Providing Team Leadership

Leadership is increasingly taking place within a team context. As teams grow in popularity the role of the leader in guiding team members takes on heightened importance. And the role of team leader is different from the traditional leadership role performed by first line supervisors. JD Bryant supervisor at Texas instruments’ Forest lane plant in Dallas found them out. One day he was happily overseeing a staff of 15 circuit-board assemblers. The next day he was informed the company was moving to teams and that he was to become a facilitator. He was supposed to teach the teams everything he knew and then let them make their own decisions. Confused about his new role, he admitted there was no clear plan on what he was supposed to do. In this article, we consider the challenge of being a team leader and review the new roles that team leaders take on.

Many leaders who came of age when individualism ruled are not equipped to handle the change teams. As one prominent consultant noted even the most capable managers have trouble making the transition because all the command-and-control type things they were encouraged to do before are no longer appropriate. There is no reason to have any skill or sense of this. This same consultant estimated that probably 15 percent of managers are natural team leaders; another 15 percent could never lead a team because it runs counter to their personality. They are unable to sublimate their dominating style for the good of the team. Then there is that huge group in the model: Team leadership doesn’t come naturally to them, but they can learn it.

The challenge for most managers, then, is to learn how to become an effective team leader. They have to learn skills such as the patience to share information, to trust others, to give people authority and to understand and then to intervene. Effective leaders have mastered the difficult balancing act of knowing when to leave their teams alone and when to intercede. New team leaders may try to retain too much control at a time when team members need more autonomy or they may abandon their teams at times when the teams need support and help.

A study of 20 organizations that had reorganized themselves around teams found certain common responsibilities that a leader had to assume. These included coaching, facilitating, handling disciplinary problems, reviewing team/individual performance, training and communication. Many of these responsibilities apply to managers in general. A more meaningful way to describe the team leader’s job is to focus two priorities: managing the team’s external boundary and facilitating the team process. We’ve broken the priorities down into four specific roles.

First team leaders are liaisons with external constituencies. These include upper management other internal teams, customers and suppliers. The leader represents the team to other constituencies secures needed resources, clarifies others’ expectations of the team, gathers information from the outside, and shares this information with team members.

Second, team leaders are troubleshooters. When the team has problems and asks for assistance, team leaders sit on meetings and help try to resolve the problems. This rarely relates to technical or operation issues because the team members typically know more about the tasks being done than does the team leader. The leader is most likely to contribute by asking penetrating questions by helping the team talk through problems and by getting needed resources from external constituencies. For instance, when a team in an aerospace firm found itself short handed its leader took responsibility for getting more staff. He presented the team’s case to upper management and got the approval through the company’s human resources department.

Third, team leaders are conflict managers. When disagreements surface they help process the conflict. What is the source of the conflict? Who is involved? What are the issues? What resolution options are available? What are the advantages of each? By getting team members to address questions such as these the leader minimizes the disruptive aspects of intra-team conflicts.

Finally, team leaders are coaches. They clarify expectations and roles to teach, offer support, cheerlead, and do whatever else is necessary to help team members improve their work performance. —