4 Steps to Being a Great Leader (Even if You're Not the Leader on Paper)

Are you hoping to take on more of a leadership role in your job? Have you been wondering if there is a magic formula to being a great leader and  building great teams? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. But there is no need to worry. Working with and leading teams is hard. You just have to visit the classroom of any business class or the set of Project Runway to know that the first response to a team project is usually a series of loud exhales and groans.  

[bctt tweet="4 Steps to Being a Great Leader (Even if You're Not the Leader on Paper), by @rripaldi"]

We all remember the best and the worst team experiences we’ve had. The best experiences are usually pretty amazing—bringing people together with a bond that exists long after the team has disbanded. Bad team experiences are just so awful that many people would choose to never take the risk of working on a team again if they had the option.

There is plenty of information available about how to be a leader, how to lead teams, how to lead teams when you aren’t the leader, how to build good teams, how to work better with others, and so on, however, I would say that while there is some good learning in reading about teams in general, the magic comes with considering the unique group of people and the specific goal at hand.

[bctt tweet="You can read abt #teamwork, but magic is the unique group of ppl + specific goal, says @rripaldi"]

One of the reasons it’s hard to work with a team is, in most cases, there hasn’t been a ton of thought into how to build the right team, and even if there has been, it is still very difficult to get it right. Is it better to build a team on skill sets and experience? Or should it focus on personalities and work experience? There are definitely successful examples out there of organizations that work rigorously to make sure teams are built to succeed, but the rest of us know this is rare and we have to make the best of it.

Team Building and Leadership

There are a few things I like to think about when I’m part of or leading a team:

  • Understanding ground rules, roles and expectations
  • Exploring individual personalities
  • Creating a win for individuals and the team
  • Building a group bond

Before I get to that, I want to point out that I think of my role on every team I’m on as a facilitator and connector.  I’ve lead teams where everyone reports to me or when no one does, when I have the official title of leader and when I don’t. The key is, everyone is part of a team. This approach may not work for everyone, but I find it works well for me. I tend to have more influence in cases where I’m not the official leader and I get excited when everyone is better together because I am. Just another variable you need to think about when you are leading a team.

Ground Rules and Expectations

Now, on to the ground rules. It’s great to think that setting ground rules, defining roles, discussing everyone’s work styles and determining expectations proactively can work every time a team is kicked off. Even though sometimes it backfires and doesn’t work, it is still worth a try. There will always be people who say one thing and then act another way, however, maybe they are also open to feedback and can learn. If this is a team that will be working together long-term, not just on one project, it probably makes sense to revisit this type of discussion periodically and see how the conversation evolves. This exercise can also illustrate who are the natural organizers, leaders, the extroverts and the introverts, which leads to my next point.[bctt tweet="The exercise of setting team expectations often reveals the key personality traits, says @rripaldi"]

Exploring Personalities

Understanding everyone’s personality and comfort zones is a great way to start to take advantage of their strengths. I’ve worked in organizations where this is done quite deliberately with conversations and sharing, and sometimes that’s great. For me personally, I like to observe the dynamics and get to know everyone a bit as individual. Understanding where they are in their career, if they want to be pushed to try something different or are happy playing a role they know they can succeed in. These are all key things that feed into the group dynamics.

Working for a Win

Once you have sense for what everyone is trying to accomplish individually, it is then time to focus on the team. For example, I am pretty good at compiling disjointed info from a group and turning it into something that makes sense, so regardless of if I am a senior member of a team or more junior, I will usually play this role as it can be a struggle for some. Or there might be someone who is great a managing meetings but they want to focus on other things, and this could be the chance for someone else to step up. Once strengths and goals are aligned it’s all about how to work together to accomplish the team’s goals, whether they be project-related or not.

My usual approach is to lay out a plan—groundbreaking right?  I like to start with what success looks like and then work backwards. This way, everyone agrees together on the end goal. Most of the time, it is difficult to work all the way backward—we end up a little confused about the middle and focused on the immediate next steps. I think this is okay. The point isn’t to hammer out every single detail, but to make sure there is alignment on what we want in the end. Then when things stray from the plan, because they always do, there is something to check in on and see if the end goal should be adjusted or if there is a need to course correct. If you are working on team that isn’t focused on one project, the same tactic can work for quarterly or annual goals. There should always an end game in sight.[bctt tweet="#Teams should check in on #progress to course correct or adjust end goal, says @rripaldi"]

Building a Team Bond

All of these logistics are great, but a team doesn’t feel like a team unless there is an emotional connection. One thing that’s helpful is to identify a symbol of the unique shared experience, and to remember to have some fun. This could be a rally cry about how to beat a competitor, a symbol or name of the team, or a saying or theme about the team’s work.  For me, I like this best when it happens organically and everyone feels a little ownership, but depending on your group it might need to be a little more deliberate. I was in a group where we were trying to challenge our process and “the way we always did things,” this evolved into questioning the “sacred cows” of the organization, and then turned into a series of jokes and a celebration lunch with hamburgers and cow coffee mug prizes (please note we were using the term in the figurative or idiomatic sense, not referencing anyone’s religious beliefs).[bctt tweet="A shared symbol or rally cry can help to bond + activate a team around a cause, says @rripaldi"]

At the end of the day there are a lot of variables when it comes to working with teams and the best thing to be is flexible and empathetic. Some people on the team may be challenged by the work, some may be shy, some might not work well without knowing exactly what is expected of them, while others want to figure that out on their own. You should also be honest with yourself, what do you need from the group to make you better, and more importantly what can you offer the group to make everyone better. Working together is tough, but when it comes together, that is when the magic happens.[bctt tweet="How can the #team make you better? More importantly, how can you better the team?—@rripaldi"]