“Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.”
— Chris Hadfield, astronaut and former Commander of the International Space Station*
What makes a great leader?
When Chris Hadfield was commanding the International Space Station, he learned that it’s not about seeking out individual greatness to make yourself look good.
Instead, he found that excellent leadership is about building up the people around you: trusting them, empowering them, and ultimately, enabling them to contribute their expertise so that the team can become more than the sum of its parts.
In other words, effective leadership and cultivating a culture of effective teamwork go hand in hand.
The importance of teamwork and leadership
Why are teamwork and leadership important? Together they provide clarity for your team and directly impact your company vision.
But what do those outcomes look like in practice? And more importantly, what actions can you take every day to help your team succeed?
Today we’re looking at the top characteristics of a good leader, followed by 10 ways you can help your team work together better and more cohesively.
Characteristics of a good leader
Cultivating an environment of teamwork starts by building trust and rapport; by being the kind of leader that teams want to follow. The best leaders share the following characteristics — no matter their leadership style or personality.
Being a leader is inherently about people. Yes, there are KPIs and products to deliver, but you don’t lead KPIs: You lead people.
With that in mind, perhaps no characteristic is as valuable to a leader as effective communication skills. Every single day, you’ll be communicating: to motivate, instruct, correct, and a hundred other things.
If you’re a positional leader (or leading from a non-leadership role) who lacks confidence in this area, consider investing in training or practices that will help you improve and gain confidence.
Emotional intelligence (EQ)
Speaking of working with people: Leaders must be able to understand and adjust to the emotions of others, including nonverbal and contextual signals. Great leaders go beyond merely identifying emotions in others — they have the soft skills to help others manage their way through strong emotional responses and to push teams and individuals toward the right outcomes.
This is emotional intelligence, or EQ — a crucial skill for anyone who works with others, especially leaders, and it’s essential when leading a team through the five stages of team development. You’ll use these skills throughout, most of all in the “storming” stage.
Strong leaders also tend to demonstrate strong analytical skills. An analytical leader can take stock of a situation, consider possible paths and likely outcomes, and chart the course most likely to succeed. This skill set provides value no matter your role, and it becomes increasingly valuable the more authority a person has.
10 ways leaders can help manage their teams
Beyond these characteristics or traits of effective leaders, every leader can take actionable steps to lead teams better and encourage greater teamwork. Consider implementing one or more of these 10 ideas over the course of the next week.
1) Foster open and honest communication
Create an environment where openness and honesty in all aspects of communication are encouraged. Ask people to share their views and talk about the obstacles in their way. Ask for (and listen to) feedback. Don’t be afraid to ask questions yourself. (Here are five you should add to your regular practice, in fact.) Most of all, ensure your team members have a clear path to your door if they need it.
Helpful communication tools
Slack or Teams: Channel-based open asynchronous communication and business chat
Teamwork.com: A project management platform that helps teams understand and communicate about work and workflows
2) Create collaborative goals
At the outset, goals should be clearly set and defined. Getting this right at the start may take a little extra time and planning, but it pays major dividends. For the best outcomes:
The team needs to buy into the goals (so plan them together).
Everyone involved needs to be aligned on what success looks like (so outline detailed KPIs right at the beginning).
Leaders need to acknowledge and support the team throughout the process (so check in frequently and offer guidance where needed).
The importance of KPIs and OKRs
As you go about goal-setting with your teams, it helps to place those goals in a framework and base them on real metrics and data. OKRs (objectives and key results) provide that framework, while tracking the appropriate key performance indicators (KPIs) gives you the metrics and data for what your team is currently accomplishing.
OKRs are by nature collaborative, which fosters team involvement and increases buy-in. They also define success well: The key results lead toward the objective or act as milestones along the way.
3) Celebrate their success
Good job, team! Never forget to laud good team efforts, ideas, or targets met. Share your team’s successes with the company at large and champion them to leadership. You can even organize a lunch or dinner for big wins where every team member can share the achievement. However you choose to mark the moment, do it together.
Fun ways to celebrate successes
Celebrate a successful project with an outing (on the company).
Distributed or virtual teams can’t go out, but they can enjoy activities such as a virtual escape room.
Use digital recognition or praise tools (such as in Microsoft Teams).
Recognize outstanding contributors with a tangible award (badge, trophy, etc.) — get creative here by creating a “trophy” that’s both meaningful and lighthearted.
For smaller successes with in-house teams, food is always an option.
4) Allow team members to problem solve
Instead of imposing solutions, encourage team members to brainstorm and develop their own suggestions. By giving your team space (physical, metaphorical, or even virtual with Teamwork Spaces) to find the right solution and propose their ideas, you can empower them to think creatively, develop their confidence, and foster a sense of ownership.
Helpful problem-solving tips
Before anyone starts problem-solving, be sure they can accurately restate the problem.
Listen more than you think is necessary.
Give space for all parties to share and advocate for their position.
Encourage the team to come to a shared decision on their own.
If that fails, as a leader, you should calmly and firmly make a choice — and explain the reasoning behind your decision-making.
5) Provide adequate resources and training
A great leader doesn’t just help their team members to do their current jobs. Great leaders help them identify room for advancement to develop their skills and progress their careers. Support your team by giving them the resources they need to excel and reach the next level.
Onboarding tools for seamless transitions
Work with human resources to create an onboarding program, so the process is consistent between managers.
BambooHR Onboarding organizes and automates the process.
Wistia is a great platform for creating branded video content (for video training and onboarding).
6) Keep yourself accountable
In your time as a leader, things won’t always go perfectly smoothly. You might even make a few bad calls. (Hey, you’re only human.) When things go wrong — when a project goes off track, when the scope suddenly changes, when the unexpected happens — you need to face it head on. Take responsibility and work with your team to address the issues and get back on target.
Demonstrate effective time management skills by completing your own tasks on time. Doing so demonstrates strong leadership skills and shows your whole team that you practice what you preach.
Apologize when appropriate — whether to individual team members or to a larger group of people, an apology from a leader demonstrates vulnerability and transparency. You’ll show that you’re still working on your own competencies and weaknesses, and you’re willing to admit when you’re wrong.
Focus on outcomes, not just task completion. You can check every box on your to-do list, but if your team doesn’t reach the appropriate outcome, the whole team — and you — share in the blame. “I did my part” shows a task-oriented mentality. “How can we do better” or “How can I help” shows a focus on outcomes.
7) Keep your eye on the big picture
As a leader, you need to strike a balance between zooming in on the details and zooming out to see the big picture. In other words, you must ensure your team is accomplishing the day-to-day tasks without losing sight of the overarching goals you’re working toward and how the team contributes to those goals.
It’s a balancing act, but it’s one that any great leader needs to learn how to do.
Why keeping big picture thinking is important
Like staying focused on outcomes, big-picture thinking doesn’t spend all day chasing rabbits or putting out fires. Yes, fires need to be put out, but someone has to be responsible for refocusing the team as soon as the smoke clears. If you can keep the right focus, you’ll stabilize your team and help them find synergy.
8) Show some empathy
According to inspirational leadership author Simon Sinek, empathy “is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox.” Simply asking, “Is everything okay?” demonstrates you care about the team member and helps build relationships.
Examples of empathetic approaches
If an employee starts crying in your office (or over Zoom), whatever was at the top of the agenda takes a back seat. Soften your tone and ask what you can do to help.
When performance issues arise (say, consistent late starts to work), ask questions before you jump to consequences. We’re not suggesting being laissez-faire about misconduct. But we are suggesting asking an employee about the factors contributing to the lateness.
When team members are frustrated, don’t jump straight to solutions. First, enter into the frustration — find out the root cause and validate that frustration. Then you’re ready to apply solutions.
9) Build strong one-on-one relationships
One-on-one meetings are a great way for a team leader to build relationships. They also allow each team member to put their case forward for personal improvement or raise issues blocking them from performing better. Listen to what your team members say and do your best to support them.
Coffee with the boss: Take team members out for coffee (usually two at a time feels more natural than one-on-one). Don’t talk about work. Ask about their dogs, their kids, their hobbies, and tell them about yours. (Virtual teams = virtual coffee break, sanctioned “unproductive” time with the boss.)
Unstructured meeting starts: Don’t jump into team or department meetings too quickly. Intentionally leave a few minutes at the start for unstructured conversation, which can result in impromptu team building. These unstructured starts work naturally in person — people begin to talk, and relationships grow. For virtual teams, you may need to prompt with some questions (“Anyone do anything exciting this weekend?”).
10) Build respect
Great leaders demonstrate respect for team members in many ways, particularly by being engaged with the team and working with them. Great leaders aren’t afraid to admit mistakes or take risks. They understand that respect is earned through empathy, compassion, and trust.
Why mutual respect is important in an organization
Teams generally will not trust or willingly follow a leader they do not respect. They’ll follow begrudgingly when threatened into it, but that’s no way to build a positive culture. Earning that respect is key to earning trust and willing followers.
On the other side of the coin, team members who know they have their manager’s respect are motivated and empowered to do more and work with more autonomy.
Lead your team to success with Teamwork.com
Being a leader presents constant new challenges, especially in our increasingly remote-first world. But armed with these 10 strategies, you now have a roadmap toward better teamwork, communication, and trust.
Another component of trust and teamwork is visibility. When it’s crystal clear who’s doing what and why, teams can move forward with grace and speed. Teamwork.com provides this visibility into projects, clearing up the mystery and allowing all members of the team to work together toward a common goal.