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Team leadership hacks: small changes that bring big results

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

October 18, 2023

Ever wondered why some teams soar and others crash and burn? It’s not about talent and rarely to do with resources. It’s usually down to the captain of the ship, aka the team leader. 

Teams are usually made up of individuals who are powerhouses in their own right — but to get the most out of each person, you need a leader who ties all that talent together.

A great manager turns a group of ‘me’s’ into a ‘we.’ But how do they do that, exactly? In this article, we’ll explain team leadership as a concept, as a role, and finally, as an action. Let’s get started! 

What is team leadership?

Team leadership goes beyond the title; it’s not just about being the boss. It’s the art of rallying a group of people around a common purpose and creating a culture that’s positive and effective. 

But what does a great team leader look like in action? They’re definitely not shouting commands from a comfortable distance. They’re right there with everyone else, sleeves rolled up, ready to face whatever the day throws at them. 

Leadership, when you get down to it, is about balance. It’s recognizing the needs of each individual while never losing sight of the team’s objectives. It’s about making sure everyone has their moment to shine but no one feels overburdened. And yes, it’s about crossing that finish line, but not at the cost of the journey. The best leaders make sure the road to success is just as meaningful as the achievement itself.

Team leadership vs. project management

Team leadership is about guiding people, emphasizing personal dynamics, motivation, and overall cohesion. Project management, on the other hand, zeroes in on the execution of a specific project, focusing on timelines, resources, and tasks. 

Think of a product manager at a tech company launching a new software update. Their primary goal? Making sure the update gets rolled out on time, within budget, and meets the predetermined specifications. They’ll create detailed plans, monitor progress, and coordinate between different departments.

While team leadership emphasizes people, project management emphasizes the project. Both roles often overlap, especially in smaller companies or tight-knit teams. For example, a manager might find themselves mediating team conflicts (a leadership role) and, later, adjusting task timelines (a project management role). But understanding the distinction can help you ensure no one leader is overburdened. 

Why is team leadership important?

Team leadership isn’t just some buzzworthy phrase you hear at those company meetings; it’s the backbone of an effective team. Let’s break it down.

1. Maximizing productivity

Remember that team you heard about that scored big while maintaining a happy work environment? Chances are, they had a solid team leader steering the ship. Strong leadership ensures tasks are delegated according to strengths, obstacles are identified early, and the team stays focused on the goal.

2. Nurturing team growth and development

Much like a savvy investor spotting opportunities in the market, a good team leader identifies and cultivates the potential within their team members. They dish out training and support to the right places and know how to motivate each person.

3. Ensuring clear communication

Communication breakdowns spell disaster for a project. Strong team leadership ensures messages aren’t just relayed but understood. A good leader also gets that not everyone communicates in the same way — so they set up a range of different communication channels for their workers, along with training on how to use them. 

4. Building trust and boosting collaboration

Cross-functional team leadership is an essential skill. Picture the marketing team working with IT or sales working with the tech team. They all have different goals, ways of working, and communication styles. Strong leadership can bridge any gaps, ensuring a happy, efficient working environment.

5. Adapting to modern challenges

With the rise of remote work, we’re not just popping over to a colleague’s desk anymore. Leading a team that’s spread across time zones and sometimes continents requires a unique set of skills. Ensuring alignment and addressing the challenges of isolation are a must. Think of it like coordinating multiple departments in a multinational corporation but on a more regular basis.

6. Maintaining team morale and motivation

Motivated employees are like a well-oiled machine in a manufacturing unit. They’re more productive, bring in better results, and tend to stay loyal to the company. A team leader ensures that morale stays high, recognizing achievements and addressing concerns.

7. Capitalizing on the benefits of diversity

Cross-functional and remote teams often bring diverse perspectives to the table. This isn’t just about different departments but also cultural and experiential diversity. Much like how global brands tailor their products to different markets, a good leader can harness these diverse insights, driving efficiency.

8. Stronger crisis management

Remember when certain brands came out stronger after a PR disaster? That’s resilient leadership in action. Great leaders not only steer the ship calmly during storms but also chart a course for clearer waters.

9. Strengthened company reputation

In the marketplace, a company led by a respected and effective leader can have its reputation elevated. It’s like having a celebrated chef at a restaurant; diners are more likely to trust the quality of the meal.

What is team leadership theory?

Let’s take a moment to demystify this. Team leadership theory is essentially the study of how leadership influences team dynamics and outcomes. This isn’t just a textbook concept; it’s in play in boardrooms, startup hubs, and virtual teams all over the world.

Imagine a software development company where developers, designers, and the sales team collaborate. The way a team leader manages this group, the decisions they make, and the atmosphere they cultivate all stem from underlying leadership theories, even if they aren’t overtly aware of it. Here are some of the key principles.

1. Leaders influence team outcomes

This might sound obvious, but it’s backed by research. A team leader’s approach directly impacts a project’s success and team morale. Think about a manager in a finance firm who sets clear communication channels, checks in with team members, and is open to feedback. Chances are, their team will be more efficient and harmonious.

2. Leadership is situational

It’s not just about the leader’s personality or a fixed leadership style. It’s also about adapting to the situation at hand. Consider a marketing agency handling a client crisis. A team leader might encourage group discussions and brainstorming but might switch to a more directive approach to swiftly handle the immediate challenge.

3. Teams have different needs at different times

Early in a project, a team might need more direction and clarity. As they progress and become more self-reliant, they might require support and resources. Reflect on the evolution of a startup: In the beginning, founders might be deeply involved in day-to-day tasks. As the team grows and specialists are onboarded, the leadership might shift to a more hands-off, coach-like role.

Team leadership theory reminds us that successful leadership isn’t about rigidly sticking to one style. It’s about understanding the nuances of team dynamics, the specific challenges at hand, and adapting to ensure the best outcomes. And the most successful leaders? They’re the ones always learning and adapting, just like the business world itself.

Examples of team leadership models

Now we know what team leadership is and why it’s important, let’s take a look at some of the most popular models. 

1. Transformational leadership

Originating from the boardrooms of big corporations, transformational leaders inspire their teams with a shared vision. Think of tech giants like Apple’s Steve Jobs, who didn’t just assign tasks but motivated his team to innovate and push boundaries. They’re the type who believe in the ‘why’ of a project, driving passion and creativity.

2. Situational leadership

A dynamic model, situational leadership suggests that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Leaders adjust their style based on the task and the individual team member’s experience and skills. For instance, a seasoned team member might need less supervision but more autonomy, while a newbie might benefit from more hands-on guidance.

3. Participative leadership

Drawing inspiration from collaborative workspaces and startups, this model is all about inclusivity. Leaders involve team members in decision-making processes. Imagine a design lead asking for input from all designers, not just seniors, before finalizing a product’s look. It’s also known as ‘bottom up’ management

4. Transactional leadership

This is the classic ‘I assign, you deliver’ model. Often seen in sales teams or target-driven environments, leaders set clear expectations and rewards (or sometimes penalties) based on performance. A sales head might offer bonuses for top performers or additional training for those lagging.

5. Servant leadership

Here, leaders act as supporters rather than bosses. They prioritize the team’s growth and well-being. It’s like when a senior manager prioritizes mentoring sessions, ensuring juniors learn and grow rather than just focusing on deliverables.

Essential team leadership skills 

Home truth incoming: Anyone can be designated as a ‘leader,’ but not everyone has the chops to be a great team leader. There’s a cocktail of qualities that set the stellar ones apart, and, spoiler alert: it’s not about the loudest voice in the room. So, what does the blueprint of an effective team leader in today’s business landscape look like?

1. Empathy

At the heart of every team are individuals, each with unique experiences, aspirations, and challenges. A top-tier leader recognizes this. Think of a supervisor understanding when an employee needs flexibility due to personal issues, or recognizing when someone’s burnt out and needs a break.

2. Clear communication

Gone are the days of mysterious leaders in closed-door offices. Today’s teams thrive on transparency. This is the manager who not only sets clear expectations but also keeps the team in the loop about larger organizational shifts or updates.

3. Adaptability

Business environments are as unpredictable as stock market fluctuations. The best leaders adjust their strategies based on the current scenario. Remember when remote work suddenly became the norm? The standout leaders were those who swiftly transitioned their teams, keeping productivity and morale high.

4. Decision-making prowess

It’s not about making decisions hastily but about being decisive when needed. A prime example? Picture a team leader in a digital agency choosing to pivot their campaign strategy after unexpected shifts in market trends.

5. Delegation skills

Effective leaders recognize that they can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything. They trust their team. It’s like a CEO entrusting a major product launch to their marketing head, knowing that’s their domain of expertise.

6. Continuous learning

The business world isn’t static, and neither are the best leaders. They’re the ones attending workshops, seeking feedback, and always looking for ways to up their game.

7. Conflict resolution

Disagreements happen. They’re part and parcel of any collaborative setting. The hallmark of a strong leader is one who can mediate differences, ensuring the team remains cohesive and on track. Think of a product manager smoothing over differences between the design and engineering teams to ensure a product release stays on schedule.

8. Active listening

A standout leader isn’t just waiting for their turn to talk. They genuinely listen. Imagine a department head who attentively listens to a junior team member’s innovative idea and then champions it up the hierarchy.

9. Feedback delivery

Constructive feedback is an art. It’s the difference between a team member feeling defeated and one who’s empowered to improve. Consider a marketing team lead offering pointed, actionable feedback on a campaign pitch, steering it toward success.

10. Time management

Time’s the ultimate currency, isn’t it? Effective leaders know where to invest theirs for maximum returns. It’s like the founder of a startup allocating time efficiently between investor meetings, team catch-ups, and strategy sessions.

11. Strategic thinking

Great leaders have their eyes on the horizon, not just the task at hand. They’re playing the long game. Think of a retail business leader foreseeing the rise of eCommerce and starting the transition early on.

12. Negotiation

The business world is teeming with diverse perspectives. A strong leader knows how to bridge gaps. Like a sales head, for instance, successfully striking a balance between what a client wants and what’s feasible for the company.

13. Problem-solving

A leader’s ability to navigate challenges defines their mettle. Think of the finance director devising strategies to keep the company afloat during economic downturns.

14. Cultural awareness

In today’s globalized business environment, having an understanding and appreciation for diverse cultures isn’t just a bonus; it’s essential. 

How team leaders can help their teams

Think of team leadership as being like being a coach of a top-tier sports team. You’re not just there to give pep talks. You’re there to ensure every player has the right training, equipment, and game plan. Here’s a practical list of how team leaders can amplify their support.

1. Set clear expectations

Ever been to a meeting where the objectives are as clear as mud? A team leader ensures everyone knows the game plan and their role in it.

2. Open channels of communication

Create an environment where team members feel they can voice their concerns or ideas, much like an open-door policy in many corporate settings.

3. Recognize and reward

Celebrate the small victories, not just the major wins. It’s like acknowledging the person behind a successful product demo, not just the team for the final product launch.

4. Constructive feedback

Providing feedback isn’t about pointing out mistakes. It’s like a workshop session where you refine ideas. It should be a process of growth, not criticism.

5. Delegate wisely

Understand the strengths of your team. It’s akin to knowing which salesperson can close a deal with a particular type of client.

6. Promote work-life balance

Burnouts are real. Just as any HR rep would tell you, overworked employees can become unproductive. Ensure your team isn’t just clocking hours but is also taking breaks.

7. Foster team collaboration

Promote activities or sessions where team members collaborate. Think brainstorming sessions in advertising agencies before a big pitch.

8. Encourage professional growth

Remember those companies that sponsor employees for advanced courses? Be that leader. Encourage courses, webinars, or workshops that can benefit your team.

9. Be approachable

While it’s important to maintain a level of professionalism, being approachable means your team can come to you with issues before they become major hurdles. Think of it like a team preferring to approach a friendly manager over a distant CEO.

10. Provide resources

Just as a marketing team needs the latest software for analytics, give your team the necessary tools and training to work well. This includes chat apps, diagramming tools, and project management software. 

Backlog, our own PM tool, comes with a dashboard so you can see all your workflows at a glance. Prioritize tasks, allocate resources, share files, leave comments, while also taking advantage of powerful analytics for real-time insights. With the right tools, both you and your team are unstoppable.

Essential resources for team leaders 

  1. Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, by Simon Sinek. This book delves into why certain teams trust each other so deeply they would literally put their lives on the line for one another.
  1. Leadership, Management and Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century on Coursera. Offered by the University of London, this course addresses leadership challenges ranging from individual creativity to global enterprises.
  1. Harvard Business Review (HBR). HBR offers numerous articles, case studies, and podcasts about leadership and management, with specific emphasis on team leadership.
  1. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, by Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni provides an insightful allegory that identifies team pitfalls and offers tools and strategies to overcome them.
  1. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck. In this groundbreaking book, psychologist Carol S. Dweck discusses the concept of ‘mindset’ and how our beliefs about our abilities can significantly impact our success. While not specifically targeted at team leaders, its insights into growth mindset versus fixed mindset are transformative for leaders (and those they manage).



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