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Team Leadership: Meeting The New Expectations

Published on Jun 19, 2019 by Phillip Sandahl

Team Leadership Expectations

Team leadership is changing and the nature of teams is changing. No doubt you’ve noticed. Teams are more likely these days to be geographically dispersed, relying on new and diverse technology to connect, communicate, make decisions, build team culture.

The pace of business today and its global scale is putting more pressure on teams to be nimble in the face of uncertainty.

Unfortunately, old roles and familiar expectations for team members and team leaders are not keeping up with the changes in the team environment.

There is a pervasive jet lag in many organizations—hanging on to the way things have been because for so long, that’s where the results were measured and incentives embedded. It was the yellow-brick road for promotion and recognition.

The Impact of Change: From Team Structure to Living System

Team Leadership Systems

If the very nature of teams is changing, it only makes sense that the role for team leader and the role for team members must also change.

There was a time when teams had a certain, reliable architecture and the form supplied the means for getting work done.

Today’s teams are living shape-shifting systems, constantly adapting to changing conditions and membership.

The work of teams requires new levels of interaction because more than ever, work gets done in collaboration.

The emphasis on teams has shifted from know-how and task, to empowering the relationships that make teams effective.

The business imperatives don’t go away of course, but the means to achieve them changes. Teams need to learn how to operate in this new environment.

Leadership on teams, including the formal role of team leader, and the requirement for leadership by all team members, is taking on new norms and expectations for teams that succeed.

Team Leadership Defined

One of the Productivity factors in the TCI Team Effectiveness Model is “Team Leadership”—an essential competence for team performance. This is how we understand this key factor:

The team leader’s role is clear and supportive of the team as a whole. There is also a strong sense of team leadership; team members take initiative to provide leadership as the need arises. Leadership is seen as the responsibility of every team member and is empowered by the team.

New Role for Team Leader

In that older structure where the team leader was pinned to the apex of the hierarchical form, there was a natural instinct for team leaders to be the problem-solver.

“The buck stops here,” sat on the desk in many corner offices. Team leaders were rewarded and promoted for their ability to understand, analyze and direct activity to solve problems that stood in the way of results.

It often meant that work came to a standstill while the team waited for direction. As a model for teaming it also made the team leader the primary source of wisdom, insight, and solutions.

The impact was to limit the available wisdom, insight and solutions a team is capable of generating.

Team leaders are learning “we” are smarter and more effective together, than any one of us alone. This is the essence of effective team leadership.

New Role for Team Members

If you ask a high-performing team, “Who’s responsible for this team’s success?” You will get a quick and simple answer: “We are.”

Every individual brings unique experience, talents, and perspectives that are essential to the team’s success.

Leadership for team members is the expectation that, as appropriate, team members will contribute from their strengths.

They will assume there is a role of leadership that every team member is responsible for; it means the willingness, and the duty, to speak up from that position.

An obvious example is a cross-functional leadership team. If you’re the VP of manufacturing, and the issue on the table is your world of expertise, the team expects your leadership—more than your opinions, your analysis, or your report.

On high-performing teams there is an expectation of leadership. This is an important additive role that is especially important on leadership teams. Stepping up and stepping in optimizes team effort and accelerates forward movement.

Changing How We See Team Leadership Can be a Challenge

Team Leadership Challenges

Becoming an empowering, collaborative team leader sounds like it makes good sense and yet for some, especially in transition to that new ideal, it can feel like the map was taken away.

The role of expert, problem-solver, authority—that role is well-defined and for the person behind the role, reasonably safe because of the role’s inherent rank.

In this transforming world of team process the nature of the team leader’s role becomes less about being the expert, and more about finding expertise within the team.

The emphasis is on collaboration and therefore fundamentally about relationship.

It’s a more vulnerable position for a team leader which may be very uncomfortable; this is untested territory.

At the core of this transition for team leaders is the personal, internal work of creating a new identity, one that aligns with new expectations of leadership.

Instead of being the boss at the apex of the structure, they will need to find a place that catalyzes others and brings stronger interpersonal connections that allow the system to thrive. It’s a shift from external problem-solver, to internal relationship and collaboration builder.

The need to step into a new identity is just as true for team members. There is an essential shift from “my job” and the way contributing that piece satisfies a certain, but limited commitment, to “our work” or our team performance.

And that shift will often bring a similar sense of vulnerability to team members. When we see the team as a living system of relationships, held together by mostly unspoken expectations, we get a sense of how this new model can feel uncomfortable, even unsafe.

Culture Change Happens in the Conversation

Team Leadership Transformation

Breaking out of old, familiar patterns is not so easy but it is worth the effort. Truly collaborative leadership ignites a culture of conversation.

And by “collaborative conversation” we include the functional role of team leader and the engaged participation of team members.

A team with a culture of collaborative conversation will make better decisions, faster, and adapt to changing conditions more effectively.

The relationship network accesses more talent, ideas and experience. The consequence of becoming a team that is more open, more vulnerable, builds bonds of trust, and more efficient communication.

There is less hesitation and more active participation. Collaborative leadership and collaborative conversation form the double helix of high-performing teams’ DNA.

The key to creating that collaborative leadership culture will be the willingness, and the practice of being in honest conversation, watching to ensure safety, and expressing mutual support.

We believe that at the heart of every team member and team leader there is a desire to contribute, a desire for shared success, and a desire for a sense of belonging to a purposeful community with shared values.

Building a collaborative team leadership culture can be a way to fulfill those very human desires.

Conversation Starters

  • Review with the team critical situations or turning points and investigate the role of leadership. Who was leading when? What was the value of that contribution? How did other team members contribute to the leadership of the team?
  • What are ways that new team members take on the role of leadership within a team they have just joined?
  • What will support this team on its path to becoming a more collaborative team leadership culture? What will undermine that effort?
  • For team members: what do you need from your team leader to create this new culture? What will you commit to for your own growth and contribution?

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