Leadership redefined for self-managing teams

Our previous post looked at some of the characteristics of self-directed teams, and how these are necessary to adapt to the future workplace. However, every team needs a guiding force to provide structure and order; the same goes for self-directed or self-managing teams. But, as workplace factors change, so do the directives for leadership.

Dynamic workplaces need dynamic leaders

A 2019 Grant Thornton Report on ‘The Future of Leadership: Anticipating 2030’ lists the top skills for business leaders as being innovative, adaptive to change, and collaborative across the business. Thus, as teams begin to self-organize and self-manage, the role of a leader becomes more fluid. So, what does it take to lead a self-directed team?

a) Adopt the servant leadership style

According to Lolly Daskal, author of The Leadership Gap, geese demonstrate valuable lessons about servant leadership. During migration, the pack appears to follow a single bird – the leader. Interestingly, it is never the same bird. When the first bird tires out, it circulates to the back of the pack, letting another lead the formation while it takes advantage of the uplift created by the pack’s wings.

Servant leaders are those who serve the needs of the team by empowering them to align with the overall vision and collaborate to overcome obstacles. Author, business blogger, and influencer, Gwen Moran states, “The best managers will look at the overarching need, and then build and develop a team to meet that need—with input from the team—instead of dictating what the team needs.” Replacing autocracy with autonomy, the leader’s focus is about working with the whole to foster productivity. This, coupled with information sharing, allows the team to track their and their leader’s performance.

Check out our blog on servant leadership to know more about its benefits.

b) Focus on relationships, not delegation

Shared leadership also means shared authority. Since self-managing teams are given the freedom and power to make decisions, the role of the leader moves beyond delegating tasks into more of a relational leadership style that is open to innovation, new attitudes, and change. Here, leaders (often elected from within the group) occupy equal status while being responsible for purposeful and ethical work practices, understanding the group’s strengths and dynamics, and setting an example of ownership and accountability.

Consider the ‘teaming participative management’ being used in GE’s Aviation Supply Chain. Since 2010, production teams have taken on leadership responsibilities that were typically done by management such as hiring, policy making, planning, and scheduling. Front-line workers own the management of their plant through joint responsibility. And, through a flat management structure, the teams (and leaders within these teams) are accountable to each other.

c) Act as coaches and facilitators

Leaders in self-managed teams leverage their knowledge of group dynamics and relationships to act as coaches and facilitators. Instead of being the main touchpoint for communication, motivation, and decisions within the team, SDT leaders are responsible for creating effective communication channels that foster innovation. Often, this involves offering coaching and advice to inspire confidence rather than issuing task-based instructions.

In 2013, when Zappos decided to reorganize their management structure into self-managing teams for greater individual productivity, they realized that training and education were crucial to drive adoption of the new work culture. While the trainings were voluntary, there was great uptake across Zappos. Soon, those with in-depth knowledge of the new culture became “certified facilitators” and focused on empowering employees to form new circles and take on new projects, which led to faster wins for Zappos.

Kimball Fisher, author of Leading Self-Directed Work Teams, states in his book, “Speed, quality, productivity, new products and services come from people, not from tools.” Hope these tips help you lead with success!

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