5 Things Team Leaders Should Focus on First

One of the most challenging work transitions comes when you face the prospect of leading a new team for the first time. Getting people to work together is not easy, and many team leaders rush over the basics in order to start achieving goals. But the first weeks and months are critical for starting a team off on the right foot. What actions should you take to set the team up for success? How will you get the team working well together, manage conflict, and create an environment where everyone feels safe, valued and motivated to contribute?

Here are the top things a great new team leader can do to place his or her team on the path to success.

#1: Get to Know Each Other

It sounds obvious, but getting to know your team and encouraging your team members to get to know each other better is the most valuable opening move you can make. In practical terms, this might mean holding an informal team building session or a series of social events to get everyone sharing stories and communicating. One illuminating exercise is to have team members describe their best and worst team experiences. Use these "in-the-trenches" revelations to get everyone on the same page about how they want the team to work and what behavior they want to encourage (or discourage) going forward.   

#2: Establish a Winning Leadership Philosophy

Good leadership is about bringing the individual team members along so they can each perform to the best of their ability. During the first few weeks, it's a good idea to demonstrate your vision and values for the team, and explain how you will define success. What are the goals for this team? What's the reasoning behind those goals? How will you evaluate the team's performance, both collectively and individually? What are your top priorities?

Visioning essentially sets out the team's charter; the reason why the team exists. Miss this vital step and there's a risk that your team will work extremely hard, only to end up at the wrong place. Being transparent about the vision also keeps the team focused on the bigger picture. There will be times when team members disagree about the day-to-day steps that need to be taken in order for the team to perform at its potential. But as long as people agree with the vision, they will usually support the smaller goals they don't like.

#3: Be Clear on the Everyday Workflows

As well as communicating the bigger picture, you will need to clarify in detail how you want the team to work. Who will be working on what? How will meetings be run? How will you provide feedback? Who should team members turn to for help? What are the performance indicators for specific deliverables? Who is accountable for what actions? Who will be moving which gears? Defining the work processes is your opportunity to ensure that tasks are completed in a way that's as organized, systematic, coordinated and streamlined as possible.

If the team already has a defined set of processes, this is a good time to review them and see if they align with the goals and purpose of the team. Never assume that team members know how you work, or how others work, through some sort of office osmosis. If you don't make these norms and expectations clear, you risk creating an environment where people feel unsure, unsettled, or detached from the decision-making. 

#4: Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit

Identifying and resolving a few easy fixes - your low hanging fruit - can have a swift and dramatic effect on the team's performance, mostly because it shows that you are listening and can get things done. Could you find more resources to speed up a slow-burning project that is causing frustration among the team members? Could you free up time by changing the way that status meetings are run?

Scoring a few early wins shows that the team is already making progress, and this can have a significant effect on how happy team members feel; how positively they view the team; and how much confidence they have in the team's ability to achieve important goals. This, in turn, helps to build a climate of motivation that acts as a solid foundation for moving the team to higher levels of performance.

#5: When in Doubt, Over Communicate

If there's one thing a new team leader can not do too much of, it's communicating. Even if you think that you sound like a broken record, remember, others cannot read your mind. It's human nature for people to get focused on their own objectives and drift off course, or to misinterpret what someone has said to them because the message was not communicated at the right time or with sufficient detail.

When messages are not communicated clearly, there's a risk that team members will get out of sync with the team's objectives, and with the rest of the team. Being crystal clear about the outcomes you're after narrows the margin for error. At least in the early days, it's a good idea to repeat yourself through multiple touch points such as group meetings, one-on-one meetings, email, forums and hangouts, shared progress reports and more. Communicated broadly, using different styles and methods of delivery, makes it far more likely that your messages will reach the different personalities on your team. 

Make the First Weeks Count

You only get one chance to make a great first impression on your team and the reality is, your actions in the first weeks or months will have a huge impact on your team's cohesiveness and culture going forward. Be sure to approach this opportunity with a clear action plan. Developing relationships with team members, establishing an inspiring leadership philosophy, having clear workflows to guide your team's activities, scoring a few easy wins, and over-communicating your goals and aspirations will get you started on the right foot. It's about taking simple steps to create the right conditions for motivation to thrive, and progress to occur.

Jayne Thompson

Jayne is a freelance copywriter, business writer and the blog editor here at Truity. One part word nerd, two parts skeptic, she helps clients discover the amazing power of words on a page. She lives with her ENTX husband and children in Yorkshire, UK, where she drinks a lot of tea and loves winding people up. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.

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