How Can You Be an Effective Team Leader?

Bob Pozen, Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management

Most of you are leading teams now, or plan to lead them in the future. This is a very important role because an effective team can get a lot more done than the sum of individuals working alone.

But how do you run an effective team?

This turns out to be a difficult question because leading requires a set of management skills, and most people have not been trained to be managers. Indeed, some of the most productive employees have trouble becoming effective managers.

That’s because these employees want to do everything themselves and have a hard time delegating to others. Or, they micro-manage their employees’ work. Perhaps you’ve seen this in your own organization. Often, particularly in health care, an excellent employee turns into a poor manager because of a lack of leadership and management training.

Once you find yourself leading a team, the question is not whether you can perform a task better than others. Instead, the specific question is: What you and only you as the leader can do? And the general question is: What maximizes the productivity of the team?

In this video, we will discuss six key aspects of leading a team:

- First, setting goals for the team
- Second, agreeing on success metrics
- Third, doing a mid-flight review
- Fourth, consulting with key people
- Fifth, tolerating good faith mistakes
- And finally, celebrating team victories

First, setting goals for the team. Teams need goals to provide them with direction and priorities for the next week, month, or year, depending on the project and organization. These team goals should mesh with the larger objectives of the organization and help implement its goals.

The team leader is usually in the best position to understand the larger objectives that the team should keep in mind. It is the leader’s role to identify other departments or teams involved with related projects, which may impact or influence the team’s work.

Second, agreeing on success metrics. The leader should ask the team: How will we know whether we have been successful at the end of the relevant time period? The team should collectively agree on specific success metrics with specific time targets. If the team actively participates in the process of delineating metrics, then it will tend to support them — as opposed to metrics dictated by the boss.

Third, hold mid-flight reviews. An effective leader must maintain a delicate balance between monitoring and micromanaging. The leader should not ignore the team once it gets started, but, at the same time, the leader should not check up on their progress every day.

I advocate a mid-flight review — somewhere toward the middle of a short project, or perhaps several reviews in a long project. These are formal meetings where the team presents its progress in fulfilling its goals and metrics. At these meetings, the leader needs to be flexible. In light of what the team has done so far, it may be useful to revise goals or metrics so that they are more realistic.

Fourth, consulting with key people. In carrying out its goals, the leader should encourage team members to consult with relevant constituencies — like doctors, patients, administrators, or housekeeping. This consultation is a way for the team to test out its tentative conclusions and proposals. For instance, it is critical for a team to get feedback from planned users of any new systems.

In between mid-flight reviews, team members should also feel free to consult with the leader as needed.

Fifth, tolerating good faith mistakes. Effective delegation of key functions is essential to maximize team productivity. But effective delegation requires the leader to tolerate mistakes made in good faith. These invariably happen even when the team members are talented and try hard to get things right.

This does not mean tolerating intentional errors or ethical or legal violations. Rather, it does mean tolerating unintentional errors if two conditions are both met: First, these erros are promptly and honestly disclosed. And, second, everyone on the team agrees on measures to prevent these errors from happening again.

Sixth, celebrate the team’s victories. Give a lot of positive feedback to individual team members and the team as a group. People tend to focus on negative feedback, so it’s important to counter that tendency. Most leaders will tell you that they are always giving praise to their teams. But few teams feel that they are getting too much praise. So as a leader, err on the side of giving too much praise.

Leading teams is not easy. An effective leader should know when to take charge and when to step back, when to intervene and when to let the team have a lot of autonomy. But you can get better at leading your team if your follow the six guidelines in this video.