How To Lead A High Performance Team By Absence

The legendary steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie once scolded his friend for over-exerting himself as the boss. “You must be a lazy man if it takes you 10 hours to do a day’s work. What I do is get good men and I never give them orders. My directions do not go beyond suggestions.”

There comes a point in every leader’s journey where they find themselves too involved in their day-to-day running operations. Instead of having time to strategize, build buzz for their business or seek strategic partnerships, leaders are often putting out fires with their team.

They are frequently mediating arguments between teammates, double-checking the quality of their team’s deliverables, or constantly holding their team’s hands in various tasks .

Although many feel trapped in this cycle of micromanagement and crisis resolution, they also see it as the price to pay to lead people.

Nikhil Paul, a leadership team coach who’s worked with companies like Salesforce and Hubspot, believes that doesn’t always have to be the case. “The literature of high performance organizations shows that there are fundamental practices you can embed in your team to not only free up your time but to also allow your team to handle themselves well.” 

Here are 3 steps you can take to help your teams succeed independently. 

1. Craft an operational mission together

Almost everyone who hears about creating a mission statement cringes. And rightfully so, many mission statements can be a laundry list of vague ideas and mushy sentiments mashed together. 

But in a remote work environment and a rapidly changing business landscape, it’s critical that the teams have an anchoring ideology to clearly guide and deeply motivate them.

To help create a practical mission statement, focus on making it operationally relevant. Capture the team’s collective purpose in the form of a simple yet grounded story. It should include the customers or stakeholders the team is helping, the core actions that drive the most value, and the impact of the work they’re doing. 

It should also be a clear guiding compass in which teammates can confidently make decisions. In fact, after creating the mission statement, throw out potential scenarios the team could face and let them practice making decisions with this new creed. 

The key to an effective mission statement is not the words necessarily but the effort the group puts into it. Nikhil states that “the more the team feels emotionally invested in their mission, the more zealously they’ll protect it.” 

And that’s the point. The mission statement helps the team focus even when the leader isn’t there.  

2. Carve out a culture covenant

Leaders often find themselves policing their team’s behaviors and resolving office politics. Although teams have corporate values to abide by, they’re rarely remembered or called on.

At the heart of every great team is “psychological safety”, the belief that you won’t be punished for making a mistake. Without it, it’s very hard for teams to be truly creative and collaborative. 

Leaders can build trust by first addressing tensions. Invite team members to share about the most harmful behaviors and norms present in their group. Have them vote on the most dysfunctional issues and then brainstorm the top 5 values and behaviors that could solve them. 

Encourage your team to create fun and practical culture rules like “Don’t be a jerk” or “Someone else’s problem is my problem”. When read, it should immediately bring to mind the problem it’s solving.

Next, stick to it. Place the team’s new culture code in a very public place, celebrate when teammates do it and gently call them out when they don’t. Nikhil says in his experience, “Teams that have a great culture covenant usually refer to one of their values at least once a week.”

The real value of a culture covenant is that it’s a system that empowers employees to resolve disputes and tension on their own.

3. Instill a shared accountability game-plan 

Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, was never interested in the day-to-day running of his company. In fact, he’s famous for taking a 5 month fly fishing vacation every year where he only checks in with his team a handful of times in the entire trip.

“People know, if the warehouse burns down, don’t call me. What can I do? You know what to do.”

Most often, leaders can’t step away from their teams because they’re afraid they might drop the ball. What they don’t realize is that, if it’s not a people problem, it’s a systems problem.

The trouble starts with having too many priorities. Leaders need to identify the top 3 priorities for their team that quarter. This is arguably the most important job of a leader because most of the team’s work stems from these goals. They need to be very deliberate and intentional in lining up their priorities, because even the slightest miscalculation can veer their team off-course. 

Next, create a simple shared scoreboard to track progress of each goal. Break down each goal into 2-3 core KPIs and milestones, and have the team agree on these benchmarks for success. The key is to have clear metrics that everyone on the team is held accountable to so there’s no confusion as to what success looks like. 

To help bring it home, the leader’s primary job is to remind their team of their priorities and cover the progress updates each week. Nikhil explains, “Once the team gets used to it, rotate the responsibility of asking for status updates between your teammates.”

In mediocre teams, the leader holds everyone accountable. In high performing teams, teammates hold each other accountable.

The best leaders delegate

Like Richard Branson says, “I have a fantastic team of people who run the Virgin companies, who have a lot of freedom to run the companies as if they were their own companies.”

The most successful leaders realize that the only way they can grow their business is by stepping back and enabling their teams to operate without them.

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