Three Things The Most Effective Leaders Will Do In 2021
By Nicole Bendaly
Date Published: Jan 3, 2021
One of the many things this past year made clear is that the world of work has been forever changed, and it is especially evident in the way leaders must now lead if they want the very best from their people. Through my work and research with teams this year, and through my many interviews with thought leaders, it is abundantly clear that those teams who have been able to thrive more than struggle during this pandemic are those that are being led by leaders who prioritize their people. Empathy, vulnerability, and flexibility, for example, are leadership qualities that have always been important but are now non-negotiable table-stakes thanks to 2020.
As you look out at 2021 and beyond, consider how to incorporate each of the following three leadership best-practices from 2020. These core practices will differentiate exceptional leaders from the rest and will help ensure you and your team members are able to tap the very best of yourselves, no matter what is thrown at you.
Understand and Appreciate the Effort
There has been a lot of focus this year, and rightly so, on how to effectively lead a remote team. But leaders today are not simply leading remote teams, they are leading remote teams during a pandemic. This is a big difference that can be easily forgotten as we settle into new norms. The most effective teams today have leaders who never lose site of the context in which their people are working, and who strive to understand and acknowledge the extra effort, energy, and capacity that is now required to achieve results during a time of such disruption. The best leaders in 2020 were acutely aware that what people are craving most right now is to be seen, understood, and appreciated for what they are dealing with behind their computer screens.
The leaders who get the most out of their people are the leaders who care most about their people.
- Simon Sinek
While this pandemic will not last forever, the lesson is clear: recognizing effort matters as much as recognizing outcomes when it comes to building a highly engaged, high-performing team. When leaders take time to both understand and appreciate the effort of their team members, they are showing they care about their team members as much as they care about the outcomes they are producing. When leaders focus on the effort by demonstrating curiosity for what it takes to achieve the outcomes, they strengthen dialogue and collaboration, shared learning, and innovation. And finally, understanding and appreciating the effort strengthens the main driver of employee engagement: trust. Research shows that an individual is 12 times more likely to be engaged when they trust their leader, and trust is built when leaders show they genuinely care about their team members.
Take Action: Consider examining your one-to-one meetings and ask yourself: how much time do you spend understanding the process, experience and effort required for your team members to achieve their objectives? How much time do you spend asking questions and seeking to understand the ‘how’ behind the list of tasks and updates your team member is sharing with you? The time you spend with your team members is incredibly valuable; meetings are where trust is built, decisions are made, relationships are strengthened, collaboration happens, and learning and innovation occur. If your meetings are mostly made up of your people downloading updates to you as opposed to meaningful dialogue where you truly learn about your team members, understand what it takes for them to do their work well, and take time to acknowledge and appreciate, then you are wasting valuable time.
Prioritize Team Effectiveness
A crisis, or even a significant change, will either propel a team to tap into its true greatness and shine, or it will widen any cracks in its foundation and cause the team to crumble. It is not surprising then that teams who were able to perform at their very best throughout 2020 were those who were already cohesive with a strong foundation of trust and respect. What 2020 taught many leaders is that teamwork matters now more than ever, and that if a team cannot function at its best and deliver exceptional results during stable times, there is little hope for it to function well during difficult times.
Leaders who waited to focus on teamwork until they had no choice, when their teams were suddenly and dramatically uprooted from their comfort-zones, paid a significant price in the form of burnout, overwhelm, frustration, wheel-spinning, wasted time and energy, and significant disengagement and reduced productivity. The silver lining though is that it is never too late to prioritize team effectiveness, and it doesn’t have to be complicated and time-consuming. The trick is to focus on the practices that are most essential to your team’s ability to perform well, no matter the disruption and change they face. My over 20 years of research in team performance, and in particular my research this year during the pandemic, shows that the most resilient teams:
Know exactly what they are striving for and how to achieve it, together.
Early on in the pandemic, for example, the most effective teams paused to reconnect to their common goal and clarify expectations by asking:
How does this pandemic affect our team’s goal(s)?
What does success look like for our team over the course of the next year?
What are the top three to five priorities most important to achieving success?
Which behaviors and practices will enable us to work as effectively together as possible through this crisis?
Focus on building and maintaining trust and respect.
Highly effective teams know that the foundation of their effectiveness lies in the level of trust and respect they show for one another. It is trust and respect that allow for people to speak up and ask for help, to be vulnerable and share concerns, feelings, and needs. It is trust and respect that allow for the sharing of ideas, the support and patience of one another, the ability to rock the boat and challenge the status quo, all while assuming each person has a positive intent and the best interest of the team and organization in mind. Without trust and respect a team cannot begin to strengthen anything else, and it definitely cannot withstand the pressures of a crisis.
Metrolinx CEO, Phil Verster, shares how he and his leadership team intentionally build trust through listening, in this interview with Marty Parker, CEO of Waterstone Human Capital.
Make the most of their team meetings.
Far too many meetings result in a waste of precious time, energy, and focus and too often result in frustration and disengagement rather than increased productivity and team effectiveness. The best teams make the most of their team meetings by ensuring:
The team identifies and commits to the behaviors and practices that will make for the best team meetings .
There is a meaningful objective for each meeting
More time is dedicated to dialogue, collaboration, decision-making, and idea generation rather than updates and downloading of information
The right tools/technology are used to enable engagement.
Are change compatible.
The most resilient teams are mindful of how they react to change and choose to approach change with the mindset of ‘how can we do our best to make this work even though we may not like it or agree with it?’. Change compatibility requires flexibility and intention; teams must consciously choose to adapt and find ways to make change work for them, the team, and the organization and most of the time that requires shifting mindset and perspective and choosing not to allow emotion and fears to guide behavior. Teams actively strengthen their change compatibility by:
Being open to new ideas and carving out time in their team meetings to consider how to approach current processes, projects, goals, etc. differently.
Creating opportunities for risk-taking and being open to failure for the purpose of learning and innovation
Asking, ‘how can we make this change work?’
Seeking and providing feedback on change – i.e. what is working, what is getting in our way, what do we need to do differently to ensure we are successful and the change is successful?
Supporting one another and respecting that each person may react differently to the change
Lead on Purpose
As Nick Craig stated in his book, Leading from Purpose, whether in business or in our personal lives, a strong sense of purpose offers firm footing on shifting ground. What better time to find and stay connected to your purpose then during a pandemic that has disrupted every aspect of our lives? When you are clear on your purpose as a leader you will lead more purposefully and authentically, and you will bring a level of focus, commitment, and energy that will propel you and your team forward regardless of how much the world shifts around you.
If you are not experiencing joy, energy, and passion in your work on a regular basis, even during times of crisis, then you are not connected to your true purpose as a leader and you (and your team) will suffer for it. This isn’t about each day being filled with rainbows and unicorns and being completely devoid of stressors, and challenges, it is about being grounded in something larger and more meaningful than the actual work you do; it is about knowing why you do what you do and knowing that you are contributing meaningfully to your organization, your team, and your own life in a way that is directly aligned with your values, and the impact you want to create. As Malcolm Gladwell says, “Hard work is a prison cell only if the work has no meaning.”
It isn’t always easy to get on purpose and to stay there, it takes determination, mindfulness and most importantly, knowing what your purpose as a leader is. Getting on purpose is a full contact sport; it will take time, some soul searching, risk-taking, and it will definitely require stepping outside of your comfort zone. Consider reflecting on the following questions to clarify your leadership purpose and to help you to craft a leadership purpose statement:
What is important to you as a leader?
What do you enjoy doing that brings out the best in you?
What were you passionate about when you were younger? What did you love to do?
What impact do you want to have on others?
What is meaningful to you?
What legacy do you want to leave behind?
With the above in mind, take time to craft a statement that reflects your purpose, and take some time to identify how you will use your purpose statement to guide, ground, and motivate you and those you lead.
Here’s to a year in which you and your team can thrive far more than struggle.
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