How can I practice my team leadership skills?


If teams and team leaders are the basic building blocs of lean, the atoms, how can I become better at leading teams? This is a question I get often, and as a leader of informal teams in the lean movement, I’ve been asking myself the same thing: where can I improve?

On the gemba, it’s quite obvious that great team leaders have none of the classic leadership traits, such as charisma, decisiveness or being inspirational. The best team leaders tend to be rather quiet, no drama personalities that somehow get things done by maintaining their teams in good cheer and relentlessly pursuing kaizen so that people are content, work gets done and improvement happens.

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If team leadership is not a trait – then it’s a skill (or skills). It can be learned. The question then becomes learning to learn: finding the key things we can do better. I’ve been asking myself this same question for the past couple of months, looking at great teams, reading the literature on leadership, in particular google’s attempts at defining it, and I’d like to propose the following working hypotheses:

  1. Express concrete high-level goals: we can be better at expressing high level goals in a concrete manner, such as “seek the customer smile”, “zero accidents” “reduce quality complaints by half” “zero engineering change after tooling” and so on. Expressing high level goals concretely and clearly helps everyone in the team orient, find meaning in what they do, and  opens the way for initiative and suggestions, but it’s never easy and is a definite skill – it can be practiced.
  2. Get agreement on the next step: teams often face choices, some mundane, some strategic, and these choices are up in the air until the next step is defined and then it the team is committed. Great team leaders are good at getting the team agree on the immediate problem or obstacle and coming together on a clear next step (which could be doing nothing). Team leaders have their say in what the next step should be, but accept that the team might want to do something else and that this needs to be worked out. Sometimes the team follows its leader without second thoughts, sometimes it does so after much debating and sometimes the leader follows the team. Getting teams to commit to a clear next step is also a practical skill that can be improved.
  3. Handle conflict: conflict is part of our lives, whether interpersonal conflict in the team or conflict with people outside the team, people are naturally prone to get annoyed and get feisty, particularly when they’re frustrated with the situation or simply in a bad mood. Team leaders are very good at cooling off tempers and calming down conflicts until the ugly mood that flared up dies down. This also means keeping an eye out for conflictual situations, even if they don’t seem immediately part of the job – people have lives outside work as well. A large part of the TWI training about Job Relations is about learning to handle conflict at work – so here is another teachable skill.
  4. Console the losers and supporting individuals: with any change or conflict, there will be winners and losers. Losers are still part of the team, and it is an essential skill of the team leader to console them and persuade them they still have their part in the team. This could lead into the more complex topic of supporting people in their development and helping them with what they want to do, which is often beyond the competences or remit of the team leader, but still… Consoling losers and supporting individuals is something we never do enough of, and certainly an improvable skill.
  5. Show your back: this is an expression from Isao Yoshino, the legendary Toyota leader of the NUMMI experiment, which means that you should practice what you preach for the team to follow you, and when the team fails to move, take the first step yourself to lead by example. The question is not what team members do when you look at them, but what they do when you show your back and they’re on their own. We all share a tendency to “do as I say and don’t do as I do” and practicing being a clearer example to the team can never hurt.

I doubt that these five skills would constitute a complete theory of team leadership, but they are practical, learnable and teachable skills, so they at least provide a place to start to practice lean leadership skills with your teams, tomorrow.

Let me know how it turns out and what you discover?

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