How To Succeed As A 21st Century Team Leader

The nature of teamwork has rapidly evolved over the last 25 years. The decline of organizational hierarchy, and the rise of global, cross-cultural work, have multiplied the challenges of building and leading teams. Conventional wisdom often prescribed hard work and long hours as the answer to improving team productivity and performance. Many of today’s team leaders who follow that formula quickly discover that long hours and tremendous effort isn’t the answer.

I was recently chatting with a team leader at a tech start-up about her first year in the role. Alexandra, a millennial with an impressive academic background and exemplary track-record as an individual contributor, described to me the feeling of excitement that came with her first team leader role. She had no doubt that her team was going to be among the best. Alexandra was promoted because she was relentlessly customer focused, and she did whatever it took to deliver on her many projects and priorities. When she stepped into her new role, those strengths quickly turned into weaknesses. She had the entire team working 60-70 hours a week, living on coffee and fast food. But they weren’t succeeding.

Within a few months, she had one team member who felt like she didn’t trust him, others said that she was overworking the team, micromanaging and that they felt unsupported. Even more humbling for Alexandra was that other team leaders and their teams were working far fewer hours and producing better results. That really upset her. The other team leaders had similar education and experience and had been selected via the same rigorous screening process, but they did better while working less. Alexandra kept asking herself how had those team leaders and their teams, all with similar skills and backgrounds, performed better working fewer hours?

Behavioral scientists and HR consultants often explain performance at work by pointing to people’s innate talents and natural strengths. How often have you heard phrases such as “She is a born leader”? These talent-based explanations deeply influence our perceptions of what makes for successful team leaders. Other experts argue that hard work is just as important as innate talent in determining success. According to this alternate view, team leaders and their teams perform well because they work hard and put in long hours.

But neither of those arguments seemed to account for why Alexandra’s peers and their teams performed better than hers.

What do today’s exceptional team leaders and their teams do differently from the rest?

I’ve heard similar stories from many new team leaders. While the transition from individual contributor to team leader/manager is a big step, the answer to the question, “what do exceptional team leaders and their teams do differently from the rest?” is less obvious. In 2014, I decided to try to answer that question in the context of my doctoral research. Over the course of the next three years, I reviewed most every recent study at the intersection of human motivation, employee engagement, and team performance. I also spoke with scores of team leaders across cultures, industries, and organizations.

I discovered that conventional wisdom and many expert opinions are built upon 20th-century models of organizational design and team behavior. Talent and hard work matter, but the narrative of exceptional team leaders in the 21st century is one of being effective in flat, cross-cultural, virtual organizations. Those team leaders are, at heart, architects that obsess over the design of the teams they build and lead.

The Architecture of Highly-Effective Teams

Research makes clear that team design and team leader habits are key to team performance and well-being. Exceptional team leaders put in place an architecture that lays a solid foundation for both teamwork (how people work together) and task work (what they get done). The common design elements of successful 21st-century teams include team fundamentals, an understanding of motivation at work, and a focus on key relationships.

Team Fundamentals

Team fundamental are akin to the foundation of a house. The more solid the foundation, the safer it is to build on it. Team fundamentals include clarity of team purpose; putting the right people in place and establishing healthy team norms; and ensuring the optimal level of support in terms of resources, information, and training.

Motivation at Work

The next layer of the Architecture focuses on individual motivation at work and its effect on people’s energy and engagement. Ensuring that each team member understands the purpose of his or her role; has the capacity and competencies to perform it, and the freedom to make a difference is a key distinguishing attribute of exceptional team leaders.

Key Relationships

Exceptional team leaders recognize that key relationships, and the motivations and emotions that drive them, are at the heart of a highly-effective team. They know that the interpersonal dynamics of a team, including both social support and conflict management, have a significant impact on team performance.

Succeeding as a 21st Century Team Leader

As we move toward the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the fundamental nature of team leadership is rapidly changing. The implications for team leaders is far-reaching, whether they are tasked with building teams in increasingly flat organizations, or those operating across generational, cultural, and geographic boundaries. Smart team design, along with a focus on building strong, trusting relationships, is taking precedence over simply relying on talent, hard work, and long hours. Success will only come to team leaders who understand that ‘working smarter’ means designing and implementing a solid team architecture that enables:

☑️ Establishing the solid fundamentals of a clear team purpose, attract the right people, establish healthy team norms, and provide the appropriate level of support.
☑️ Uncovering what motivates each team member in terms of how they find purpose and meaning in their work, the competencies they need to fulfill that purpose, and the autonomy to exercise control over their decisions.
☑️ Building strong, trusting relationships with and between team members, and across teams by consistently identifying and closing gaps between expectations and experiences.

As Alexandra and her team discovered, the conventional wisdom that ‘hard work’ is the road to success and stardom, still persists. Ironically, despite the critical role that teams play in an organization’s success, too few companies ensure that new team leaders develop the skills and habits they need to consistently deliver successful performance. The results of this failure are all too predictable: over-work, deteriorating performance, disengaged people, disappointing results, and increased turnover.

Building a great team is both art and science. To be successful, focus your efforts on emphasizing a solid foundation, recognizing individual motivation, and (most significantly) building strong, trusting relationships that elevate the experience of the team. Then, with a robust design in place, learn to master the art of prioritizing time and efforts on the few actions that will make the most significant impact on achieving your goals. That is the essence of ‘working smarter’ and the key to succeeding as a team leader in the 21st century.


Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb Hurley is an accomplished executive and entrepreneur who is a leading expert on team dynamics and high-performance leadership. Jeb guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior to deliver better results and greater wellbeing. He is co-founder and CEO of Xmetryx, Inc., the creator of TrustMetryx software, and Co-founder and Managing Partner of Brainware Partners, a team dynamics consultancy. Jeb is a two-time author and holds a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

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