How to lead a team? Motivate your employees to be their best.
Did you start your business with the dream of being a brilliant leader? If you said no, you’re not alone. Most businesses are born out of a passion for a product or service. The masterminds behind them weren’t necessarily looking to become leaders.
But if you have a thriving business that is on the ascent and have hired one or more employees, that’s exactly what you are: A leader. And it’s your responsibility to set the tone and create a workplace where your team and your business can succeed and grow.
So if you’re wondering how to lead a team, here are 9 important ways to ensure you’re laying the groundwork for any team member to succeed, grow, and feel supported.
Table of Contents
1. Work on Your Leadership Skills
If you’re lucky enough to attract great employees who are willing to learn and grow, you owe it to them as their team leader to do the same. Among some of the qualities of great leaders is the ability to:
- Empower others to do their best work
- Be willing to listen and create a safe environment where employees can be themselves
- Have a strong vision that others can relate to
- Make tough decisions
- Foster strong connections among team members
- Mentor employees
Some people are instinctively skilled at team management and team leadership, while others have to work at it. Either way, it’s helpful to study what effective leadership looks and sounds like. Be open to reading leadership books, listening to leadership podcasts (this one comes to mind…), and taking in-person and online leadership training courses. Studying other team leaders is the kind of thing that pays huge dividends.
2. Communicate Clearly
Imagine being a crew member of a large ship headed out on a fantastic voyage to bring back mountains of gold. To do your job well, you would need to know:
- Where you’re going
- How long the journey is expected to take
- The goals of the operation when you arrive
- Who is going to do what
- How, exactly, your role contributes to the main goal of bringing back the gold
- What happens when the gold is brought back
The best leaders understand that, in order to execute a goal or mission, you’ll need to set clear goals and then effectively communicate those goals.
That doesn’t mean data dumping on your team members with minutiae in your weekly meetings. Good team leaders focus on a handful of priorities to communicate, then connect them to the overall vision and company goals. This will go a long way toward ensuring everyone knows exactly where the ship is headed and what they can do to ensure a successful mission.
3. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
Your business is your baby. It’s hard to hand control over to others, even though you know you need to step back and be more of a leader than a worker.
One of the worst things you can do in a leadership role is to insist that your team members do things the way you’ve always done them. While it makes sense to orient your employees to the way you’ve structured certain systems, at some point, you’ve got to let go and let them do things their way.
As a boss, your role is to work on the business, not in the business. So even if you feel like you have all the answers and understand how things should be run, allow them to make some decisions independently. After all, we can learn so much about team leadership with experience as our teacher.
So offer support when they present new ideas and take on more responsibility. Let them develop their own client relationships, manage multiple projects, and get the job done while you sit back and map out the big picture.
4. Create an Us vs. Them Mentality
This is not a great strategy for navigating the world in regular society. But when it comes to building winning teams, a sense of cohesion and purpose (even rivalry) can go a long way. In fact, thinking of your employees as members of a sports team helps put things in perspective, both for them and you.
If you’re the coach of a sports team (the team leader), you provide the support and strategy that helps your team stay ahead of your competitors. Each team member has a role to play in every victory. You may lose a few games from time to time, but these setbacks only make the team stronger and more motivated to be their best. To really sell this system, you could gather metrics of your competitors and provide a clear line of sight to how you measure up.
5. Set a Respectful Tone
Nothing makes an employee feel more discouraged than senior leaders who don’t respect them. That often comes in the form of questioning their judgment, micromanaging their work (see #2), publicly reprimanding them, blaming them for mistakes they didn’t make, and just generally making their work-life unpleasant.
An effective team leader goes out of their way to create a respectful workplace emphasizing positive, productive interactions. Being clear about the importance of respect in the company’s vision and values is a good start, but that won’t work if you don’t model the desired results you want in your employees. If someone is negative or gossipy, you will have to manage it swiftly and clearly, so other team members feel safe and supported.
Dealing with a negative Nancy or a gossiping Greg can be tough for new leaders, but it’s also the best time to nip it in the bud.
6. Hold Team Members Accountable
In a small business, you need team members who are doers. It’s helpful to encourage great ideas and support your employees to carry them out. Make it clear that your expectation is that everyone pulls their weight and is accountable to you, their team leader—and their colleagues—for doing their part.
This is important to building trust among team members. If they know they can rely on one another to get things done during working hours, they can collaborate efficiently and without friction. Depending on the nature of your organization and the types of roles you employ, it may be helpful to conduct regular performance reviews with every team member and connect them to bonuses or pay increases.
7. Offer Regular Feedback
Employees generally thrive on feedback—even if it’s negative (but delivered constructively). As a great leader, it’s your role to ensure your team knows if they’re doing everything right or if there’s room for improvement.
Great team leaders see performance reviews as a time to be specific about how employees are doing their jobs. One issue new leaders run into is reviews aren’t usually held regularly enough to be truly helpful. It’s advisable to offer feedback in two ways.
Feedback on the Fly
Make it a habit to tell an employee they did a great job on something when you notice it. Be specific about what made the desired outcome great, i.e., “That was a tough situation with a customer who was clearly unhappy. You did a great job resolving the problem because you stayed calm, positive, and focused. Well done!” The same goes for a situation that they could have handled better.
Regularly Scheduled Feedback
At regularly spaced intervals, hold one-on-one meetings with employees to review projects and provide feedback on their progress. If an employee needs to improve an aspect of their work, it’s helpful to check in regularly and mentor them until you’re both on the same page.
8. Reward Performance
If you want a team of satisfied employees, it’s not enough to tell your team how great they are. You’ve got to show them the money (or other incentives). Small businesses tend to be cash-strapped, but if you have your eyes on growth, you’ve got to consider bringing on an employee as a significant investment in your company’s future.
Even if you can’t afford top-of-the-line pay, be as reasonable as you can and look for other ways to reward performance. If the company does well for a quarter or two, share the wealth to help motivate employees to strive even harder to succeed.
Another way effective leaders give their team a boost is by providing professional development or personal growth opportunities. That might be on-the-job mentoring or shadowing. Or you might spring for unlimited access to formal online or in-person educational courses to help them in their current role and elevate their overall skill set.
Offer flexible work hours, extra vacation (or even unlimited vacation), standing desks, ergonomic chairs, the ability to work from home, and other benefits. Perks like these matter more to some employees than a higher salary, especially those maintaining a fine balance between their professional and personal lives.
Be sure to revisit your perks and benefits regularly too. Something that was enticing a year ago might not be anymore. Working remotely and home office credits have become prized perks recently, while they may have been passed over as unnecessary many years ago.
A Yale study showed that gig workers (in this case, taxi drivers) would not trade their flexible work schedules for less than twice their current pay. A 2022 American Opportunity Survey found that 87 percent of U.S. workers would choose a flexible work-from-home arrangement if their employer offered it.
9. Encourage Camaraderie
It’s one thing for you to be likable to your employees and something else for them to like one another. As a team leader, you have a lot of control over how colleagues relate to one another. It certainly starts with establishing a company culture and valuing respect, but it can evolve into something special if you create the conditions for employees to build relationships on their own.
A simple (and unimaginative) way to get people talking is to do the mandatory birthday cake celebration in the break room or a monthly pizza lunch. If your team is easygoing and up for anything, that might do the trick.
But as an effective leader, you might find greater success by simply observing your employees and asking for input on activities they might like to do together. Maybe it’s a day of volunteering at a local animal shelter or hosting a trivia night with their partners. Other workplaces might prefer putting together a movie or book club. The key is to customize the activities to the people participating in them.
Effective Team Leaders Aren’t Born—They’re Made
Team leadership may not come naturally to you, and that’s okay. Learning how to lead a team can be a lengthy process, with successes and many learning along the way. One of the most important aspects of being an effective leader is having the humility to learn and grow in your role as your employees evolve into theirs.
If you start by exhibiting the kind of respect, communication, loyalty, and integrity that you expect from your team, you’ll have the foundation needed to develop into a true leader, lead a team, and become a strong and effective CEO.
This post was updated in January 2022.