Stewart Liff on How To Build Teams of Leaders

Photo of Stewart Liff, coauthor of A Team of LeadersThe following is a guest post by Stewart Liff, co-author with Paul Gustavson of A Team of Leaders: Empowering Every Member to Take Ownership, Demonstrate Initiative and Deliver Results, about building and sustaining outstanding teams where everyone acts as a leader.

In the 2012 SHRM Survey on Employee Satisfaction and Engagement, only one out of every two employees reported that they were completely plugged in at work. Imagine how much productivity is being lost under these circumstances!

Meanwhile, ASTD reported that U.S. organizations spent over $156 billion on learning and development in 2011, with the largest percentage devoted to supervisory development.

The Root Cause

These statistics are clearly distressing and point to what we believe is the root cause: the way work is designed. Simply put, as long as organizations continue to use a structure where the supervisor is the boss and everyone else follows, people will feel devalued and disconnected, supervisors will struggle and performance will suffer.

That is because under this design, everything falls on the supervisor’s shoulders. The supervisor is under constant pressure to perform, makes all of the key decisions, interacts one-one with all of the employees, deals with the difficult people issues, etc. Meanwhile, the employees are expected to do what they are told, feel like they are merely cogs in the wheel, have little authority, autonomy or the chance to be creative, resulting in half feeling disengaged. It’s a classic “lose-lose” situation.

A Better Approach

There’s an old saying, “Organizations are perfectly designed to get the results that they get,” and we believe the above design has been yielding the results we just described. Fortunately, the corollary to this saying is, “If you want to change your results, you need to change your design.”

To have an organization where the employees are involved, engaged and well developed, allowing the supervisor to be freed up to focus on higher-level work, you need to create a team of leaders.

This design has been used in a variety of industries with a great deal of success at every level. It addresses many of the design flaws that the traditional structure has because there is no longer one “all-knowing” boss. Instead, everyone serves as a leader and is involved in all phases of the operation including planning, execution, training, scheduling, and even discipline. The official leader now serves as an advisor to the team and focuses his or her energy in other areas.

How to Develop a Team of Leaders

To successfully transition from a traditional structure to a team of leaders is not easy, because the team will have to move through several stages until it reaches its desired state. Below is an illustration of how the teams move, with the red circle representing the role of the supervisor relative to the team.

Graphic of Stage 1 through 5 Teams.

Graphic provided by Paul Gustavson

As you can see, the supervisor’s role slowly shifts from being “the boss” to primarily working on upper level work, while the group evolves from being individual followers to a team of leaders.

To reach that stage requires time, energy, commitment, patience and careful planning. It cannot simply be rolled out; you need to properly sequence the development of the team and make sure all of the design elements are aligned.

Listed below are the key elements of a successful redesign and implementation effort. Note that every element must fit together so there is balance and focus.

  • The Five-Stage Model – this is used as a framework for thinking to help guide the team’s transition from a traditional approach to a team of leaders.
  • You get what you design for – to create the right design, you must first analyze your environment, processes and culture. You must also connect the team around a sense of purpose.
  • Team processes – teams need to have processes that support a team of leaders (e.g. on-boarding, off-boarding, performance management, etc.) An example of an excellent on-boarding process was recently described by Thomas Friedman in his New York Times Op-Ed column that looked at Google’s hiring practices. For each job, the first thing Google looks for is general learning ability. The second thing is emergent leadership instead of traditional leadership.
  • Value creation model – team members need to know how much value they each create.
  • Knowledge management – a comprehensive plan to manage knowledge will ensure that each member can become a leader.
  • Visual management – designing the team’s physical space to reinforce its other elements is an important but little used approach.

Jacket image, A Team of Leaders by Stewart Liff and Paul GustavsonBuilding a team of leaders using the approach described above will be challenging in the short term, but the payoff can be enormous.

Stewart Liff is an HR and visual management expert, and the president and CEO of Stewart Liff & Associates. His long career with the Department of Veterans Affairs culminated in his office being selected for Vice President Gore’s first Hammer Award for Reinventing Government. He is the author or co-author of six books, including Managing Government Employees and Seeing is Believing.

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