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Leadership 101: 5 secrets to building a world-class team

In our Leadership 101 series, we look at ways leaders can bring together a world-class team. It starts with identifying and developing potential talent within the organization.

A strong leader is only as good as their team. But how do you build a world-class team? According to Sam Walker, Wall Street Journal editor and author of The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams, the best talent is already in your midst. Here’s how to spot talent and bring them into your team.

Flat hierarchies ignore talented middle managers

Many companies pride themselves on having a flat hierarchy, which essentially means that there are fewer reporting lines between senior management and employees. In theory, this can make it easier for teams to collaborate and work across functions. In practice, however, middle management is a crucial function that can rally the troops and strengthen performance.

Direct communication between leadership teams and employees in a flat reporting structure can be a powerful motivator for junior staff, but middle managers still have a vital role to play.

“It’s those people with that institutional loyalty who care more about the goals of the organization, not their own advancement,” says Walker. ” When you hit tough times, when things get rough and you need someone to step up and hold the institution or hold the team together, that’s when those people are really important, and that’s when they use these traits that I outline in the book to hold the team together.”

In a lot of ways, that leadership is almost invisible, he adds.  You don’t see the power of middle managers when things are going well. It’s when things start to go badly that you start to really need that leadership buffer to manage operational excellence.

With middle managers in place, leaders can create an environment in which the superstar employees and the people who are at the top of their game feel comfortable being stars, and they don’t feel the burdens of leadership. Similarly, senior managers won’t be distracted by day-to-day operational issues. “We need to start looking for people who have these qualities because they’re not obvious. They’re not easy to spot,” he explains.

Middle management as a function also helps junior staff have a job role to aspire to, which can boost morale when it comes to appraisals and promotions.

You list seven core qualities. Help us figure out for people who are on teams who are coaches or general management because it’s a little fungible when you’re looking at organizations or enterprises. What are the core qualities, if you could briefly go through them, of this captain class?

Dig deeper: superstars may not stand out in a job interview

Identifying stand-out performers can be easy in many ways. Their work speaks for itself. But leaders may overlook superstars in the making who have the potential to carve a unique role in the business if discovered and developed further. “The first thing you have to know is they’re not obvious. They don’t stand out in a job interview,” Walker says.

“These are not qualities that you can see about somebody. It’s not about talent. It’s not about charisma. It’s not about the obvious things. You really have to look a lot more deeply, and what you have to look at is how that person deals with other people and how they operate inside a team context.”

These qualities include perseverance, staying calm when under pressure, exceptional time management and proactivity.

“What I found with this book is that there are people like this were hiding. I mean, they’re in our midst already. There are a lot more of them than we realize. We’re just not looking at the right thing,” he adds.

Give everyone face time

Great leaders are democratic in their approach, according to Walker. “(Great leaders) circulate democratically, and they talk to everybody individually and very intensely with eye contact and gestures and in a very intense way.”

Leaders who listen as much as they speak are the ones who can pick up on the strengths and weaknesses of their teams.

Make time to sit with each of your team members individually so they know that your door is always open. The best ideas often come from within teams, if members are given the opportunity to share their thoughts openly and without concerns of being judged or dismissed. “It’s not the loudest voice in the room, it’s not the person who sets the tone that we expect. It’s the person who is moving around and making sure they’re dealing with problems of the individuals in the moment. That’s very important,” Walker adds.

Great leaders rely on their own judgment, ultimately. “If something happens that they think is working against the team’s goals, they’re going to tell you about it, and they’re going to create problems for you as the manager sometimes. They’re not going to sit back and try to implement everything you say automatically. That’s another thing,” he says.

Great leaders also know how to separate the personal from the professional, so even if they lean on one or two team members as their right-hand players, they know how to shelf that in the interest of motivating the rest of the team.

Push your star players

Some great leaders are known to push their teams to the most of their abilities. “Steve Jobs was known to push people to the point of tears inside, but outside, he was not like that. He wasn’t a bully. He wasn’t getting in trouble outside or applying that to his personal life, so I think you have to understand that you have to work within the context of the rules you’re in,” Walker says.

It’s not about being a workplace bully, or too much of a task-master, Walker adds. It’s about getting the most out of your team and polishing the real diamond in the rough.

“If (a leader) push things to the absolute maximum, you have to think about what their motive is, and there is a good motive for that,” he says. It is likely that it’s part of a grand desire to do whatever they can to help the team succeed. “There’s a lot of people who have the potential to be leaders -many more than we think, but if you have the potential, you also need the motivation.”

Not everyone who has potential has the motivation to lead, which is where strong leaders can step in and challenge them within reason.

Leaders are made, not born

Recognizing talent is just the first step. These star players need to be guided and developed to take on more responsibilities, and to eventually lead their own teams, says Walker. “You have to identify the people with the right characteristics and then find ways to develop them into the leaders that they will eventually be,” he adds. “Once you have a leader like this, you create a culture around your team that others can emulate, (and) it starts to feed itself. You start to have this culture, this chemistry where everyone’s priority is in the right direction, and everyone realizes toxic behavior when they see it. That’s the key.” Anyone can understand the principles of team-building and get better at it.

Listen to Sam Walker in the Bregman Leadership podcast below. 

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