How To Be A Better Team Leader: A Case Study

I used to be one of those disengaged reps, you’re talking about.” We were all a bit shocked by Mike’s response. After all this was a recognition focus group for the top reps in this enormous call center. Several of whom were on the short-list to become team leaders.

I smiled gently, my eyes pleading for this brave, young rep to continue. My team leader was just terrible. The rest of the high potential reps turned to him in a chorus of disgust:

  • “It shouldn’t matter what your team leader does.”
  • “You are in charge of your career.”
  • “You need to do great work and people will notice.”
  • “You should care about the customers no matter what.”
  • It’s about building a bigger network.”

Mike continued:

“It’s more complicated than that. When I first got here I was so optimistic. I worked my butt off, but my team leader didn’t notice. He never said “thank you”. I got ZERO feedback on what I was doing right or wrong. We never talked about my career. So I gradually did less and less and got the same response. So I figured, why bother?

Then they re-shuffled the shifts and I got moved to a different team leader. Everything changed. This guy cared about me. He gave me great feedback. He shared all the career options available and we made a plan to get me ready to lead a team. He helped me believe I could do it. And now I’m here being recognized.”

Silence. The others still weren’t convinced. And for some reason, a little mad. I asked softly, “How many of you want to be team leaders?” All but one raised their hand.

You End the Story

Instead of sharing what I said next, let’s play with this:

  • What would you say next?
  • What questions would you ask?
  • What teachable point of view would you go for?
Posted in Career & Learning, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , , , , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. I would start by asking the person who didn’t raise their hand why they aren’t interested. There is probably a good chance that they have actually thought through all of the issues impacting the situation and could bring a perspective to the conversation that the others are missing.

  2. I would ask the group, what do you think has the biggest impact on your ability to grow as a leader? Is it yourself or your leader? Then I would follow-up with who can you control yourself or your leader? You can’t in most cases control who your leader is, but you can influence them and you can control yourself. How do you do that?

  3. I think I would talk about how Mike got to experience both good and bad leadership and he learned from both. He learned what to do to be a great leader and what not to do to be a bad leader. Yes, intrinsic motivation is important but so it extrinsic. If as a leader you are not providing motivation and feedback, what are you doing to lead?

    • Jerome, Excellent. I did take the conversation down that angle…Mike gained valuable experience in his growth as a leader by experiencing both good and bad leadership. Not everyone he will manage in the future will be intrinsically motivated… many may be like him. Leadership matters and great leaders know how to inspire greatness from those who are intrinsically motived and those who are not. Some may just need a nudge to break through.

  4. Hi, Karin – another interesting scenario …

    I think I would ask the group who raised their hands this question: “How will you treat those who you lead when you are that Team Leader?” and let the discussion roll.

    I am assuming that the responses will reflect the positive experience that Mike described with his second supervisor, so this should be a good opportunity to compile a list of “Do’s” for effective team leaders.

    Then I’d move to the “Don’t’s” or negative behavior and compile that list.

    Then I’d revisit Mike’s experience and see if their perceptions had changed any.

    Of course, I’m hoping the answer to that would be “Oh, gosh, yes …”:)


  5. Great post, Karin! And great way to stimulate a dialogue!

    I would ask the future team leaders if they every experienced what Mike has experienced with bad and good team leaders. Then as a group, I might put together a list of the qualities of a nurturing and motivational leader. Then ask them to choose which areas they would like to grow in.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. I say it quite regularly, there can often me more to learn from bad leaders, it’s how you face it that matters…. I will confess to doing the job in spite of them and shutting them out. It’s a fline line to walk but i have found personal satisfaction there.

    • Mark, Great to see you here. An interesting angle. Kind of like those noise cancelling head phones that have become so popular 😉 You may enjoy this one.

  7. Hi Karin, great post and very relatable. My thoughts – I would ask the team to think of times when their team leaders made them feel really good and times when they felt really horrible. With a list of traits under both headings, they would have enough food for thought.

  8. I agree with Terri, a great way to stimulate dialogue.

    I actually think this story would be a great setup for a workshop discussion, or an exercise that could be copied out of a reference book and used in said workshop.

    To answer Karin’s question though-

    I’d quickly capture the key points from his very powerful story:

    – Together we achieve more (an oldie but a goodie)

    – On the value of feedback:
    —“So I gradually did less and less and got the same response”
    —“He helped me believe I could do it, and now I’m here being recognized.”

  9. Dallas, Thanks so much. I was thinking the same thing in terms of a reference guide. I wonder if others would like to see such case studies organized as part of the book I am working on for developing frontline leaders?

  10. I’m going to give a different perspective because it is a situation I was in: the management ABOVE the bad manager is not at this meeting to hear the complaints about the bad managers. The team leaders were promoted by upper management, who obviously did not value the “my team leader cares about me” approach; otherwise, there would have been more team leaders with that approach.
    So unfortunately, talking to these top reps about what kind of leader they want to be is half the conversation, if the upper management does not recognize or respect that.
    This is a way-too-common problem with management.
    So I would suggest not only talking to the resp about how they can grow themselves as individual leaders, but how they grow the level ABOVE their immediate supervisors as leaders (since that is the level that will promoting or firing the bad managers directly above the reps).
    There’s a huge amount of fearlessness and courage involved: People have to be able to say – to the upper management – that Manager A cares about me and helps my career (and brings more profit to the company) and that Manager B is the “did not care about me and gave me no feedback” and actually lost money for the company.
    Upper management understands that language.

    (full disclosure: I was at the level of these top reps when I saw this situation, I advocated to the others on my same level the strategy I suggested. Upper management listened, and changed that secondary level of management and we had astonishing success. Until upper management apparently got scared of our little revolt and put even worse management in place – to ‘control” us and force us to “submit.” So mostly everyone eventually left. Sad ending.)

  11. RIck, A powerful story (and yes, a tragic ending). I’m surprised they decided to go back to the old style when the new one was working… any theories? Thanks so much for sharing and giving us more to think about.

  12. The question i would ask the mad people is that have they ever worked under a bad leadership because the truth is self motivation and self drive are to me all great but the reality is that the role team leaders is not just to ensure goals are achieved but also to develop leaders who can scale the great job.
    I work in the community and i have seen great leaders demoralized by their not so good leaders,and i have also seen what great leaders can be made by good leadership.

    • Jacob, So great to have you join the LGL discussion. I agree with you. Working under a poor leader can be tremendously demoralizing. Leaders do matter. Thanks!

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