Leadership

Five ways to lead your team to peak performance

When you manage knowledge workers and IT managers, you need to continually challenge them and allow them to solve problems independently. Here's how.
UPDATED: March 2010

If you want to succeed as a leader, you can only do it by setting up your team members to succeed. And if your team consists of knowledge workers and IT managers, you need to develop a special brand of leadership -- one that continually challenges them and allows them to solve problems independently. This episode of Sanity Savers for IT executives shares a few tips to help you guide your team to peak performance.

For those of you who prefer text to video, you can click the "Transcript" link or you can read the full text below the video. You can also read the original article that this episode was based on: 10 tips for leading your team to peak performance.

1. Don't provide all the answers

You are the leader. But that doesn't mean you have a monopoly on all of the good ideas. If your employees are hesitant to make decisions without asking your opinion first, you probably need to change some of 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 a few 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.

2. Align people with the stuff they are passionate about

Make sure you have the right people in the right seats. Take stock of all the talents you have on the team and reshuffle the deck if you can give your team a better chance at success. Don't keep someone in a job role just because they've been doing it for long time -- not if you truly think their talents are better suited for another role.

You should also find out what people are passionate about and try to align them with job roles and projects that let them channel some of that passion. That could mean putting them in an area where they don't have much experience. But if their work history makes you think they can succeed, it's usually worth the risk. Their passion will usually fuel a strong desire to learn and to grow.

3. Avoid throwing people under the bus

In any organization, there are going to be times when you fail. When things don't pan out as you hoped, do a postmortem to figure out what went wrong and to learn from it. If egregious errors were made by individuals, deal with them privately, if necessary. Let them know your expectations for how this should be handled in the future.

Above all, 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 they won't do the proactive and creative work necessary to avoid future problems and to drive innovation.

4. Build consensus by letting your team know WHY

One of your key responsibilities as a leader 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.

Whenever possible, give people an informal heads-up that a change is coming and let them know some of the reasoning involved. If they don't agree with the reasoning, they can express their dissent. They might even bring up a concern 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 try to limit those occasions. Even then, make sure you fully explain reasoning behind the decision.

5. Trust your people, and let them know it

IT jobs typically require creative solutions and decision-making. Your staff needs to stay sharp mentally to achieve top performance -- and it's up to you to build an atmosphere that 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 meet the deadline. Now, if you don't trust them, that's a deeper problem altogether. In that case, you've identified an employee that you need to either manage up or manage out.

Managing knowledge workers and IT managers requires you to foster and encourage independent thinking, creativity, and problem solving in an environment of trust. And that's a tall order. But following the leadership strategies we've looked at here can help you build a passionate, productive IT department that's dedicated to delivering top-notch results again and again.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

23 comments
chiragrk
chiragrk

Good advice. However, one important thing thats missing in the receipe is that you should develop a personal rapport with the team. Treat them like they're family and see they have your trust and respect.

cavio
cavio

Great video, thanks! Especially it is reassuring in an environment where everything seems driven only by visibility. Visibility means "projects". Just do projects, no matter how much they make sense or are reasonable. Now, how does it work about advise n.4? Should it be explained to the team something like "The project Y is coming up and the reasoning involved in this project is that Big Boss Z needs this project to increase visibility and make a step forward in his personal career?" Or do you relay the reasoning that was told in a big presentation, even if it does not make sense to a 10 years? old child knowing the environment the project will apply to? I tried both and in my experience the result is that after a couple of these exercises the team will be skeptical about anything else that will come up, including if, by chance, there is something that makes sense? Please advice.

Photogenic Memory
Photogenic Memory

I'd love to work in an environment like this. I work in just the opposite.

Steve Romero
Steve Romero

Hi Jason, every one of your tips is incredibly valid. That being said, after listening to you I am left with a feeling of frustration and dismay. The fact that ANY leader today needs these tips is beyond me. I have limitless empathy for every worker out there suffering under the yolk of any so-called "leader" that requires these lessons. I also appreciate your obvious levels of patience and diligence that enables you to spend your valuable time stating the obvious to folks who desperately need your advice. Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist http://community.ca.com/blogs/theitgovernanceevangelist/

nitin.cunha
nitin.cunha

This was great! Chimes in on a few typical ones like 'trust' and 'avoiding the blame game' but also reminds me to give people the big picture of why they're doing what they're doing... Thank you especially for including the bad-takes at the end, a little bit of humor greases the wheels immensely!

kenr
kenr

Everyone with any real life experience knows the burden of an imposed stupidity. While you will have to "just do" the project, a brainstorming session on what tweaks you can propose in order to get some benefit out of the imposed project is useful for two reasons. 1) it makes it obvious to the team that you are in the same boat as them (imposed upon rather than the imposer); and 2) you may well come up with some "change requests" that will "increase benefits" for the organisation, that you can sell upstream. My $0.02 worth

blarman
blarman

Unfortunately, many businesses don't properly train/educate/support their employees when placing them in management positions. They assume they know what needs to be done. And many upper-level managers (especially in small/medium business) don't even know what they don't know and as such don't function well in the mentoring process. Yes, it is frustrating - especially for those managers who have some training while their bosses have had little or none. Have you got any ideas on what can be done?

kenr
kenr

Earn their respect. There was a whole batch of managers raised on the falsehood that you don't need to understand what your team does because you're managing people. While it is true that you are managing people, you are also managing team output, and you can only do that, if you don't understand what your team does, by increasing their workload (to explain the background to every decision for you). Nobody likes their workload increased to cover what someone else is being paid for. For managing IT people you need (at least) one area that is encountered at least once or twice every couple of months where you have a respectable level of competence. Nothing earns respect from techs like competence, and nothing motivates a team like a leader they trust and respect. My $0.02 worth

pivert
pivert

fire all backstabbers before they can convince higher management that they are the ones that hold the truth. if they go over your head, better lead them straight to the door.

cavio
cavio

My experience is however that after a couple of these exercises of brainstorming sessions: 1) the feeling "if he is in the same boat as us, and he cannot do anything else than being imposed a project, why is he the team leader?". Especially when you are in a context of... 2) Boss X who fosters the project for his personal visibility, simply does not give a toss of whatever "change request" you come up with and indipendetly of the "increase benefits" that it will generate. He/she does not even want to spend the time listening to the change request. He/she simply waits for deliverables on time, to say "project done" and get his/her medal. Cynic management does exist.

vince
vince

How many IT middle managers received a degree in Business or Leadership? Most IT managers, not CIO?s, are old techies who were "promoted" into these positions with little to no training in those areas. I agree, many organizations don't provide enough managerial/leadership training. As long as we continue to promote technicians with no managerial training the organization must provide that training. The alternative is to hire non-technical managers.

vince
vince

I'm new to this management environment and as such have little to no time left for technical work. This has caused my technical proficiency to diminish significantly. How does one stay technically proficient when 90% of workload is managerial or non-technical?

TheGregGBandwagon
TheGregGBandwagon

However, in many organizations that's what you have to do to protect yourself. On the flip-side of that... when I was lower on the totem pole, I used to get so frustrated when my boss would take all of the knowledge I gave him and distribute it to everyone else in the organization without ever giving me any credit. That type of thing makes it kind of hard to prove your value to the company and can cause people to want to go over the bosses head in order to prove their worth to the company. Just as in nature, it becomes survival of the fittest.

HLecter
HLecter

I completely agree with you. I learned that lesson the hard way. I had a chance to get rid of a problem person and didn't -- bad decision at the time. If you have a cancer on your team, spot it quickly and cut it before it spreads. If you don't, then your attempts to build up the team will be in vain.

kenr
kenr

"Why is he the team leader?" If you are not managing to mitigate any "constraints" then that is a perfectly valid question. As a manager your job is to protect your team so they can do their job. "When you are in a context of..." As you climb the food chain you learn that there is always someone higher up to impose "constraints". How you deal with them (and whether you can protect your team from them) is the issue. "Boss X ... get his/her medal" This is where the "fun" comes in. Managing difficult clients, whether they are internal or external clients, is the hardest part of the job. Focusing on demonstrating more/larger accolades, if done "this" way - may save the day. Beyond that, it depends on the personality involved. My $0.02 worth

kenr
kenr

I know the subject line is flippant, but seriously, if you look at it you can make the time. It is important. My target is 20% tech time (leaving 80% for management stuff). For this to be useful you have to specialise even more than you did as a tech. Your objective is to earn respect, any addition to output is coincidental. Meetings are the biggest timewasters for management, keep the meeting focused on outcomes, use agendas, and only allow a deviation to go on for so long before you shut it down. If you're managing techs they generally dislike meetings too, so in keeping them short and too the point, everyone wins. My $0.02 worth

blarman
blarman

I disagree. Process is WHAT happens and people are WHO carry the process out. People either 1) make decisions and actions based on a formal process or policy, 2) make decisions to implement informal process or policy, or 3) disregard process or policy. If your organization has a lot of #2, it means that you aren't doing enough planning. It means that your organization likes to shoot from the hip. If this is across your organization, it means a lot of last-minute scrambling from IT and lots of bugs in newly implemented things. This is a management issue you may or may not be able to do anything about. (I'm in the NOT category.) If you have a lot of #3, it means either you have bad/outdated formal policies and processes which most people ignore or you have a mutiny on your hands. This is a management issue that you can not afford to let continue. For legal reasons, proving that your company adheres to policies and procedures is critical to your defense. Contravening process is also a morale issue, as it means that management doesn't care enough to revise the policy or enforce it. Optimally, you want processes that everyone agrees on (whether formally or informally) and executes. Keep in mind that enforcement is also a process in and of itself that adheres to the same principles. If you look at your organization like a giant engine, anywhere you have failure to follow process, you have vibration and inefficiency. Too much vibration and the engine breaks down. You can either: 1) make adjustments (enforce/create process), 2) re-design the engine (adjust process), or 3) change the part (enforce process through termination).

GlennHughes
GlennHughes

Agreed. A process is a guideline which many see, and try to follow, as a step by step guide.

hlhowell
hlhowell

There is no such thing as a process failure. All failures in management are people failures. Either the problem was not brought out and discussed, or the person was ignored, or the messanger was shot or ...... But in the end, people make up organizations, not processes. Processes are at best guidelines and at worst roadmaps to failure. People make organizations successful. Management is not one style fits all, and these types of presentations make simple statements, which most often do represent the 70 percentile under the curve, but leave out the ways to achieve great success and also the spectacular ways to fail. I don't know that they are useless, but lets just say a means of stating the obvious for the uninitiated. Good for the first time manager, or new team leader, but not helpful for someone looking for real success. The greatest success lies in bringing the lowest performer up to speed. Believe me, no one wants to fall behind the backend guy. Educate, train, manage all you want, but moving the bottom end guy up 10% will move the whole team a LOT further, and requires less work. Regards, Les H

pathfinder8992
pathfinder8992

Things go wrong in organizations and to many times people want to know who the person is. Many weak managers let this happen to their employees and don't address the long term issue because it may present itself as an oversight on their part. To be honest most of the time the fault lies in a process or lack of one. When dealing with a failure concentrate on fixing or establishing a process that avoid the problems long term instead of taking it out on the engineers. Over time they will begin to trust you and will strive to suceed.

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