Walk into a lot of businesses these days and, if you listen carefully, you’ll likely hear the whispers of uncertainty and discontent. Buzzwords of the late ‘90s like “IPO,” “paper millionaire” and “venture capital” have been replaced with “IOU,” “pink slip” and “out of business.”
More than ever, managers must show their mettle, motivating employees who find themselves breaking bread at more goodbye lunches than power lunches. Here are 10 key principles to building and sustaining an effective team, in a time when working smarter with fewer employees is the new reality:
1) Demonstrate strong communication skills.
If you can’t communicate with your direct reports, you shouldn’t be managing people. Communication is the single most important piece of building and sustaining a productive team. Managers need to understand the importance of opening two-way symmetrical communication channels.
“You absolutely need to have excellent communication skills,” says Linda Tischler, managing editor of new media at Fast Company. “Keeping people in the loop is the most important thing you can do.”
Managers often fail to communicate bad news to their direct reports, which can create rumors. Communicating the tough message is not easy, but is a critical part of the job.
“You have to be able to deliver the unpopular decisions,” says Tischler. “If everybody understands what’s going on, it allows you to do the things that are unpopular.”
In this soft economy, bad news is inevitable. A strong manager should be as direct as possible.
“I don't think you’ll do anyone any good by being chipper or upbeat under all circumstances,” says Lisa Allen, a business analyst at Granitar. “It just doesn't ring true. Someone, though, who acknowledges, ‘hey, this isn't the greatest set of circumstances, but we can make some progress anyhow,’ gets points for being realistic and has a better shot at rallying everyone -- optimists, pessimists, and everyone in between -- to get the job done.”
2) Know your customer.
To effectively lead, a manager has to understand the business. Who’s spending money on our product or service? By understanding the customer, a manager can make the best decisions on how to optimize the team’s skill set to satisfy the customer.
“Not understanding your customers’ needs and wants is akin to undertaking a long journey without having the benefit of a destination,” says Richard Hood, a sales rep with Oracle. “The analogy isn't by any means bulletproof as organizations must continually monitor demand because it’s ever-changing. So, after the journey is embarked upon, the demand serves more like a roadmap in aligning resources to meet the organizational objectives on the fly.”
“In any business, including higher education, it is critical to know the needs and wants of the customer,” says Doug Whiting, the associate vice president of public relations at Fairfield University. “I think this is especially true in a down economy, as marketing dollars must be spent wisely, particularly when the demand for those precious resources is so competitive. Too often we make the mistake of giving the customer what it is we think they want or need. If we miss the boat, then we've not spent our resources wisely.”
3) Hire good employees.
Hiring mistakes happen all the time. When interviewing a candidate, be thorough with your line of questioning and watch for the subtle hints of a bad fit. A candidate could have all of the right answers to your questions, but is he or she letting you finish your questions? Are they asking you the right questions?
A bad hire will take a lot of your time and hinder productivity. Look for candidates who not only answer your questions honestly and with passion, but who recognize that they don’t yet have the job and maintain a sense of humbleness. Go with your gut as a tie-breaker and don’t ever worry about hiring someone who may be smarter than you. Surrounding yourself with talent will make your job easier.
“I believe in hiring employees who are smarter than I am,” says Tischler. “A lot of managers are anxious about this because they don’t want to be shown up. But you can prove your managerial mettle by hiring these people and empowering them.”
4) Establish respect among your employees.
You’re the manager, and it’s critical that you demonstrate why you’ve reached your position.
“Employees want and need managers they can respect; why else why would they follow?” says Hood. “Respect is earned when managers are competent, committed and treat their employees fairly. Anything less will invariably tear at the fabric that is vital to the accomplishment of corporation and team goals.”
“It’s really important that you can walk the walk and not just talk the talk,” says Tischler. “People are looking for guidance and leadership. In order to build a team framework, people need someone to look up to.”
Gaining employees’ respect does not stop at showing what you know. It’s important to make sure they’re comfortable. “You must have respect for their physical environment, ” says Tischler. “If they’re in a cube, don’t forget that you were once in a cube. Sensitivity can go a long way.”
Show compassion, but be firm. Tangible results are the end game and teamwork is the vehicle. Your team will follow your lead if you earn their respect.
5) Recognize and maximize employee strengths and go with them.
A good manager can determine quickly where an employee will provide value. This could be a skill that wasn’t identified during the interview process and may not even be part of the job description.
“The best ideas often come from the factory floor,” says Tischler. “You don’t have to look high on the org chart to come up with the best idea. This is particularly important in this environment, with fewer resources and more to do.”
And, Tischler adds, let your employees do their job. “You have to have respect for your employees’ strengths,” she says. “You’re the designer or you’re the IT guy. It’s important as a manager to recognize these strengths and just let them go.”
6) Network internally.
As a manager, mingling with your team is not enough. Walk around, talk with other managers, and have lunch with someone you don’t know so well. This gives you a chance to find out what others are doing and, equally important, educate others about you, your team, and its goals.
“I see networking as less related to backslapping over wine cocktails as I do being related to commitment, accomplishment, and recognition,” says Hood. “People who you want to network with are committed and they’ll appreciate this trait in you. Spending time with others is a great way to build your personal brand. Be a good listener but be sure to talk about your team. Networking is really about sharing knowledge.”
7) Create recognition for your team within company.
As a manager, it’s your job to communicate the role your team plays, especially if you’re not directly responsible for revenue.
“Publicly touting your group and its accomplishments builds group esteem and morale,” says Hood. “People across the organization notice this attention and will recognize team individuals as contributing members of the organization.”
“There's another, practical reason for generating good press internally,” says Allen. “If and when budget cuts or other tough resource issues surface, you want to be sure your group is recognized as being productive or creative. Pointing out an ongoing record of achievements and contributions helps formalize and promote a solid track record of performance.
“You've got to watch out for one potential pitfall: over-promoting or bragging about everything. You don't want to be viewed within the company as a partisan with no judgment or as an easy mark within your group with no standard or expectation for excellence.”
8) Give personal recognition when it's warranted in a public way.
It’s one thing to promote your team efforts, but equally important is giving public recognition to deserving individuals.
“It’s important to recognize the contributions of individuals on the team, and this can be done in a number of ways,” says Whiting. “Private recognition can be given through promotions, pay raises, title changes, or a thank-you note from the boss. But public recognition sometimes is even more important to the individual -- it is quite satisfying to them for others to see that effort and results are being rewarded. I think, too, it can be motivating to others on the team.”
“On one level, I think it's important to practice a ‘do unto others’ approach to management,” says Allen. “If you or I do a good job at something or come up with a great idea, we wouldn't mind -- and in fact might really like -- others knowing about it. So, I figure folks who work for and with me probably feel the same way. By highlighting other's good work, that in turn motivates others to push themselves and perform well in order to receive the same recognition.”
“Recognition is what managers give to others, but in so doing are also giving themselves a pat on the back and selling the mission of the group to senior management,” says Hood.
9) Always act like your supervisor is in the room.
It’s difficult to wear the manager’s hat day in and day out. If you’re having a bad day, blaming someone from another department in front of your team is easy to do. If there’s gossip circulating through your team about the company, the temptation might be to join in. If your manager was in the room, you’d most likely avoid both of these scenarios.
It’s best to act professional at all times, even when it’s human nature to let your guard down from time to time.
“That's your job, whether it's explicitly stated or not,” says Allen. “You're helping to set the tone -- set an example -- for more junior people within the organization, and you're sending a message to senior managers that you're a responsible member of the management team.”
10) Manage bad employees out the door.
Perhaps the most difficult task for a manager is to fire an employee. But in this economy, when working smarter with fewer resources is your reality, you don’t have time to baby-sit.
“If you’re operating with a small team where every player is critical, you can’t have someone who’s not pulling their own weight,” says Tischler. “When there’s so much expected from the others, you can’t change the rules for someone else. This could really bring a team down.”
“This is especially true in times of economic contraction, when organizations are looking for ways to increase worker productivity and reduce their expenses,” says Hood.
It’s all about communication.
The common thread through each of the 10 management principles is communication. Whether you’re explaining a new project, interviewing a candidate, resolving a conflict or sharing goals with other managers, the ability to communicate effectively is critical for your team’s success within a company. And in this economy, strong communication skills can be provide you with the edge to stay employed.