Leading with Impact: Essential Tips for Team Leaders

I have been leading teams for several years and have learned a great deal during this time. The journey has been challenging at times, but it has offered me a completely different perspective on many aspects of leadership. Today, I cannot categorically state whether I am a good or bad leader; this path is ongoing and continues to unveil new insights. However, I have formed opinions on certain topics and decided to share them with you. I believe these tips can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the team you manage.

I understand that there are various approaches to team leadership: some leaders focus meticulously on details, while others concentrate on the broader picture. Some adhere strictly to rules, while others prefer a more flexible, personable approach. I won’t suggest which method is superior; instead, these tips are intended to serve as a universal guide. So, let’s begin with the importance of listening to others—a skill that many of us find surprisingly challenging to master.

Listen To Them

First, and in my opinion the most important aspect, is that you need to listen to your reports. Just imagine a meeting (group or one-on-one) where a report describes something important to them, or even for the whole project. Such a person might prepare a lot of materials, visualizations, helper tools, etc. Now, imagine if the manager does not listen to them. After the presentation, he just moves on to a completely different topic. How would an employee feel when treated in this way? Speaking for myself, I would be totally demotivated and would not initiate anything next time because it wouldn’t seem worth it. Moreover, I would lose trust in my manager, and this is the beginning of a real disaster: no trust, no confidence, no initiative. We end up with people who work only for external factors like money. Okay, they might just work, but they won’t bring real energy to the project, they won’t care about details and results.

Listening to people is crucial; they need to know that you listen to and understand them. Asking questions related to the presentation also signals that you are interested and want to delve deeper. It makes clear that their work was done for a reason and will not be disregarded. This must be authentic. If you feign interest, it will be quickly revealed, and you will only lose your reputation. It doesn’t make sense. Of course, listening does not mean agreeing with everything. Sometimes new ideas may be flawed, something might have been overlooked, or some details may need refinement. A lot of aspects can require additional work, and this is the time to also show that you are interested in their matters.

This applies to other situations as well, let’s say someone reports an important blocker and cannot handle it independently. If you, as a manager, can address that, you should do so to unblock the work. Such an approach builds trust because it feels like working together, overcoming difficult situations together. With trust comes confidence and initiative. Another point: never lie to them. It doesn’t matter if the truth is uncomfortable for you or for them; it is always better than lying. If you lie, people will not trust you, and rebuilding that trust quickly will be challenging; it will require a lot of time, which is essentially wasted. It’s not worth it.

Provide and Receive Feedback

Without proper feedback, individuals cannot grow or work on their weaknesses. It’s important to discuss with your reports what is wrong, what is good, and, if possible, offer them advice. They will decide what to do with this new knowledge, but it is always an opportunity – you have attempted to assist them and have provided the necessary tools. Providing feedback is complex and delicate because it should be direct but not harsh unless absolutely necessary. Suggestions and references to specific situations are preferable. The goal is not to blame people but to provide them with useful information.

Also, remember that feedback should be bi-directional. Team leaders should periodically assess what they can improve, how they can assist their reports, improve workflows, and all actions. Thus, ask them for their opinions about your work. This is not only invaluable information but also sends a clear signal to everyone: look, I want to improve, improve for you. This doesn’t mean you need to agree with all points, but if you do agree, be consistent and implement changes in practice (this is, again, about trust).

Match Tasks to People

An additional point related to growth opportunities is the focus on your reports’ needs. If possible, assign them tasks aligned with their interests. This leverages a lot of internal motivation. We all—hopefully—want to learn something new and exciting. If the company can provide this, it represents an amazing opportunity to not only learn but also to contribute something valuable. It’s a classic win-win situation. For instance, if you need someone to address some performance gaps and there’s a person who has always been interested in such topics, assigning them this task would be the best choice for both parties.

Of course, there will be times when it’s necessary to undertake tasks that fall outside of these interests—perhaps something mundane or particularly challenging. This is normal, and in such situations, you and your reports should not shy away from these tasks. Just plan them properly, explain why they are needed, and prepare everything step-by-step. Even if someone disagrees with the purpose of a task, it’s important they understand it must be completed because it is required from the company’s perspective. Transparency is key. People are intelligent and appreciate understanding the reasons behind their assignments.

Build Personal Relationships

I am an introvert and I do not enjoy large groups, lengthy social events, very loud music, or long and unproductive discussions about “nothing”. However, even I recognize the need for contact with people that isn’t solely work-related. I know some individuals who are entirely focused on work, and frankly, they seem quite odd to me, and I find it hard to connect with them. Almost everyone has a hobby, interesting experiences, or simply an amazing family life. I believe it’s important to be open to, or even initiate, such discussions within the team. Perhaps today’s standup might be a bit dull because everyone is just making progress and doesn’t have anything noteworthy to report? Consider spending some time talking about their world outside of work.

This approach has multiple benefits: first, it allows team members to get to know each other better. As a result, there will be greater respect among team members, especially in online meetings, as we’ll remember that we’re interacting with real human beings with individual interests, possibly children, and incredibly interesting lives. People’s lives are not boring (with the possible exception of the aforementioned “strange guys”), so this perspective can enrich the team. It also serves as a source of creativity. After such discussions, you might find that you want to try something new, and maybe someone from the group will help you get started, or you could help someone else. A better understanding of others’ lives also enables us to understand why they work in their specific ways, allowing for much more effective team management.

Rotate Roles and Ownership

I’ve discussed this even in a separate post about daily facilitator rotation—and it doesn’t matter whether you use Scrum or not; you can still apply the same principle. There are always some meetings, briefings, decisions, etc. This presents a great opportunity to rotate leadership, and it shouldn’t always be you leading them but other team members as well. Such an approach shifts responsibility to them, fostering a sense of ownership. When people feel they are in charge, they tend to handle matters more effectively, stay more focused on the topic, and naturally, there’s a bit of comparison with each other since they know other team members will also lead some meetings or projects.

This creates healthy competition and also addresses issues related to holidays or urgent situations: if the current facilitator is not available (for example, you), the team will still be able to function properly, communicate, and even make decisions on important matters. Even if there are shy individuals in the team, this practice serves as good training for them. Of course, you can discuss their feelings about this in a group setting or during one-on-ones to ensure it’s not too overwhelming for them.

Let Them Argue

Many people prefer to avoid conflicts and friction out of fear of using too strong words, offending someone, or undermining someone’s competence. However, I believe such an approach is not very practical. If we aim to work as a cohesive group, we need to be open to discussion, even on challenging topics. If a team cannot engage in healthy debate and always seeks consensus, it might fail to resolve significant issues. This type of consensus can lead to substantial setbacks or even derail projects. Ultimately, someone will have to make a decision; avoiding it is not an option.

As you might have gathered from previous advice, avoiding conflict does not foster trust, and without clear ownership, people struggle to make decisions. Active listening during such discussions is crucial: even if someone disagrees, they should remain engaged and support the initiative of others. Remember, arguing is not an invitation to place blame (either on yourself or others). It’s about focusing on the work and outcomes, not questioning competencies, as these are entirely separate matters.

Do Not Focus on Yourself or Direct Team

It might seem counterintuitive, but I strongly advise against focusing exclusively on your direct team, with the sole exception being if there is only one team in the company. In all other scenarios, separate teams have their leaders, and all these leaders together form a specific group. If your goal is to drive progress, to truly collaborate and deliver exceptional results, your primary team should be the group of team leads, not the team you directly oversee. Why? Because by adopting a broader perspective, you can coordinate actions more effectively and advance as a whole company, rather than as isolated groups. Consider the analogy of a navy entering battle: if each operational unit makes decisions based solely on its own welfare, the entire fleet will quickly suffer defeat.

Take another example: imagine a basketball coach calling separate timeouts for each player. It’s impractical and defeats the purpose of teamwork. Both you and the company need to operate as a unified entity. After strategizing at this level, you can then disseminate all pertinent information to your team and collaborate with other departments. This approach also involves setting aside personal ego and self-interest: don’t fixate on individual or even your team’s achievements alone. What is the value of your success if it doesn’t contribute to the team’s output? What is the benefit of your team’s success if it leads to significant delays and losses for the company due to a lack of transparency and coordination, causing clients to depart? As you can see, prioritizing a higher-level focus may appear illogical at first, but it is profoundly rational in the context of overall success.

Be a Partner, Not a Father

The last point, but certainly not the least important: avoid adopting a paternalistic role towards your team members. The relationship should be one of partnership, not akin to that between a caregiver and their charge. Why is this distinction crucial? If you treat team members in a paternalistic manner, akin to how a new parent might manage their children, you risk sliding into micromanagement and adopting an ineffective work style.

You might hesitate to delegate tasks, fearing they won’t be completed correctly without your intervention. You may prevent internal team debates to avoid creating pressure. You could shy away from setting firm deadlines, thinking they might be too challenging. Overall, you’ll end up being overly lenient, which is detrimental both for you and the entire team, as it hampers effective operation. Ultimately, you might find yourself unable to make tough decisions, like terminating someone if necessary, which could lead the higher-ups to consider removing the source of the problem: you.

However, as a team lead, there are situations where protection is warranted, such as personal attacks against team members or unreasonable demands from stakeholders that were not previously agreed upon. In these cases, you should act as a mediator or even a shield, leveraging your position to engage with various departments and individuals within the company. This doesn’t mean you should handle standard issues for them. For example, if a developer is blocked because someone from another team needs to complete a task, your intervention is not required; your team member should be encouraged to address the issue directly.