What 1,000s of Teams in 20+ Countries Taught Me About Great Leaders

Regardless of role, industry, or geography, most of us work in teams throughout our careers. You have likely worked with colleagues who you truly enjoyed partnering with and others who you would prefer to avoid in the future.

This range of team experiences, emotions, and reactions makes perfect sense. Teams are made of people, and we all have the potential to be:

  • Extraordinary or mediocre
  • Focused or distracted
  • Competent or inadequate
  • Understanding or difficult
  • And so on and so on…

Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with thousands of teams in the United States, Iceland, China, Singapore, Canada, Aruba, Germany, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Belgium, Singapore, Malaysia, and many other locations. My work has spanned nearly every industry and teams from the frontline to the boardroom.

I say this not out of pride, but out of a desire to convey how and where I learned what what I’m about to share.

Along this journey, I’ve experienced many amazing teams and others that were struggling to perform.

As I listened to the members of the best teams describe themselves, their leaders, and their co-workers, much of what they shared could be distilled into these four concepts.

BTW – none of these items is particularly profound; but, sometimes being profound is overrated. Sometimes, simplicity and the basics are what we truly need.

1. “Our leader genuinely cares about us and the results we achieve.”

Without a doubt, the number one influencer over the culture of a team is the team leader. This is the person who interacts daily with employees. The leader provides direction, resources, advice, and feedback to the team. To team members, the leader is the face of the organization.

Consider these questions about you and your people:

  • Do they feel that you care for them? What would you point to in order to prove it?
  • How does your concern for your people, or lack thereof, impact results?
  • What might you do today to better live and demonstrate empathy, compassion, and understanding?

2. “Our leader makes the complicated clear.”

Great teams know why they exist. Leaders ensure every team member can articulate the team’s purpose, and they invest energy to share that purpose with key stakeholders. Moreover, they help employees clarify their unique contributions to the team and the broader organization.

Consider these questions about the purpose of your team?

  • Have you and your team members invested time to define the team’s purpose?
  • Can every team member explain the purpose, not just repeat it, but explain it and convey why it matters?
  • Do individual team members understand how they contribute to the success of the team?

3. “Our leader allows us to focus on our our customers – their wants and needs – and how we support them.”

Great teams know their top customers, what matters to those customers, and how they can help their customers win. They create systems that align team members to supporting customer needs as opposed to feeding a bloated internal bureaucracy, answering to trivial matters, etc. These leaders model exceptional customer service and give employees the flexibility to remain customer-focused.

Consider these questions about your customers and your team:

  • Does every team member know what matters most to your top customers?
  • How are your customers performing at what matters most to them?
  • What can your team do to help your customers close their performance gaps?
  • How aligned are you and your team to those behaviors?

4. “Our leader challenges us to get better.”

Great leaders have the ability – and willingness – to challenge team members to get better.

  • They encourage people to take on opportunities – even if those opportunities cause more work for the leader.
  • They communicate with team members in a way that allows people to see what is possible – even if it means having to listen when most leaders would prefer to talk.
  • They manage to truly create empowering situations – even while other leaders are confusing empowerment with abandonment.

Consider these questions about how you help your team members get better:

  • Do you allow your people to stretch, grow, and, at times, fail?
  • Are you constantly turning to the same team members to help, because it’s easier and safer than bring another person up-to-speed?
  • Who on your team should you spend time listening to and challenging?


Photo by Slava Bowman on Unsplash