The Core Skills Needed To Manage Your Team

So you’ve just got a new job as a manager or team leader. Congratulations! Or, maybe you’ve just been given the task of pulling a new team together. What a challenge!

Either way, whether your team already exists, or whether it’s your responsibility to create it, what do you do next?

This blog looks at some of the key things that team managers need to do if their team is to thrive and succeed. These range from choosing the right people and deciding who does what, who to communicate with, developing and motivating people. It also covers some of the most common pitfalls to be avoided.

First Things First

But before that, some definitions are useful. What is management, exactly? And how does it differ from leadership?

A good starting point is the Warren G. Bennis quote that “Leaders do the right things, while managers do things right.” What this means is that leadership involves setting direction, communicating that vision passionately to those they work with, and helping the people they lead understand and commit to that vision. Managers, on the other hand, are responsible for ensuring that the vision is implemented efficiently and successfully.”

Of course, these two roles overlap considerably and what’s best is when you fulfill both roles. However, the focus here is on the specific skills and responsibilities of managers and the tools available to them. (For more on leadership, see our leadership section.) After all, there’s no point energizing people to work towards a fabulous vision of the future, only to fall flat on your face when it comes to implementation.

Who do you need in your team?

The top priority for team managers is delegation. No matter how skilled you are, you’re just one person, while your team may be made up of many people. So it is absolutely essential that you have the right people on your team and delegate as much as possible to them.

Successful delegation starts with matching people and tasks, so you need first to understand fully what the team’s role and goals are. Only then will you be in a position to analyze the skills, experience and competencies within your team and start matching people to tasks. Read our article on task allocation for more detail on how to go about this and how to deal with real-world challenges such as managing the gaps and overlaps between team members’ skill sets.

If you’ve had to bring in a substantial number of new people, read our article on forming, norming, storming and performing to understand the stages you can expect the team to go through on the road to successful performance.

Note: Many new managers and supervisors reading this article will be taking over the management of an existing team rather than bringing together a new one. However, it’s worth considering how you would put together your ideal team if you had the opportunity, so you fully understand the issues you may face.

Briefing your team

Now that you’ve got your team together, you need to make sure that they’re as clear as you are about what you’re all there for. In the book Monday Morning Mentoring, a wise coach advises a young manager that he must always know what the “main thing” is that his team are working to achieve, and should focus closely on this so that they all “keep the main thing the main thing”.

A good way of doing this is by putting together a team charter which sets out the purpose of the team and how it will work. Not only does this help you get your team off to a great start, it can also be useful in bringing the team back on track if it’s veering off course.

Motivating your team

Another key duty you have as a manager is to motivate team members.

Cash and other financial rewards do now work for all team members. Additional training, flexible working, employee of the month or year awards, elevated job title are all additional ways of motivating your team.

Whatever approach you prefer to adopt, you also need to bear in mind that different people have different needs when it comes to motivation. Some individuals are highly self-motivated, while others will under-perform without managerial input.

Developing your team

Teams are made up of individuals who are all at different stages of their careers. Some may find the tasks you’ve allocated to them are challenging and they may need support. Others may be “old hands” at what they’re doing and may be looking for opportunities to stretch their skills. Either way, your responsibility as a manager is to develop all of your people.

Your skills in this aspect of management will define your long-term success as a manager. If you can help team members to become better at what they do, you will soon become known as a manager that others want to work for, and you’ll be making a great contribution to your organization too.

The most effective way of doing this is to ensure that you give regular feedback to members of your team on their work. Many of us are nervous of giving feedback, especially when it has to be negative. However, if you give and receive feedback regularly, everyone will come to benefit from improved performance.

Beyond this, our article on Understanding Developmental Needs will help you develop individual team members, and maximize their performance.

Communicating and working with your team – and with others

Communication skills are essential for success in almost any role, but there are particular skills and techniques which you’ll use more as a manager than you needed to when you were a regular “worker”. These fall under two headings: communicating and working with those within your team and communicating and working with people outside your team. We’ll look at each in turn.

Communicating and working with your team

As the team manager, you’re likely to be chairing a number of meetings involving your team, including regular sessions as well as one-off meetings. Meeting of all kinds, and regular ones in particular, are notorious for their capacity to waste people’s time, so the skill of running effective meetings is well worth mastering.

Many meetings include brainstorming sessions, and as team manager, you’ll often have to act as moderator, so you’ll need to be comfortable with how to do this. There’s more to it than simply coming up with creative ideas, as you do when you’re just a regular participant in such a session. Read our article to find out what to do.

Another important skill for managers – and others – to master is active listening. When you’re in charge, it can be easy to think that you know what others are going to say, or that listening is less important because you’ve thought of a solution anyway. Don’t fall into this trap. Most good managers are active listeners: It helps them avoid time waster through misunderstandings, and it builds good relationships within the team.

Communicating and working with others

One of the most important people you need to communicate with effectively is your own boss. Take time to understand fully what your boss wants from you and your team. If you know exactly what he or she likes, and how he or she prefers it to be delivered, you’ll be better able to meet with his or her approval.

Don’t be afraid to ask your boss to coach or mentor you: You can usually learn a lot from your boss, but he or she may not be proactive about offering this. If you’re approaching your boss for advice, make sure you’ve thought things through as far as you can. Introduce the subject with a summary of this thinking, and then say where you need help.

Also, as a manager, part of your job is to look after your team and protect it from unreasonable pressure. Learn skills like assertiveness and win-win negotiation so that you can either turn work away, or negotiate additional resources.

Another part of your job is to manage the way your team interacts with other groups. Use stakeholder analysis to identify the groups you deal with, so that you can identify what they can do for you and what they want from you.

Managing discipline

However much you hope you won’t ever have to do it, and however much feedback you give, there comes a time in most managers’ careers when they have to discipline an employee. Discipline may be subtly different from basic feedback because it doesn’t always relate specifically to the employee’s work. You can give feedback on their phone manner, for example, but handling problems with timekeeping or personal grooming can need a different approach.

Obvious breaches of the law or of company policy are easy to identify and deal with. But what of other situations? On one hand you don’t want to feel or seem petty. On the other hand, you can’t let things go that should be dealt with.

Use these rules-of-thumb to help you decide whether you need to take action. If the answer to any is yes, then you need to arrange a time to speak to the employee in private.

  1. Does the issue affect the quality of the employee’s deliverable to the client (internal or external)? A graphic designer regularly only gets in to work late, although he stays late to make up for this. Customers are sometimes frustrated by not being able to get through to him at the start of the day when he’s working on rush jobs
  2. Does the issue adversely impact the cohesiveness of the team? Individual designers largely work on their own projects with few meetings between design team members, so cohesiveness is not impacted. However people are noticing his lack of punctuality, and other people’s timekeeping is beginning to slip
  3. Does the issue unnecessarily undermine the interests of other individuals in the team? The designer sitting next to the latecomer is unhappy that she has to field calls from clients before he reaches the office, and is unable to give a firm answer to the question “When will he be in?”
  4. The design team manager decides to speak to the latecomer because of the impact on his co-worker. They agree that coming in to work late is not a problem (he has a long commute, with heavy traffic en route) but that he will commit to being in by 9.30am every day to reduce the number of calls his co-worker has to field, and also give her a fixed time to give clients. He will also work late to make up time

When you are faced with a potential discipline issue, take the time you need to gather information about the situation, then decide what you’re going to do and act. Discipline issues rarely go away of their own accord, and they usually get worse, often causing considerable unhappiness and resentment amongst other team members.

Traps to Avoid

The following pitfalls are common ones that managers fall into. Take care to avoid them!

  1. Thinking that you can rely on your existing job knowledge and technical skills to succeed as a manager. It is essential that you develop management and people skills
  2. Failing to consult regularly with your boss, in a misguided attempt to show that you’re competent and can cope on your own. However, when you approach your boss, make sure you’ve thought the issue through, and have some ideas as to how the problem can be solved
  3. Embarrassing your boss, or letting him or her get a nasty surprise. Follow the “no surprises” rule
  4. Doing anything that requires your boss to defend you to others. This will cost your boss in terms of political capital or “loss of face” with his or peers and superiors, and it makes him or her look bad for not “nipping the problem in the bud.”
  5. Failing to talk to your customers (whether internal or external) about what they want from you and your team, and failing to act on this
  6. Using your authority inappropriately. Make sure that everything you ask people to do is in the interests of the organization

Many of these points may sound common sense, however it’s incredibly easy to make these mistakes in the rush of everyday managerial life.

Key Points:

When you move from being a worker to a line manager, you need to develop a new set of skill, and make use of new tools and techniques. These will help you with the key management areas of organizing, motivating, developing and communicating with your team.

You also need to learn specific time management techniques relevant to your role as a manager. It can be helpful for you to understand the different managerial styles that are commonly found so that you understand where you’re natural approach lies, and can work best to improve on this.

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