Leadership

10 tips for leading your team to peak performance

If you manage knowledge workers and IT project managers, you need to develop a special brand of leadership that challenges employees, allows them to make creative contributions, and fosters their ability to solve problems independently. TechRepublic executive editor Jason Hiner examines various ways you can put these goals into practice and guide your team toward achieving its maximum potential.

This article is also available as a PDF download.

If you want to succeed as a leader, you can only do it by setting up your team members to succeed. Here are a few fundamental leadership tips for managing your team to peak performance. Keep in mind that these tips are aimed at leaders who manage knowledge workers and project managers in IT. The equation can be a little different if you are managing people in a strict production environment, although many of the principles may still apply.

#1: Focus on results and productivity and not the time clock

When you manage salaried knowledge workers, you should almost never have rigid clock-in/clock-out times unless there is a coverage issue in relation to serving customers (e.g., maintaining adequate help desk coverage during call hours). Instead, set clear goals that you know should take your employees about 40 hours/week to accomplish. Require that they show up on time for important meetings and are available during the team's general working hours. Provide them with the tools to access their work remotely, when needed. Then let them manage their own time. This sends the message that you trust your employees. If you've got people you don't trust, that's another issue. Manage them up until you do trust them or manage them out to their next opportunity.

#2: Align people with the stuff they are good at

Make sure you have the right people in the right seats. This is especially true if you take over the management of a team that is already in place. Take stock of all the talents you have on the team and reshuffle the deck if it means that your team has a better chance of success. Don't keep someone in a job role just because they've been doing it for long time if you truly think their talents are better suited and could make a bigger contribution in another role. Employees might be reluctant to move in a case like this, so you may need to work hard to convince them that the change is in their best interest, as well as the best interest of the company.

#3: Align people with the projects they are passionate about

Another part of getting people in the right seats is finding what your employees are genuinely passionate about and seeing if they are ways to align them with job roles that let them channel some of that passion. Occasionally, that can mean putting someone in an area where they don't have much experience. But if their previous work history makes you think they can succeed in that role, it's usually worth it because their passion will fuel a strong desire to learn and grow. Once they're up to speed, that passion can become a strong driver of innovation and growth.

#4: Put your best performers on your biggest opportunities

When you have a big opportunity that could propel your organization forward, you need to step back and think about who is the best person to lead the charge. In addition to finding someone who has the talent for the work involved or who has a passion for the subject matter, you need to look at who has a track record of success. Big opportunities come around only once in a while, and they can be lost. So even if it means taking someone off something important, you should always put your best performers on your biggest opportunities.

#5: Find the balance between aggressive and realistic goals

Create a culture of performance by setting aggressive goals and holding your employees accountable for regularly reporting on their progress. However, the goals can't be so aggressive that your employees quickly fall behind and feel like they can never realistically achieve them. Otherwise, they will quit stretching to reach the goals. That means that you have to regularly re-evaluate the goals (at least on a quarterly basis) to decide whether they need to be scaled down or scaled up.

#6: Trust your people -- and let them know it

Knowledge workers typically have jobs that require creative solutions and decision-making. They need to stay sharp mentally to achieve top performance. The onus is on management to create an atmosphere that fosters and encourages that kind of creativity. One of the best things you can do is to let your employees know that you trust them and that you have faith in their ability to do the job, solve the problem, and/or meet the deadline. If you don't trust them, again, you need to manage them up or manage them out.

#7: Avoid blame (a.k.a. throwing people under the bus)

In any business (or organizational enterprise), there are going to be times when you fail, and there will be things that simply don't pan out the way you had hoped. Do a post-mortem (even if it's informal) to figure out what went wrong and learn from it. If there were egregious errors made by individuals, deal with them privately. If necessary, let the person know your expectations for how this should be handled in the future. Don't publicly blame individuals -- either directly or indirectly -- in meetings or team e-mails. If you do, you risk creating an atmosphere in which people are so afraid to make mistakes that they don't spend enough time doing the proactive and creative work necessary to avoid future problems -- or more important, to drive new innovations.

#8: Foster innovation by killing projects the right way

Another important part of fostering innovation is knowing how to kill projects effectively and gracefully. There are times when failed initiatives will expose the weaknesses of certain employees, but there are plenty of times when you have good employees working on projects that simply don't pan out. Figuring out the difference between those two scenarios is part of becoming a good manager. If it's a good person on a bad project, the person who was running the project isn't any less talented because the project didn't materialize. So make sure you use the project as a learning experience and reassign the person to something new without excessive hand-wringing. Otherwise, you will make your employees overly risk-averse, and they will be reluctant to jump into the next big project or to make bold moves when managing the project. That type of atmosphere can quickly stifle progress.

#9: Don't provide all the answers -- make your employees think

You are the manager. You are the leader. That does not mean that you have a monopoly on all of the good ideas. If your employees are hesitant to make decisions without asking your opinion first, you haven't properly empowered them. If your employees aren't making enough of their own decisions, you should change your tactics. When they present you with information and ask what to do about a situation, push the ball back into their court and ask them, "What do you think?" They might be surprised at first, but after you do that several times, they'll start thinking it through before they come to you so that they're fully prepared to discuss the matter and make a recommendation. That's a good thing, because they're usually closer to the customer and more familiar with the details of the work. You need their opinions. And you need them to make some of their own decisions.

#10: Build consensus by letting people know "why"

One of your key responsibilities in management is communicating about new initiatives and strategy changes. The worst thing you can do is surprise your staff members with a fully formed idea about a new way to do something that will drastically alter their day-to-day work. When you spring it on them, people will naturally be defensive and skeptical. Whenever possible, give people an informal heads-up that a change is coming and let them know some of the reasoning involved. They will be glad you kept them in the loop. If they don't agree with the reasoning, they can express their dissent. They might even bring up a caveat or a gotcha that should be considered before the final plan is solidified. An even better course of action is to have a brainstorming session with your team when you are still formulating a new idea or strategy change, so you can gather their ideas and feedback. You may sometimes have to spring something on your team, but make sure that you limit those occasions. Even then, take the time to let them know the reasoning behind the decision.

 


Jason Hiner is the executive editor of TechRepublic. He manages the TechRepublic editorial department and writes the blog Tech Sanity Check. He previously worked as an information systems manager in the health care industry.

20 comments
bhagyarajm
bhagyarajm

hi, Really good article, please go ahead with the same aritcles.. M C Bhagyaraj India

aljuboori79
aljuboori79

great way.... Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Juboori 28.11.08

ya_satya
ya_satya

Core is the Genesis.... Mentioned in the Point 1. where the Focus which need to aim towards a dimension. Leading oneself and others.. go in parity where the "reciprocal accommodations" are a necessity. Yet the "alignment" based on similarities does not give rise to arguments nor critical thinking as it prefers harmony...I feel strategic deviations are purely situational and prescribe the criteria to be adopted..... satya

Zen37
Zen37

I had to print that and keep it in my files. Wonderful suggestions and actions to follow. Of course, there could be more, but its a great start. Thank you

Wayne M.
Wayne M.

Refering to the original list, here are my personal alternatives. #1 Let the staff schedule their own work. This is right out of Scrum and XP (Extreme Programming) practices. Do not try to do all of the time estimates and planning for your staff so that you can assign them 40 hours of work per week. Prioritize the upcoming work and let the staff estimate the effort and then schedule the work accordingly. #2, #3, #4 - Balance new work and old work, interesting work and boring work, challenging and easy work. For your staff to grow, you must occassionally assign members work that they are not good at. Face it, every job is going to have some boring work and the more familiar one becomes with the work, the less new and exciting it becomes. Be sure to dole out interesting and rote tasks fairly across your team. Lastly, make sure all team members have a shot at high visibility efforts. If it is a high risk effort, then limit participation to the better performers. If not, give everyone a fair opportunity to participate. Working on a high visibility effort can do wonders for attitudes. #5 - I am not a believer in goals or MBO-like approaches. See "Punished by Rewards" by Alfie Kohn for a detailed discussion. #7 - Take the blame. Accept full responsibility for the performance of your team regardless of any mistakes the team has made. Never pass the buck to any of your staff. See "Leadership Lessons of the Navy SEALs" by Jon Cannon and Jeff Cannon. #8 - Get some success out of every project. Not every project will accomplish all of its scope, but each should accomplish some portion of the scope. Decompose tasks and work iteratively some that some delivered value results. There is no job in management that is more difficult than the combination of taking full responsibility while delegating execution. Regardless of personal bullet lists, this is one of the overarching aims.

johns
johns

While this was placed near the end of the list, giving your people the freedom to think is, IMO, second only to giving them the tools to work with. The company where I've been the lead designer for 18+ years was recently sold to a larger corporation. Under the old rule, the owner was the CEO and the chief Engineer. He and the President (his wife) micro-managed everything from new designs to final production assembly and shipping. The staff had no real authority to make any improvements in anything. Under the new management, our CEO is not only over us, but over two other companies as well. He doesn't have time to breathe down our necks every minute of everyday, and when a problem, or a new project comes up, it is our job to get it done as we think best. His only requirement is that we have come to an agreement between ourselves and the customers that our way is the best way to do it. It makes one heck of a difference in all of our attitudes about working here. We now feel like the company values us and our thoughts rather than the way it was before.

david
david

These guidelines are fundamental to the success of project leadership. In a past life as the National Service & Training manager with Computacenter we learned how to improve Project Success rate to 99-100%. Now, as a consultant with Quadrant 1 International we sometimes run Project Leadership & Orientation workshops at the front-end of major projects. The workshop consists of NLP based techniques to put a project team into the reality of a project before scoping the project stages, and before any software is started. Imagine having completed your project, and the revalations that come from pseudo-hindsight. It's amazing how people can see, hear and sense tasks that don't appear when you go straight to the project schedule. Project leaders can use this workshop to fully engage project teams with the reality of implementation. David Molden Quadrant 1 International www.quadrant1.com

mroonie
mroonie

I think one thing you may have touched on but could use some elaboration is that managers should always communicate regularly with their team members. If this means creating a scheduled time and day to meet with each person then so be it. The company I work at is very open to talking to employees at all levels and it really fosters a sense of loyalty and openess that I believe lots of companies miss out on.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

I'd be glad to hear a clarification.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Hey Wayne - Thanks for taking the time to add your valuable notes on these points. The one area where I think we disagree a little bit is in terms of accountability. I feel like managers have to give employees clear objectives and hold them accountable for the results. Celebrate if things goes well and figure out why if expectations aren't met. The buck has to stop with managers, but managers also have to make employees responsible for their part of the execution.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Your experience provides a nice example of the contrast between management making too many of the decisions and having employees regularly making their own decisions. It also shows that allowing/forcing employees to make decisions for themselves can improve the work atmosphere, too! Thanks, Jason

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

#11 Schedule regular 1-on-1s (weekly or bi-weekly) with your employees I'd recommend doing this with your direct reports and requiring all of the managers on your team to do the same. Because that is a standard part of the way I do things, I just assumed that as part of the mix, but I'm glad you pointed it out. It's something that is worth talking about more directly. I may do a separate article just on 1-on-1s.

yu_lei888
yu_lei888

leadship skills is very important to a good manager,but it need more and more practices. he must pay more attention to his subordinates,make them certain that they are the treasures of a company.As a result, they will spare no efforts to finish their tasks.

Wayne M.
Wayne M.

My feelings concerning objectives were drasticly altered by reading Dr. W. E. Deming, who wrote smoething along the lines of "Once a task has been put into motion, its outcome has been determined. The result may not be known, but it has been decided." An example is travelling by car. Once one walks out into the garage and gets in the car, it is of no use to say, "My objective is to be at work at 8:00 AM." The variables that will determine one's arrival time have already been set in motion. Did one start soon enough? Does the car have enough gas? Will the fan belt break? Will traffic be backed up? Does one know the directions? Assigning tasks to staff is no different. Why should I decare an arbitrary timeline for the task? Why not have the person doing the task provide his best prediction? This is not say that the staff member does not need to justify his estimate nor provide milestones to track his progress, but it does mean that he has the responsibility for the work. Likewise many of the criteria regarding the task are likely to be fuzzy and somewhat in conflict. Why should I evaluate the trade-offs and give my answer to the staff member? Why not let the staff member (or members) who will do the task determine the trade-offs? Granted, the degree to which one will allow staff members to make their own decisions will depend upon the experience and skills of the individual staffers, but over time, the staff should take on more and more of the responsibilities. I believe this approach aligns well with points 9 (Don't provide all the answers) and 10 (Let people know why). It does shift accountability, though. Instead of the staff member being responsible for meeting the manager's objectives at the end, it is the responsibility of the manager to prepare the staff member prior to the start of the task.

Server Queen
Server Queen

I'd quit a job that required me to have weekly or biweekly formal one-on-one meetings with my manager. I don't like all that touchy-feely stuff. Not everyone responds well to that. For me, it's better to let me know what the expectations are and set up a mechanism - other than face-to-face meetings, which I have a deep-seated loathing for - to keep you informed of progress. Not everyone works the same way. Rigid requirements such as "all my direct reports must meet with me one-on-one once a week, and must all do the same with their direct reports" drive good people away.

barmknecht
barmknecht

Good leaders adapt to the needs of their team members. And if I had server queen on my team, I would want to understand what really is behind his/ her "deep seated loathing" about 1-1 meetings and make the necessary adjustments. What I look for in my team members is the ability to adapt with changes because we live in a world that is in constant change. Those that use the term server queen uses could create a negative environment on a team.

ATLDBA
ATLDBA

I hate to bring it up, but it sure sounds like you may have some issues. You even said yourself that you're phone-phobic and you immediately categorized in-person meetings as "touchy feely" stuff. I don't think that's right at all. I personally need all my staff to be able to meet with all kinds of people: developers, managers, VPs, etc. I would think someone who can't deal with in-person meetings has some kind of issue that needs to be addressed. I'm not saying that I believe in time-wasting meetings; I'm totally opposed to that. However, I can't have people on my team avoiding contact.

Server Queen
Server Queen

I do think a regular status update should be happening; I just think managers, many of whom tend to be extroverts, get locked into the belief that any update has to happen in a face-to-face meeting. I loathe and dread face-to-face meetings. It's just a personality quirk of mine. I'm horribly phone-phobic, too. But email - or any other written communication - that I can, and will happily, do.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

It can simply be a quick 10-minute update on the status of various projects. It doesn't necessarily have to happen face-to-face either. It can happen over the phone, or even via IM or e-mail if there's a lot of trust built-up between the manager and the IT pro. However, it needs to happen regularly in most organizations. Otherwise, things get forgotten or shuffled under the rug and it's easy to get out-of-sync as priorities shift in the organization.

mroonie
mroonie

Well in order to be a good manager, I think you need to be observant enough to know if one of your subordinates would benefit from a weekly/bi-weekly 1-on-1 meeting. I think the key isn't necessarily to make it required but to make sure you let your subordinates know that you are open to the idea and that you encourage constant communication. This also depends on your position and/or experience. The reason I initially said that good communication is key is because this is my first job out of college and therefore, it is very important for me to get continuous feedback. So perhaps the #11 should focus on open communication and maybe certain recommendations (i.e. 1-on-1's) can be made on how to achieve this.

Editor's Picks