I was reading a recent article from Gallup titled “Why Manager Development Programs Aren’t Working”. What struck me wasn’t the results of their research, but that despite the continual flow of evidence from consultancies and academia that training fails to deliver against expectations companies continue to spend billions on leader training of all types every year – read these additional articles from McKinsey and HBR.

This creates a dilemma because development is a key expectation of most employees, and especially important to talented Millennials, so stopping or significantly cutting back on training isn’t a realistic option if you want to retain top talent. Moreover, in a hyper-competitive, complex global environment organizations must find ways to develop their people and teams or risk being out-innovated and outperformed in record time.

Developing 21st Century Front-Line Leaders

The team leaders that form the frontline of today’s organizations face a broad range of complex challenges. They may be expected to inspire shared leadership across a global virtual team one day, manage a local project team the next, and in parallel play a contributor role on a third team. These first-level leaders are critical to sustaining quality, service, innovation, and financial performance. Yet, few get high-quality training, if any at all. Historically, much of the leadership development advice focused on the traits of great leaders and encouraged imitating their behaviors. Any training they are offered is increasingly given as an online series of courses, or the lucky ones get a one- or two-day seminar that too often is built upon 20th-century models (think Tuckman’s Storming, Norming, Forming, and Performing – circa 1965) focused on ideal leader traits and tips for managing teams through various stages. In addition to being of questionable value for 21st-century team leaders, those programs rarely (if ever) provide follow-up to support the transition into people leadership, nor do they provide tools and metrics to measure progress and demonstrate the effectiveness of the concepts from the training.

Developing a new first-level leader is more akin to helping someone learn to captain a sailboat versus drive a powerboat.

If you’ve ever been sailing, then you know the importance of adaptability and resilience on a team. You’ve experienced the unpredictability of the wind and waves, the importance of acquiring a sense of when to turn or raise and lower your sails and developing the skills to lead your crew smoothly through those transitions. You may have also experienced the occasional terror of rapid, unexpected change in conditions or equipment, and the powerful bonds that form when a crew successfully overcomes those challenges.

There are three specific actions that dramatically increase team leader and team performance and well-being while significantly reducing business and execution risks and training costs:

  1. Coach. Coach new team leaders to embrace a mindset that focuses on relationships and inspiring the energy, motivation, and engagement of their teams. Learning to navigate relationships is by far the most critical capability for new first-level leaders to develop.
  2. Equip. Give team leaders tools that will develop the practices that lead to the strong, trusting relationships that are key to performance and well-being, and measure their progress developing those relationships on and across their team.
  3. Ask. Senior leaders in larger organizations and board members of startups must start asking team leaders or founding teams about the health of their teams, and to provide data that supports their answers – especially measuring the strength of key relationships.

Coach, equip, and ask. These are the keys to inspiring team performance and ensuring team member well-being in the short-term and developing habits that will serve those new leaders and their organizations well over the long-term. The first and last steps cost nothing but time and should be requisite for anyone in a leader role. Technology and behavioral science have made the second step affordable to the point that every team leader can be equipped with tools that enable them to craft an extraordinary team and measure their progress along the way.


This article is based upon excerpts from my book, Team Relationship Management: The Art of Crafting Extraordinary Teams


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