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How Successful Leaders Build Teams that Thrive

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This blog was originally posted here: with permissions from Tanveer Naseer.

When it comes to leadership in today’s fast-paced, interconnected world, there’s no question that the only constant we should expect is change. It’s a reality that came to mind recently after I announced my decision to resign my position as the chairman of the Governing Board at our regional high school in order to run as a candidate in the upcoming school board elections for the chairman of the school board position.

Since making this news public, I’ve found myself reflecting on the past 3 terms that I’ve served as the Governing Board chairman, and the wonderful opportunity I had to be able to serve such a great team.

Of course, great teams are not simply a product of the various people who comprise the group. It is also the result of the actions and words of the group’s leader who understands how to tap into the collective talents, insights, and experiences of the various team members, and direct those elements towards a common goal or shared purpose.

As I look back at my experiences leading this Governing Board team, I want to share three tactics I used which not only helped to strengthen our team cohesion, but which has built the foundation that has allowed our team to be a productive and thriving one over these past three years.

1. Build relationships to understand the needs of those you serve
One of the interesting challenges that came with serving as the chairman of this Governing Board was the fact that the team members changed every year as different teachers, students, and parents came on board to represent their segment of our school community.

So while our long-term goals might have remained constant, how we viewed them and what routes we thought were best to achieve them would naturally change and evolve as the team dynamics changed with the departure and arrival of various board members.

Consequently, one of the things I always made a point to do at the start of each mandate was to build and sustain relationships with all my team members. By making this effort to reach out and connect with those under my care, I was able to better understand what their needs were and what would make them feel like their contributions made a difference to our shared purpose.

When we first take the reins of leadership over a team or organization, it’s only natural that we want to press ahead with the various plans or initiatives we have in mind to improve how we operate or what we could accomplish. However, it’s critical to remember that our ultimate success is dependent on how well we connect what matters to our organization with what matters to those we serve.

The numerous studies on workplace engagement have clearly demonstrated that employees don’t commit their discretionary efforts – their talents, insights, experiences and creativity – to our shared purpose simply because of the roles and responsibilities they’ve been assigned to carry out.

Rather, what’s required to ignite the untapped potential that resides in all of our employees is to make intentional our efforts to see our employees beyond the roles they play in our organization so that we can build deep, emotional connections with them.

Only from this vantage point can we truly understand what their needs are and how they can be connected to why we do what we do, if not also what will drive them to achieve excellence.

2. Demonstrate your commitment to doing right and not just being right
Since announcing to my Governing Board team my decision to resign my position at the end of this school year in order to run for the chairman of the school board position, I’ve had a number of one-on-one conversations with my team mates where we’ve reminisced about our time together.

A common theme that came up in all of these conversations was how much they appreciated the fact that I never shied away from owning up to my mistakes, no matter how minor they might be. My fellow board members pointed out how this simple gesture made it clear to them that my focus wasn’t on some sort of self-driven interest.

Instead, the message I relayed through such actions was that I was driven to ensure that we were successful in our collective efforts to provide our students with every opportunity to succeed and thrive.

What’s interesting about this willingness on my part to be open about admitting my mistakes was that it not only communicated what mattered to me. It also made it easier for me to be more transparent and accessible to my team because I didn’t have to worry about being right; of how sometimes I didn’t have the answer or solution as to how to proceed next.

Being able to admit this to my team reinforced the message that our success wasn’t dependent on any one person, but on our ability to work together to achieve a common goal.

As leaders, one of the biggest hurdles we have to overcome is the notion that to be an effective leader requires that we have all the answers. Invariably, such a perspective leads us to focus inward towards protecting our position or outlook on things, instead of setting our sights outwards to ascertain what would be the best course of action to achieve our shared goals based on what those on the front lines see going right or wrong.

By recognizing that our obligation as leaders is not to demonstrate how right we are, but on guiding our employees to doing what’s right for our organization and those we serve, we can not only encourage greater participation by our employees in our shared purpose, but we can also strengthen our ability to do what’s best for those under our care.

3. Create an environment where everyone feels heard and understood
When you lead a team comprised of a diverse group of people – teachers, support personnel, school administrators, community representatives, students, and parents – it’s only natural to expect competing points of view about what’s important to our community, which can lead to concerns that some voices will get more attention at the expense of others.

That’s why since I first took on the role of Governing Board chairman three years ago, I wanted to make sure my team never felt that we were there simply to rubber stamp measures we didn’t agree with. Instead, I encouraged them to see our meetings as opportunities to figure out alternative solutions to the challenges we faced. And at the very least, a platform to voice their frustrations when no better solution presented themselves.

In order to create such an atmosphere, I not only made sure to freely share information with my team several days before our meetings, but I also made sure to provide them with the context for how this situation or outcome would impact our students and our school.

This combination of encouraging dialogue and keeping my team mates well-informed of what was going on in our school not only made it easier for people to feel comfortable speaking up, but it also helped to clarify for me what mattered most to my team and consequently, where I needed to put more of our focus going forward.

When it comes to leading teams and organization’s in today’s fast-changing environment, it can be tempting to focus our attention on those employees who share our point of view; whose opinions and insights help to solidify and support our perspective of what’s important and what needs to be done. It’s also easy to try and limit what information we allow our employees to have access to as a way to exert control and authority over those we’re meant to serve.

And yet, if we are to truly tap into the great value of teams – of benefiting from the diversity of experiences, insights and outlooks – we need to demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that everyone in our team or organization has the opportunity to be heard; that we share what we know so that our employees will be willing to share their insights and experiences to help us better identify the challenges and opportunities we’ll face going forward.

That’s not to say that we necessarily have to act on everything our employees tell us, a fact our employees do understand as they are aware of the limitations we ourselves have to work within. But what this does mean is that we demonstrate to our employees that what they experience, what they have to say and share is important, and that we value how their contributions will help us to determine the best course of action going forward.

In the end, what all of these points illustrate is that leadership is not about you, it’s about the people you serve. While we may have a vision or goal we’d like to achieve in leading our team or organization, ultimately our purpose in leadership is to bridge the various needs of those we serve around a common interest or shared purpose.

This is especially important for us to take note of in light of the fact that in order for organizations to become more adaptive and innovative, we need to recognize that the teams we create should no longer be seen as static constructs, but as fluid ones that need to evolve and adjust to reflect the changing needs of our organization going forward.

And that’s what successful leaders understand – that our ability to create teams that succeed and thrive is dependent on fostering an environment where our employees are compelled to do their best work. That we create the right conditions for our employees to not only believe in our leadership and vision, but in the value and importance of what they do, and why it matters both for our organization and for themselves.



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