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8 tips for first-time leaders to get results from the team

5 min read


This post is adapted from “Your First Leadership: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others,” by Tacy M. Byham and Richard S. Wellins, Wiley, 2015. Byham and Wellins are executives at Development Dimensions International.

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We absolutely believe that as a leader you are a powerful, creative, and indispensable force for good in society. But you’re not a mind reader, nor are you a psychiatrist (most likely). You may discover that the employees you’ll be coaching have personal issues beyond your scope that make it necessary to enlist your HR contact for help. But by approaching the entire situation with empathy and planning — and considering the personal and practical needs of all involved — you’ll be better able to help your team consistently work well together. The following tips can help.

Start with a Comprehensive Hiring Process

Choose team members in ways that lead to top employee performance and engagement.

For now, let’s say it this way: The right hiring decisions today will save you considerable headaches in the future.

Ensure Expectations for Performance Are Always Crystal Clear

“How can you possibly tell me I missed my goals?” ranted Malu. “You never gave me any!” Yes, this happens more often that we would like. Use your company’s performance management system to set expectations each year. Include both the “whats” (quantitative goals) and the “hows” (behaviors/competencies). And, review them with employees regularly. Clear expectations equal fewer surprises!

Pinpoint the Situation

Study personalities and scenarios — with some familiar characters — you may encounter and prepare for each one. Use it as a starting point to plan your conversations. Handling an employee who has tuned out is often much different than dealing with an employee who offends others by being a constant know-it-all.

An Ounce of Planning Is Worth a Pound of Cure

Plan your approach and conversation in advance. If the situation is serious or is likely to involve formal consequences like probation or termination, seek guidance from your HR specialists. One thing you can count on — employees are likely to ask for specifics: “What did I do wrong?” Make sure you seek and use real data.

All-Around Coaching

Coaching is one of your most important leadership roles. When you coach proactively, by helping your team members do things right from the start, it not only builds their confidence, but it also helps to prevent problems from occurring in the first place — a far better place to be. Better to learn from success than failure. But when you must react to a team member gone astray, coach for improvement sooner rather than later.

Keep Notes

Don’t rely on your memory. Discussions with problem employees should be documented for three reasons. First, documentation helps you and them keep track of your agreements over time. Second, it keeps you on track for your next (of many) coaching conversation. And third, it ensures that there will be no misinterpretation later about what you discussed. (“I never said that,” “I didn’t agree to that,” “I never knew it was a serious problem.”) If problems become severe enough to lead to disciplinary action or even termination, documentation will become even more crucial. It might very well be used as part of a legal proceeding in some countries, should the employee accuse you of wrongful treatment.

Be Prepared for Multiple Conversations

It might take several coaching and feedback sessions to reverse the negative trend. If you take two steps forward and one step back, that’s OK—it’s still progress. Always schedule follow-up meetings to review where things stand and to clarify the process. Positive feedback is also critical. If (when) things begin to turn for the better, let the person know with sincere, positive feedback. One supervisor told us she had five different meetings with one of her team members over a period of two months. It was worth it! The person has become one of her top performers.

Don’t Get Hooked Emotionally

Your commitment to good leadership is admirable. And it’s not a bad sign that you care about the employee, or that you’re nervous about giving feedback. But others’ problems can quickly become your problems. And to make matters worse, some employees may attack you personally — “It’s all your fault.” Many leaders stay awake all night blaming themselves for an employee’s or team’s poor behavior. But, that doesn’t mean it’s your fault! Besides feeling sorry for yourself, you might also feel like you and you alone are on the hook for solving the mess.

Take a breath. Your role is to help the employee understand that something needs to change. Then your job is to help him come up with solutions. And, in most cases, it should be the employee’s solution, not yours. Your goal is to provide support without removing the person’s responsibility and accountability for addressing the issues.