Ever since I could string a few words together on a page, I knew that prose was my passion. From a young age, you could find me nose deep, ingesting (and inhaling) the pages of a good book. In fact, there’s photographic evidence of me holding the hardcover version of Road Dahl’s Matilda (the cover was almost bigger than my head) with a Cheshire cat–like grin across my face. So, of course, my career trajectory took me down the journalist path, working for newspapers, magazines, and online. But as I’ve climbed the media ladder (with much excitement), writing has resumed the role of understudy while my new skillset slowly takes center stage: management.
Although many aspects of this new job description come naturally to me, keeping other people motivated and inspired while being a constant resource of support and motivation can be incredibly daunting, not to mention overwhelming. As a first-time manager, I can honestly say it takes patience, trust, transparency, and a positive outlook to lead a successful team of people who want to not only play ball but win, too (with a smile on their face). Here are a few things I’ve learned so far, with the help of some of my favorite experts on the topic.
When your role goes up a rank on the ladder, so does your task list. Remember, you’ve been promoted because the company has seen your potential, so know deep down that you can handle it. While some days it might seem like you’ll never cross everything off, there’s one thing on your to-do list you simply can’t skip: the one-on-one. This is the all-important meeting between manager and employee, and it’s invaluable. Why? This is probably the only chance you get to really deep-dive into their schedule and have an honest, open discussion on a professional and personal level. This conversation will make them feel important and a valued member of the team.
According to Julia B. Austin, senior lecturer of business administration at Harvard Business School, it doesn’t matter how long the check-in is (an hour a week or 30 minutes once a month), but “making time for an individual says you give a damn about them as a person.” She adds, “A leader who makes time for their team members—especially those who are also leaders—is less likely to suffer poor team performance because of ambiguity and mistrust. Each one-on-one is an opportunity to clarify the goals of the organization, your performance expectations and build a trusting relationship with your employees by getting to know them as people, not just workers.” So don’t skimp on the one-on-one.
Being a confident leader is key to making staff feel secure in your instructions and vision (or you can fake it till you make it), but it’s important to keep that grit in check. Being assertive and bold is a good thing, but a little humility goes a long way too. Don’t let your ego take the lead. David Dye, president of Trailblaze Inc., and co-author of Winning Well, has helped numerous leaders on their path to successful management and believes this combination is one of the most powerful when asserting influence.
He told Blogging on Business, “Winning Well managers understand the important balance of confidence and humility; having the confidence to surround themselves with people who will challenge them, and whom they can learn from, while at the same time having the humility to know the mission is more important than their ego or what they can accomplish alone.”
If you want to motivate a team to give their all to a company and work their hardest, kindness goes a long way, so leave your bully tactics at the door. But how do you assert kindness without becoming a pushover? There is a danger in being too nice. Right? Just ask Bill Baker, author of Leading With Kindness, who told Charlie Rose that being kind “doesn’t mean being a doormat.” He explains, “A kind boss is not someone who just rolls over and does whatever his or her employees say to do, this is a firm person. There is a line that’s credited to Gandhi: ‘Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.’ There is a big difference.”
Baker says managers who incorporate kindness into their leadership style will “generate and motivate people to do their best, more than you will with other sterner kinds of techniques like intimidation or fear.” He adds, “You have to rely on the people who are working with you and alongside of you, and if they’re not telling you what’s going on or if they’re afraid to tell you or if they’re only telling you what they think you what to hear, you’re going to drive the Mercedes right off the cliff.” That might sound dramatic, but you get the point. Being nice can be a powerful tool.
Being available for your team members when they need an ear to chew on is vital. They need to know that you’re on their side and prepared to take their concerns or ideas seriously and make changes when needed. Of course, you will do this in their one-on-one check-ins, too, but you should always have an ear open when things come up during the day. This keeps the ship moving smoothly and the cogs of the machine well oiled.
But it’s not just the team you need to listen to. David M. Dyer says you need to tune into yourself, too. “The first thing I do is listen, both to myself and to the people I’m working with,” he told Lead Change Group. “I listen to myself to identify values and personal mission that are relevant to the situation. I listen to the team to discover their vision, values, and desires. That is the beginning engagement: to listen.”
We love watching them play ball, but we should all be employing some of their team tactics into our workplace too. Coaching skills are essential for all leaders. We’re all busy, and it’s not getting any less so, but making time to coach your team is vital to its success. And Michael Bungay Stanier, author of best-selling The Coaching Habit , says managers can learn to coach people in 10 minutes or less and unlock their potential.
Brené Brown, author of Rising Strong and Daring Greatly, is a big fan of the coaching tactic, and while getting it right is certainly an art, the end results are more than worth it. “It takes courage to ask a question rather than offer up advice, provide an answer, or unleash a solution,” she wrote. “Giving another person the opportunity to find their own way, make their own mistakes, and create their own wisdom is both brave and vulnerable. It can also mean unlearning our ‘fix it’ habits.”
If there’s one thing we all crave, it’s respect—from our parents, friends, colleagues, and ourselves. So imagine how much influence and, ultimately, productivity you can garner from your team by showing them this simple courtesy. After 25 years of leadership consulting, coaching, and training experience, author Gregg Ward found that respect was the secret to successful leadership. “When employees feel genuinely respected by their boss, they’re much more likely to work hard, stay loyal, and go the extra mile when the going gets rough,” he told Activia Training. “They’re also going to be more respectful to others, including their bosses, colleagues, and customers. I don’t know any manager who doesn’t want an employee like that.”
Ask yourself: When has intimidation and micromanagement ever delivered top-level performance? When people feel valued and appreciated, they want to perform their best and work with you as a team; that’s the kind of team we all want to be a part of.
What personally drives you to get up and go every day? How do you push yourself to work beyond the regular eight-hour day and get the job done? If you don’t feel inspired to do this, then your staff won’t either. An obvious answer to get people to perform better is through a bonus system: Incentivize them, right? Not so, according to Dan Pink. In his TED Talk, Pink spoke of his research in the science of human motivation and how a London School of Economics study found pay-for-performance plans and “financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance.”
So how do you motivate a team? New science around this topic has shown people will be more inclined to do things because they matter. Or, as Dan says, "because we like it, they’re interesting, or part of something important.” He continues, “The secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive; the drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to do things cause they matter.” So inspire your team with a reason to work, give them a cause, and make them feel like the work they do is important. Because we all want to feel like we have purpose in this life.
Why are some leaders better than others? How are some companies (we‘re looking at you, Apple and Google) able to produce insurmountable levels of innovation and new ideas year after year, much more than their competition? Simon Sinek asked himself the same question and then turned it into a best-selling book, Start With Why. So what exactly does asking why, how, and what do to help some organizations and some leaders inspire where others aren’t doing so?
Sinek explains in his TED Talk, “By why I mean what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care? As a result, the way we think, we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in—it’s obvious. We go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations, regardless of their size, regardless of their industry, all think, act, and communicate from the inside out.”
So why does asking why work? Because “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” As a manager, make sure your team isn’t just following your lead and instruction because they have to, but because they want to.