While last week heralded the end of the current school year, it also marked the completion of my first year serving as the chairman of the Governing Board for the regional high school my oldest daughter attends. Having worked with a number of teams and committees, I can honestly say that this team was one of the most effective and collaborative teams I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.
Whenever we think about our experiences serving on a team, our perceptions of whether it was a positive or negative experience is often gauged in terms of the people we serve with; of whether we found those team interactions collaborative or antagonistic.
Of course, the reality is that the nature of how a team performs and interacts is largely dependent on the person leading the team. After all, it’s the leader who not only defines the nature and purpose of the team’s effort, but also serves to exemplify the behaviour and attitudes of how the team will operate as a unit.
Looking back at my time spent this year serving as the Governing Board chair – and the feedback I received from some of my team mates – I’d like the share the following five lessons which leaders should implement to ensure their team has a successful outcome from their shared efforts.
1. Make time to forge relationships with those you lead
Although I was elected to serve as chairman of the Governing Board because of my reputation and past experiences working with some of the team members on another committee, I knew this wasn’t enough for the team to understand how I viewed my role or what I’d like for us to collectively accomplish.
After all, I wasn’t just a new member of this Governing Board, I was also a new member of this school community. So if I wanted my team to understand my approach and reason for some of the changes I wanted to put forth, I first had to get to know them – of what was important to them and what they needed in order to feel like a valued member of our team.
As such, whenever there was a school event or activity that one of the members was organizing, I made sure to participate or attend, both to see them in action as well as to get a better understanding of what they really cared about. This created opportunities outside of our board meetings where we could learn more about one another and what we wanted to accomplish.
When it comes to leading your employees, it’s important to get to know them beyond the roles or functions that are assigned to them. This will help you understand not only what issues or goals truly matter to them, but how the various activities and events in their lives serve to shape their perceptions and understandings.
This will also make it easier for you to communicate how your shared purpose connects to what matters most to those you lead.
2. Give your team a platform to voice their concerns
Over the course of the year, our Governing Board had to make a number of tough and at times unpleasant decisions thanks to cuts to our budget and policy changes put forth by the provincial government. Given how these changes were being pushed on us from those further up the chain, we knew that the only option we had was to find a way to implement these changes while limiting the negative impact it might have on our students.
Naturally, having to deal with such limitations without having a say in the matter in the first place created its own source of frustrations and anger within my team. Of course, it would have been easy to simply point out that this was out of our control and that we’d all just have to ‘suck it up’. Instead, I encouraged my team to share their thoughts and frustrations even if we couldn’t do anything to change the situation.
Afterwards, a few of them thanked me for ‘allowing them to vent their frustrations’. I replied that if we couldn’t use our meetings to voice our concerns, it defeats a key reason for why they are there – namely, to share their thoughts and insights on what we can do to help our students succeed, even when faced with such disagreeable choices.
Similarly, when your team faces a tough or unpleasant decision, it’s important that you give them the opportunity to voice their concerns, even if ultimately there’s little you can do to change the situation. Giving your team this space to be heard will not only help increase your awareness of the challenges these decisions will create for your team, but it will also demonstrate to your employees that you respect and care about how this will impact their ability to do their jobs.
3. Freely share information to improve discourse/ideation process
As many of the team members on our Governing Board serve on other committees, one of the regular parts of our meetings is having these members report back on what was discussed or reported at these other meetings. As Governing Board chair, I was provided this information in advance, while the other members were given this information during our meetings.
Early on in my mandate, I proposed a change to this process – specifically, that reporting members draft an informal report that I could forward to the rest of the team along with the meeting agenda a few days before the meeting. This way, everyone would know what was in these reports and if there was anything that required further elaboration or which the team wished to discuss, we’d focus on that issue and not the whole report. If there wasn’t anything worth discussing, we’d simply move on to the next topic on our agenda.
Not only did this dramatically reduce the length of our meetings, it also encouraged a more thoughtful discussion of the issues presented in these reports, with a number of excellent points brought forth for consideration and review.
Despite the fact that today’s leaders face a growing tide of information, it’s still common for some leaders to withhold information from their employees as a means of exerting control or authority over those they lead. However, as the amount of information continues to grow, leaders would be better served focusing less on controlling access to this information and working more on creating a context for those they serve in terms of what they should focus on and what they should view as simply points of interest.
4. The focus should be on your team, not you
At the end of our last meeting, I made a point of expressing my gratitude to the whole team for making my first term on this Governing Board such a rewarding experience and for their help with making my first year serving as the chairman such a success. Looking back at the numerous meetings we had over the year, it was probably the most I ever spoke at these meetings, outside of my guiding the team through the various points on our agenda.
Now this wasn’t because I was shy or uncomfortable speaking in front of my team. Instead, it was due to my focus on spending more time listening to them, hearing about their experiences, insights and concerns. It was important for me to show them how I didn’t see my function as telling them what we should do. Rather, it was to help direct the team’s attention to what we should focus on and what we could quickly review as points of information.
So many studies and surveys have shown how most employees today feel unheard or worse, overlooked by their leaders. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that those in charge are so busy trying to come up with all the answers that they’re not making time to listen to those under their care to find out what possible solutions they’ve been able to conjure up.
Making the effort to talk less and listen more is a powerful way to not only demonstrate how much you respect your employees’ insights, but of how much you trust their abilities to understand and evaluate the best options for your organization to achieve its shared goals.
5. Remember, leadership is a never-ending learning process
With the first year of my two-year mandate on the Governing Board completed, there’s naturally a sense of completion and satisfaction over the work that was accomplished. Since our last meeting, several team members have told me that they hope I’ll run for the chairman position again next year. Certainly, there’s no better indicator of how well you performed in your role than people hoping that you’ll remain in that position.
And yet, while this kind of praise and feedback can make leaders feel like they’ve found that ‘sweet spot’ for success, the reality is that leadership is not something that one should ever consider that they’ve mastered completely.
There’s no question most of us strive to achieve some certainty in our lives; of a sense of comfort and familiarity from sticking to the tried-and-true path. However, the reality is that leadership is a learning process that never ends; you’ll never be at a point where you can say you’ve learned it all.
This is especially important when it comes to understanding what it takes to successfully develop your team and employees in light of today’s dynamic and evolving landscape. As any successful leader will attest, we should never take for granted that the successes we achieved in the past are indicative of what our performance will be like in the future.
As the world becomes increasingly connected and complex – and consequently smaller than it was before – organizations will need leaders who can foster both a sense of trust and a drive to collaborate amongst the various teams and departments if they are to remain competitive in this evolving global market.
The lessons described above can help leaders provide both the right guidance and environment to ensure that we’re not only helping our employees to succeed, but that we’re helping them to achieve the shared purpose behind our collective efforts.