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.

Five ways to lead 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.