How to Build & Manage Great Teams, Part Three: Smarter Team Management

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” It’s a classic proverb, equally at home on a motivational poster or a wacky bumper sticker. The idea is there are only three useful states of being: Either you’re telling everyone what to do, doing exactly what the leader says, or you’re off the team.

That philosophy might work for teams who have assembly lines with consistent inputs and outputs, but it’s a poor match for any team that needs to be nimble, creative, and adept at problem-solving. Instead, managers of creative teams need to realize that their role is not to tell others how to do things, it’s to help set direction, clear roadblocks and then get out of the way.

In this series, I’ve been outlining my philosophy of how to build and empower great teams to do their best work. Part one focused on the characteristics of a great team. In part two, I covered how to hire the right people to expand your team. This final post will cover advice for those of us who aspire to manage a great team and what each of us need to do ourselves in order to deserve a great team.

rowing team

Managing a Great Team

The traditional view is that management is there to tell people what to do. All communication and decision-making flows from management to the team, top-down.

Some managers like that structure because it allows them to consolidate power. But empowering management isn’t the right goal for the knowledge economy. The goal should be to empower the team. Here’s how you can break down management bottlenecks to let your team do their best work.

1. Distribute Power

The more problems, communications, and decisions run through you, the more potential you have to slow down productivity. A manager’s purpose should be to make the team more effective and clear roadblocks, not cause them.

If every bit of communication or decision-making goes through you, it’s time to start distributing that power. Make sure the people closest to the problem have the capacity to solve it.  Then you only need to step in for the bigger issues that the team can’t solve. Instead of saying “here’s what to do about this,” ask, “what do you think we should do about this?” Take the answer, help refine it if needed and then help that person do it. Over time this will grow the problem-solving capacity and creativity of your team.

2. Seek out the Thorny Problems

Even the most high-performing team will encounter issues over time. It’s just human nature. Managers should constantly be on the lookout for these friction points that slow the team down. Look for the systemic, really thorny problems that no one wants to touch. If those roadblocks aren’t cleared, one of two equally unappealing outcomes will happen: Either the team will grind to a halt, or they’ll patch together an inefficient workaround.

In resolving these issues, it’s best to keep your praise public and your problems private. That is, if someone is doing great work for the team, let everyone know. If someone is causing a roadblock, deal with it one-on-one.

3. Seperate Policy Problems from People Problems

It’s tempting to solve people problems with policy, but it’s a bad idea. For example, Pantheon has a vacation policy which is, essentially ‘Please take vacation. You need it.’ Before I joined, I was concerned that that might be a passive-aggressive way of telling people to not take vacation. Happily, that’s not the case. We have people do amazing things like spend a month in Southeast Asia or ride Route 66 on their bike. The reason we’re able to do this is that we understand if someone was to abuse this policy, we would talk to that person about that.

Conversely, I once worked with a client that had an issue with an employee who wasn’t behaving in accordance with their standards. The way they addressed that was to add several policies to their employee handbook. They then sat on the problem until the next review period (several months later), at which point that person’s manager said, effectively, ‘gotcha!’

Employee handbooks are a good tool to clarify policies. If there is a problem with a person, however, managers need to address that directly with the person. Yes, that can be uncomfortable. Too bad. It’s also necessary. Don’t expect to solve people problems with indirect documentation updates.

4. Be a Role Model

As you empower and encourage, it’s important to embody the values you want to see in the team. Your team will look to your actions to see if you really believe what’s on the mission statement.

To be more effective as a role model, it helps to have an understanding of what everyone on the team does. For example, if you’re not a coder but you’re managing a team full of them, it helps to learn at least the basics. That knowledge helps you develop a rapport with the team and makes you more adept at identifying and clearing roadblocks.

Deserving a Great Team

Everyone wants to be on a great team. It’s often easy to see the flaws around us, but it’s important for all of us realize that we have responsibilities that we need to live up to as well. Put another way, if the last several teams you’ve been on have all been problematic, YOU might be the problem. Make sure that’s not the case.

Have a Growth Mindset

None of us are “done;” we all have an opportunity to grow and improve. Don’t define yourself by what you’re not. Instead, realize that you can get better. Carol Dweck calls this a growth mindset and she has an excellent book on the topic as well. Instead of thinking that you’re not good at something, or can’t do a particular thing, realize that it’s simply that you can’t do it yet. If you want to, you can learn it. Change starts small. Focus on making small improvements and you will gain the skills you seek.

Pay Attention to Your Language

Language, action, and thought are closely related. If you are on a team and refer to that group as ‘they’, it’s a problem. Are you not a part of that team? Of that organization? Do you not share values? Goals? If any of those things are true, you have a problem. If not, what prevents you from saying ‘we’? If there’s a real obstacle—recognize that and deal with it. If not, change your language and become a full member of the team.

Address Problems When You See Them

All of us who want a great team need to address problems when we see them. If you’re unhappy with a pattern, work to change it. Think about what you might be doing to enable that pattern. Change it. Let others know what you’re doing and why, and you can start a trend of positive change as others join in.

Putting It All Together

Great teams make a world of difference to your overall results as well as the personal satisfaction of team members. When you unite a diverse team around a shared purpose, when new members are added in a way that grows a team’s strengths, when management is there to remove roadblocks, and when each team member is dedicated to continued growth, your organization can accomplish truly exceptional things.

For Further Reading:

I’ve linked to a number of different articles throughout this series but there are many other great resources out there. Some of my favorites include:

  1. Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, by Dave Logan, John King & Halee Fischer-Wright

  2. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink

  3. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins

  4. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck

  5. Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose, by Tony Hsieh

  6. How great leaders inspire action, by Simon Sinek

Looking to join an amazing team? Pantheon is hiring.


This is the 3rd post in a series of articles on great teams. Read the rest: