7 Roles of an Exceptional Team Leader

Your strategy is only as strong as the ability to execute at the frontline. You can have all the great plans, six sigma workouts, and brilliant competitive positioning in the universe, but if the human beings doing the real work lack the competence, confidence, and creativity to pull it off, you’re back to muddling through.

The team leader role is a tough gig. Team leaders are uniquely squashed between supporting the folks doing the heavy lifting (e.g. producing the product or serving customers) and the leaders above rolling out their strategy and vision. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helplessMany team leaders feel they have limited power to change the system or culture (an issue we address in BYOO: Build Your Own Oasis). To make matters worse, many team leaders are promoted into the role based on their exceptional technical skills and general good spirits, without much scaffolding or support.

In all the frontline teams I’ve worked with over the years, I see 7 vital roles to exceptional execution.

7 Vital Roles of an Exceptional Team Leader

Team leaders wear many hats, not always all at the same time. Concentrating on these 7 roles in your leadership development efforts will go a long way to exceptional frontline execution.

#1 The Translator:  Don’t Motivate Until You Translate

  • Key Question:  What’s most IMPORTANT?
  • Key Behaviors: Stays on top of industry and competitive trends; Helps his or her team understand how their work fits into the bigger picture; Works to ensure other departments know what we do and why it’s important.

#2 The Builder: To See More, Be More

  • Key Question: How do we IMPROVE?
  • Key Behaviors: Challenges each team member to continuously improve their skills; Addresses performance issues head on; Provides consistent, candid feedback.

#3 The Connector: Trust Them to Trust You

  • Key Question:  How can we best work TOGETHER?
  • Key Behaviors:  Communicates frequently through multiple channels; Provides opportunities for cross training; Helps the team surface and discuss their conflicts productively.

#4 The Galvanizer: Help Them Taste the Win

  • Key Question:  How do WE make a difference?
  • Key Behaviors: Rallies his or her team toward a compelling vision of the future; Asks great questions that inspire employees to do more; People on his/her team are excited about what they are up to.

#5 Accelerator: Burn the Script

  • Key Question: How can I HELP?
  • Key Behaviors: Finds ways to eliminate wasteful and redundant work; Runs efficient and effective meetings; Includes the right people in decisions so projects move along efficiently.

#6 Backer: Detect, Then Protect

  • Key Question:  How do we accomplish MORE?
  • Key Behaviors: Proactively removes roadblocks for his or her team; Helps team members recover from setbacks or disappointments; Will “take a bullet” for the team.

#7 The Ambassador: Polish the Boundaries

  • Key Question:  How do we SHARE our success?
  • Key Behaviors:  Provides the team with opportunities to communicate their results to key stakeholders; Advocates for team members and their careers; Helps employees build a strong network of position relations with other departments.

Roles Of An Exceptional Team LeaderThanks so much to Larry Coppenrath for this great pic illustrating these roles.

5 Reasons Your Great Idea Isn't Working

When you’re running full speed ahead with a great idea, be sure to look back over your shoulder to see who’s with you.

A Great Idea

My staff team had a great idea. They were buzzing with excitement. We needed some fun recognition to inspire call center reps to provide great customer service.

“Let’s give the reps a lanyard like in Disney world. You know the kind where you collect pins. The employees can use the lanyard to carry their ID and access badge, and then they can earn pins each time they do something extraordinary. We can have a contest to design the pins.”

The presenter (a big Disney fan) could hardly contain her excitement about their great idea. After all reps love contests, and this one had bling. What a great way to reinforce our new priorities. We needed to act fast, so lanyards were ordered and pins designed. There were about 9000 folks to buy for. Anything x 9000 is not cheap. But it would be worth it.

The staff team held a conference call to roll out the plan. Boxes of lanyards and pins shipped to call centers across the country. Game on.

Fast forward 3 months later, I’m on a tour of the call centers, not a lanyard in site. “Oh, I think we have them somewhere.” That somewhere was most often in a storage closet underneath the Halloween decorations. What went wrong?

5 Reasons Your Great Idea Isn’t Working

  1. Lack Of Field Testing – “I’m from staff, I’m here to help” is a phrase that makes field leaders cringe. I’m allowed to say that since I’ve spent much time on both sides of that imaginary line. Always get the folks who you’re trying to help to kick the tires early in the game. A small pilot goes a long way. Test the concept, but also the logistics. In this case the lanyards didn’t fit with every centers badge. Programs developed in a vacuum suck the potential out of potentially great ideas.
  2. They’ve Seen This Movie before – Your new idea may feel like old news to veterans in the field. Check for scar tissue and past experiences. Ask what’s worked well (and not so well) with similar programs in the past. Talk about what’s different this time. Whatever you do don’t say: “this is not just another flavor of the month”. If you have to say that, it probably is. Reconsider.
  3. It’s Lost In The Sauce – Know what other priorities and programs are competing for attention. Support programs work best when they’re supportive of the priorities at hand (shocking, I know). If your idea feels like one more thing do on top of an already stressful job, it’s not going to get attention.
  4. Lack Of Leadership Support – If your middle managers and front-line leaders are not passionate about your idea, I’d bet my paycheck it won’t work. A great idea without excellent execution is useless. Be sure the folks you need to make your great idea happen are overwhelmed by the value. It may take a minute to get there go slow to go fast.
  5. Lack Of Clarity – Most plans feel straightforward when you’re sitting around a conference table at headquarters. Remember it’s 100 times noisier where that idea is headed. Be sure everyone knows what you expect them to do and vet all questions. Sure leave room for creativity, but leave nothing to chance. Explain what needs to be done 3 times, 3 different ways, and then check for understanding.

5 Reasons Your Great Idea Isn’t Working

When you’re running full speed ahead with a great idea, be sure to look back over your shoulder to see who’s with you.

A Great Idea

My staff team had a great idea. They were buzzing with excitement. We needed some fun recognition to inspire call center reps to provide great customer service.

“Let’s give the reps a lanyard like in Disney world. You know the kind where you collect pins. The employees can use the lanyard to carry their ID and access badge, and then they can earn pins each time they do something extraordinary. We can have a contest to design the pins.”

The presenter (a big Disney fan) could hardly contain her excitement about their great idea. After all reps love contests, and this one had bling. What a great way to reinforce our new priorities. We needed to act fast, so lanyards were ordered and pins designed. There were about 9000 folks to buy for. Anything x 9000 is not cheap. But it would be worth it.

The staff team held a conference call to roll out the plan. Boxes of lanyards and pins shipped to call centers across the country. Game on.

Fast forward 3 months later, I’m on a tour of the call centers, not a lanyard in site. “Oh, I think we have them somewhere.” That somewhere was most often in a storage closet underneath the Halloween decorations. What went wrong?

5 Reasons Your Great Idea Isn’t Working

  1. Lack Of Field Testing – “I’m from staff, I’m here to help” is a phrase that makes field leaders cringe. I’m allowed to say that since I’ve spent much time on both sides of that imaginary line. Always get the folks who you’re trying to help to kick the tires early in the game. A small pilot goes a long way. Test the concept, but also the logistics. In this case the lanyards didn’t fit with every centers badge. Programs developed in a vacuum suck the potential out of potentially great ideas.
  2. They’ve Seen This Movie before – Your new idea may feel like old news to veterans in the field. Check for scar tissue and past experiences. Ask what’s worked well (and not so well) with similar programs in the past. Talk about what’s different this time. Whatever you do don’t say: “this is not just another flavor of the month”. If you have to say that, it probably is. Reconsider.
  3. It’s Lost In The Sauce – Know what other priorities and programs are competing for attention. Support programs work best when they’re supportive of the priorities at hand (shocking, I know). If your idea feels like one more thing do on top of an already stressful job, it’s not going to get attention.
  4. Lack Of Leadership Support – If your middle managers and front-line leaders are not passionate about your idea, I’d bet my paycheck it won’t work. A great idea without excellent execution is useless. Be sure the folks you need to make your great idea happen are overwhelmed by the value. It may take a minute to get there go slow to go fast.
  5. Lack Of Clarity – Most plans feel straightforward when you’re sitting around a conference table at headquarters. Remember it’s 100 times noisier where that idea is headed. Be sure everyone knows what you expect them to do and vet all questions. Sure leave room for creativity, but leave nothing to chance. Explain what needs to be done 3 times, 3 different ways, and then check for understanding.

5 Ways To Unblock Leadership Energy

I felt my energy drain as I drove toward the call center. The center’s results were stagnant– it was time to dig deeper. I was there to help, but also to deliver some tough messages. Necessary, not fun.

“Joe,” one of the managers, ran enthusiastically across the parking lot. Joe’s energy ignited mine. The day was looking up. As we walked toward the center together, Joe high-fived and encouraged each arriving rep. They responded in kind. More positive vibes.

We entered the building and the rest of the managers sat quietly at the conference room table nervously awaiting my (and now Joe’s) arrival. The difference in energy–palpable.

Joe’s results blew away the rest of the struggling center. While the other managers shared action plans, Joe excitedly articulated his leadership vision and robust examples of personal connection, challenges and growth.

When I met with the executive team offline I questioned, “How do we get more Joes?” They squirmed, “We can’t expect everyone to have that level of energy.”

Energetic Leaders are Born, Made, and Destroyed

Energy is union, with yourself, the vision, and the team. Energy isn’t extraversion. Don’t waste your time looking for “Joes.” Unblock the stuck energy on your team. It’s not that hard. Release their inner “Joe.”

Empowering low energy destroys potential.

5 Energy Pressure Points

Your leaders have innate energy yearning for release. Get them unstuck. Their energy will cascade, and pretty soon you’ll have an entire organization high on Qi (9 out of 10 studies show well running Qi beats energy drinks without that awful crash ;-).

  1. Missing Connection – Connection fuels fire. Teach the power of connecting, with you, peers, and their team. Model the way. 360 feedback and coaching helps. So can a good talk. Explore insecurities and fear preventing valuable connections.
  2. Faking it – Pretending exhausts. Leaders pretend to look the part, fit in, mask insecurities, hide secrets. Help your leaders uncover and use their mutant powers by using unique skills that stretch them beyond their current job.
  3. Blurry Vision – Fuzzy vision confuses. When leaders lack energy, it’s often that they don’t understand (or buy-into) the vision. It’s hard to act jazzed, when you don’t get it. Go slow. Help them understand the bigger picture. Encourage closed-door dissent and questions. “Ah ha” moments radiate energy. Then help craft and practice messages.
  4. No Options – Choices ignite. Challenge your team with exciting possibilities. Leaders lose energy when they’re stuck. Stuck in their career, in a role, in a project. Help them discover options and new challenges.
  5. Stress – Stress sabotages . When leaders are stressed from competing priorities or home concerns they lose the necessary energy to lead well. Help them balance their goals and energetic pursuits.

4 Reasons Execution Breaks Down: and How to Fix It

When execution is broken, so is leadership. Teams that don’t execute are starving. They crave vision and direction. Carrots don’t improve vision.

Execution breaks down when there’s..

  • fuzzy vision
  • lack of buy-in
  • hidden agendas
  • competing priorities
  • confusion
  • chaos
  • apathy
  • broken teamwork
  • ?

Don’t blame, punish, or make excuses. Lead better.

4 Reasons Execution Breaks Down (and what to do about it)

  1. Lack of Commitment
    Excitement doesn’t necessarily mean commitment. Encourage early dissent. Ask, “what’s wrong with this plan?” or “How’s everyone feeling.” Check with folks offline. Ignored objections will visit later in uglier clothes.
  2. Unspoken Agendas
    You’re the boss, so they go along. But, they have their own ideas, stakeholders and personal concerns. Surface competing commitments. Help the team prioritize. Talk one-on-one.
  3. Fuzzy Direction
    You think the plan is clear– it’s not. Ask the team to articulate their specific next steps and timeline. I’m often amazed at the breakdowns. Best to catch them early.
  4. Moving Too Fast
    I’ve got scar tissue on this one.Early in my career my boss pulled me aside.
“Karin, you’ve got good ideas and big energy. Your brain moves quickly. You get remarkably excited. You rally the team and start running. BUT. you get running so far ahead that you forget to look back and see if we’re with you. Slow down, look back, folks are gasping for air on the side of the road and can’t see you. Make sure we’re with you.”

If you’re a runner, learn to wait at the water stops. Check for understanding.

Commitment, agendas, direction, velocity.