There are many, many things that you have to learn once you become a team leader. It’s basically a lifelong learning journey! But we have to start somewhere, don’t we? So let’s consider these five mantras:
#1 It’s not about you.
As the team leader, you are much more exposed to other departments and higher hierarchy levels than your team. You are most likely the one they turn to if there are questions. Even other colleagues might address you in their emails, even if their requests could be solved by someone else from the team. Do not make the mistake and put everything on your plate. First, you won’t have the time to deal with everything by yourself. Second – and that’s much more important – you are responsible for developing a self-conscious, empowered team. Just because someone addresses you, they might not necessarily mean you as a person. It’s your job now to decide whether tasks have to be done by you, or whether your team would actually be the better choice. If that is the case, simply ask your colleagues to address their requests to your team, or recommend a single team member, if that is more appropriate. By doing this, you not only start to distribute the work within your team (or help them distribute it, depending on your work ethics), you also give your team the appreciation they deserve for their experience and skills. Your job is not to keep work away from them – in the end, you’re all there to work, right? It’s to create an atmosphere in which they love to work and in which they feel valued.
#2 Be the better person.
The moment you take a position as a team leader, you will have to deal with a lot of sh*t. Yes, I am using that word on purpose! You will have to endure encounters that are horrible. Be it that someone is in a bad mood and they’re using you to vent, or you get blamed for something that might or might not be your fault, or you have to deliver bad messages to your team – you will have plenty of opportunities where you would rather hide under a blanket or just be somewhere else (preferably with a cold beverage and the sun shining, maybe). You might be in a bad mood yourself, or might feel your intestines boiling due to the absolute ridiculousness or unfairness of the situation you’re in.
There will be a little voice in your head, telling you: It’s not your fault, it’s their fault. Why get I blamed, why don’t they get blamed? Do not give in to this voice. If you’re fingerpointing to others in these situations, it will neither shine a bright light on you, nor your team. Yes, sometimes life is unfair. You have to take the decision to grow from these encounters anew in any of them. Breathe in and count to ten, and remind yourself not to react out of anger or frustration. Instead, either just thank someone for leaving their feedback (and swallow that last bit of the sentences about the crappy way in which they delivered it), or ask them to set up a follow-up on the next day or in a few hours. As the team leader, you represent not only the company, but also your team. If you behave badly, this will affect how others perceive your them. So if you breathe, count to ten and don’t explode, you’re doing something good for the whole team.
#3 Take your time.
This is the follow-up from the advice above – it may seem that there is little to no time, all the time, but this is not true. As a team leader, you might have to take tough decisions, and you want to make sure that you didn’t take them because you were in a mood, or because you were pressured. If you decide something, you have to stand behind your words 100%. Otherwise, you will quickly earn the reputation of not being reliable, and your team and colleagues may lose trust in your words or actions. If you take a decision, be clear about the consequences: Who will be affected, and in which way? How will this influence the next weeks, months or even years on your team or company? Which side effects may appear? You don’t need a fully worked-through plan in all cases, but going through these basic questions in your head literally takes 10 seconds; a minute if you really dig deep. You can do this on your way to work, or while you’re getting coffee. Never, ever skip this step.
If someone expects you to decide on the spot, ask them for more time. Even an hour will do wonders! Your team will appreciate it that you took your time, and you will be more trustworthy if (a) your words and actions are aligned and consistent, and (b) your team does not have to fear that you take your decisions within seconds based on a gut feeling. So no matter how urgent something may seem – always remember that taking your time makes you a better leader.
#4 Lead by example.
People don’t trust words, they trust actions. But they will not trust you if your words contradict your actions, so make sure that what you say is what you do. This might sound easier than it actually is. It starts with the very little things: If you introduce a new tool or a new rule, you should be the first one to use it or comply to it. If you ask your team to do something, make sure to do it yourself! If they see you doing it, they will follow. If you dictate new rules and tools and continue to work in a different way, they will notice and questions your words.
Of course, you as the leader might have other tasks and requirements than your team. This is fine, as long as you’re open with it. If you have to contradict a rule or use a different tool, be clear about the reasons. Maybe even ask your team to help you switch or implement it.
#5 Listen, listen, listen.
As much as you have to say – never forget to listen to your team members. Take an online course to improve your listening skills, and reflect upon your work structures to analyze whether you provide enough opportunities for everybody on your team to be heard. People may come to you for advice, but they also come to you to be appreciated and valued. Appreciation starts with listening to the other person, and trying to understand their point of view. If you skip this step and go into advice mode immediately, your team members may have the feeling that you’re not really interested in their thoughts and ideas – and they will stop telling you about them. Be careful and reflect upon your practices, as them not telling you may look like if there simply are no problems on the surface. And this, my friend, I can tell you for sure: There is never a time when there are no problems. That’s a given.