Julia was always an energetic leader. She would happily roll up her sleeves and get to work side by side with the team when work needed to get done. On other days she would step back and guide the work from a distance. Julia felt confident that she was supporting her team in the best way possible by jumping in when they needed her and setting the tone and the direction at other times.
So it came as a shock to her when her 360 revealed his team thought of her as unreliable and inconsistent. Her team never knew when Julia would jump in and take on some of the work. She would step back at times the team had been counting on her to complete some of the tasks, and sometimes when she took on extra tasks, she inadvertently sent the message that she did not trust the team to succeed.
Like Julia, leaders can sometimes confuse their team by changing up their leadership approach seemingly at random. Too often, leaders change their role as they slide between tasks, sometimes jumping in to help, other times taking a bigger picture perspective guiding the work of the entire team, and still others stepping even further back to offer a strategic viewpoint.
Leaders need to acknowledge that their particular approach has an impact on how their team completes their work and communicates accordingly. In our coaching and consulting work, we like to use the metaphor of making a movie to help identify three different perspectives from which a leader can lead their team. Ask yourself what your role in making the movie is. Are you in the movie, directing the movie, or producing the movie? There is no wrong answer as each approach is valid and needed. The danger lies more in the spontaneous change of perspectives and a failure to communicate this to the team.
what is your role?
In the movie:
Leaders with the perspective of being “in the movie” work right alongside the other actors. They have lines, they have a part to play. These leaders know the inner workings of the team and understand the day-to-day requirements. They are involved in the experience. Oftentimes, a working manager is what the organization’s strategy needs in order to be successfully implemented. The manager is in the movie, actively working on projects, while also handling managerial responsibilities. If this is your perspective as a leader, be cautious that your focus on the details of the work can sometimes obscure the bigger picture.
Also, there will be times when you need to take a step back and allow the team to work on a project without much involvement from you. Take the time to explain this change in perspective to your team. This will enable the team to plan their resources accordingly.
Directing the movie:
The second perspective is that you are directing the movie. Leaders who are directing the movie tend to focus on a broader perspective and guide the work of the whole team from a distance. Taking this perspective can be challenging because leaders often want to take care of certain aspects of a project themselves, yet in order to achieve success as a leader, they must resist jumping in. This approach can be very helpful when you have a team executing the work and they truly need to look to you to set the tone and direction as well as to offer guidance and feedback from a bigger picture perspective.
Producing the movie:
The final perspective is that of producing the movie. This is a high-level, strategic view that takes into account not only the work each of your individual team members is producing but also the work of other teams. Leaders using this perspective typically have visibility into lots of other projects and can take a longer view. They approve work and leave themselves free to support the other teams who must execute the work. Producers connect the strategy of the organization to the goals of each team and project and this broader perspective means that they cannot spend too much time focusing on individual details.
Communicate your perspective
Committing to one of these perspectives will help you and your team know what to expect. When a leader decides they want to be a movie executive or director, but spends their time doing the work of an actor, the people on the team become (rightfully) frustrated and wonder just what the heck you are doing. When you commit to a perspective and communicate that perspective, people know what to expect and they can manage those expectations accordingly.
If you need to make a change, be upfront and communicate what the change will be and why. Perhaps you are going to be more hands-on for a specific project, or perhaps you need to step back a bit in order to coordinate the work being done on your team with other teams. This will provide your team with the information they need about your behavior, and they will know what they can expect from you.
One of the easiest ways to communicate this information is to use a metaphor or a common framework that already exists within your organization. You can use your own company’s leadership values, or you can borrow our movie metaphor, but the key is communicating how you will be engaging with your team, the frequency of that engagement, the kinds of questions you will be asking, and what you expect from the team.
Any discussion of high-performing teams covers the importance of roles and responsibilities - and this includes the role of the team leader. When your team understands how you will be approaching your role, they can arrange their work and manage their expectations accordingly.