its people. You have an enormous responsibility and immense opportunity. And best of all, you get to do it with a highly competent and motivated team of fellow leaders. Leadership teams -- or any group of leaders working together -- are a crucial part of many organizations: They help guide an organization toward success. They work together to bring ideas to reality. And they inspire teams -- and each other -- to live and breathe an organization’s core values. From managers working with managers cross-departmentally to VPs executing quarterly goals, to executive boards establishing yearly budgets -- working with other leaders can present unique -- but very rewarding -- challenges. 

  1. Teambuilding for Leaders

There’s a difference between a group of people getting things done, and a team. Being on a team just feels better. Team members are much more willing to go to work, are enthusiastic about spending time with each other, and as a group, are likely more productive. So what makes a group of leaders into a team of leaders? A sense of belonging and unity.  There are a couple of things you can do to facilitate this move. The first step is to create a boundary to entry- make it a challenge to join. Put in place a joining protocol that has several steps. Having an application process ensures that someone really wants to join the board or leadership team. This allows you to gauge interest and allows both you and them opportunities to back out if it’s not a good fit, understanding of course that we don’t always have a choice in who is on the team.

Another simple thing you can do is name the group, so the members can feel like they can truly identify with the team. Teams also thrive in an open environment that supports and rewards collaboration, autonomy, and information sharing. As a member of a leadership team, you can foster this by leading by example -- ask for open dialogue, share useful information with others, find ways to enhance and celebrate other people’s accomplishments, and genuinely thank others when they demonstrate these positive behaviors. 

Finally, find a common enemy - I don’t mean this in a literal sense, though sometimes you may have a competitor that makes it easy to align against -- but think about a universal challenge that needs to be overcome or the big, #1 goal of the organization. Yes, everyone on the leadership team represents different divisions each with their own unique goals and challenges -- but those are for the leader and THEIR team to tackle. In leadership groups, your job is to be your own cohesive team working to solve the biggest problem, overcome the most complicated obstacle, and work towards the big, #1 goal. This is where team cohesion is really at its peak. Moving from group to team is the difference between just getting things done and making a real difference. It might take some work, but you and the other leaders you work with will be more engaged, more productive, and more successful.

  1. Identifying Roles and Responsibilities

Leaders want to lead. Good leaders tend to see something that needs to be done and do it. You take responsibility for what needs to be done, you are skilled at delegating, you are good at motivating, and things get accomplished. Leaders roll up their sleeves and dive right in. They do not, however, always check to make sure that someone else isn’t already doing it, wants to do it, or needs to do it. Taking the time to clearly outline roles and responsibilities is always important, but particularly so when dealing with a group of managers and notorious self-starters. There are a few things that you can do to make sure you are staying in your own lane and encouraging others to do the same.

The first thing you should do is revisit your job description. Starting there is going to be a solid, quantifiable place to start the conversation. If you are in sales, you are not in marketing. If you are in marketing, you are not in sales. There may be overlap, but you should have a clearly defined job description. A common issue I see is when two or more leaders feel that something falls within their purview. The Marketing Manager thinks customer research is in their camp -- but so does the Head of Sales. This is a recipe for conflict. Of course, two managers can have a voice in the same area, but it is vital that each leader has a clear idea of what aspects they control and which others do. In this case, the Sales team takes on the collection of customer data and the Marketing Team works on lead generation. To that end, it’s important that not just leaders know what their roles and responsibilities are, they should make sure that their respective teams know this as well. It can be particularly challenging for members of cross-functional teams to know who to report to. They may have one manager that is the project lead and one that is a divisional lead. So it is vital that leaders communicate clearly among themselves so that they don’t create undue stress for their team members. If you’re a “do-er,” working with a bunch of fellow “do-ers” can be really inspiring. But make sure that you’re not OVER doing it and stepping on someone else’s toes or wandering into territory that, frankly, is just not your place. Trust that your fellow leaders have things under control in their lanes, and focus on doing YOUR job to the best of your ability. 

  1. Staying Aligned 

When you have your own team and goals to worry about, it can seem challenging to make sure all those efforts are brought together to execute the organizational goals. At some point, one team’s efforts will run counter to another’s. For instance, the sales team has to increase sales, but the warehouse team can’t handle the increased volume, so the customer service department gets bombarded. 

The bigger the organization, the harder this is for the department heads to accomplish. It is important to take steps to align your team with other teams and foster synergy. Success should not be a competition. Not amongst teams and certainly not amongst leaders. 

First,  all the department heads or leaders need to be on the same team. You need to have a collective goal that everyone can articulate. The leadership team needs to have regular check-ins about where you are going, how you are getting there, and if you are on track. Anticipate challenges together and move forward together. If the warehouse is overwhelmed, the sales team and customer service need to be a part of the solution -- it’s a team effort. Figure out how each team and each individual contributes to the larger goals. This helps leaders make sure that divisional, departmental, and unit-level strategies align with the broader organizational strategy. As you report out, look to expose misalignments and solve for those early on as a leadership team.

Another way to stay aligned is to embrace diversity of thought. This sounds counterintuitive to building alignment, but an inclusive environment encourages creative thinking and out-of-the-box problem solving -- you NEED this to see things from a new perspective and grow. So invite creative solutions, ask for constructive feedback and opinions, ask other leaders to analyze a problem that’s out of their scope of work. 

Finally, find ways to connect around things other than just work. Connect outside of meetings. When people know each other they are more likely to engage with each other and align. Create some time where the group gets to connect over non-task conversations. This can be team-building activities, social time, or just having conversations -- a weekly coffee chat works in a video conference or in person! These strong, personal connections help people better understand each other, build higher levels of trust, and you can see the benefit of each person more easily.

Staying aligned on the bigger picture is easier said than done. So if you work closely with other leaders, make it your mission to help keep everyone aligned and working toward the same goals. It will help clarify priorities and ultimately encourage stronger leaders, teams, and organizations. 

  1. Writing group contracts

Group contracts force the team to talk about all the expectations they have of each other, their interactions, and the work they are doing together. It quickly moves groups past the “storming” phase of group development and into the “Norming” and “Performing” phase. 

If you can take the time to work through the following conversations you and the other leaders on your team will be able to avoid many of the common areas of conflict and function more cohesively.

The conversations should include team values and goals, team roles and responsibilities,

decision making, communication, and team performance. 

These conversations may seem simple, or even silly to have, but I guarantee you will find at least one area that your group did not realize was misaligned. So even if you are in the middle of a fiscal year or you have been a part of the same board for years, I encourage you to make or revisit your group contract. Set yourselves up for success! 

Taking the time to better navigate you leadership teams is going to pay long-term dividends through stronger relationships, more cohesive teams, and more successful organizations. I encourage you to start applying these skills to your teams right away. Remember that change doesn’t occur overnight though. You will likely see some progress, but are likely to hit some roadblocks as well. Just keep practicing and moving forward. I encourage you to check out my LinkedIn Learning Course on Strategies for Effective Leadership Teams for more tips and information. One last note, remember that mistakes are not only likely but they are also expected. It's how you react to them that is important. Stay focused and continue to grow as you become the next great manager and leader.