So now you’re the group leader

A look at the trials and tribulations facing team leaders
By Patrick J. McKenna and David H. Maister
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/17/2002

As a group leader, you might lead a geographic unit, or one based around a specific project, client, industry or discipline. You don’t manage the whole firm, but head up, co-ordinate, manage, lead or facilitate a part of the firm. You’re not a boss, but even if you are, you don’t want to act that way. You have limited, if any, powers to issue instructions, commands or orders, and if you have such authority, you rarely use it. To be effective, you must act as primus inter pares, the first among equals.

Since you are managing a group, and not your whole firm, you probably still have client or other work to do. You must be (simultaneously) a player and a coach. Prior to becoming a group leader, you were probably expected to focus on your own performance alone. Now it is also your responsibility to worry about (and influence) the performance of others, many of whom were, until recently, your peers (and certainly still consider themselves so). You must also forge a cohesive team out of a group of autonomous individuals.

Succeeding in the role requires a willingness to get most of your fulfillment from the success of others. You will also need a special set of skills: the ability to influence other people’s emotions, feelings, attitudes and their determination. Unfortunately, in many firms, these are not the criteria usually applied in selecting group leaders. All too often the most senior, the best business-getter, intellectual luminary or financially savvy person is chosen.

The job as a group leader is to help your people, and your team, win. There is an issue here both of attitude (willingness to focus on other people and their success) and of skill (the ability to win influence over other people without being domineering). Skills can be taught; attitudes are harder to change.

The best group leaders see themselves as catalysts. They expect to achieve a great deal, but know that they can do little without the efforts of others. It is challenging to manage a group of people with different skills, diverse experiences, a variety of work styles and sometimes-conflicting priorities. Casey Stengel, the renowned former manager of the New York Yankees, once said, “Getting good players is one thing. The harder part is getting them to play together.” As we shall see, it requires commitment, curiosity, and courage.

So, how does one help other people succeed (and play as a team)? Part of the answer may be about substance or content (they don’t know what to do or how to do it), but this is rarely the biggest issue. Most frequently, teams consist of highly talented people who do know what to do and how to do it, but just aren’t doing it. The causes may be numerous (fear, suspicion, lack of drive, attitudes, problems at home or structural firm impediments) and leaders will find that most of the barriers have to do with feelings, attitudes and emotions.

The leader’s role, therefore, and the essential skill required, will be to help people fulfill their potential by influencing these feelings, attitudes and emotions. If you accomplish this, the raised performance level will result (among other things) in greater financial success for your people, you and your firm.

Note, however, that while money (or profitability) may be your goal, it is not what you must manage. What you must manage in order to get money is the energy, drive, enthusiasm, excitement, passion and ambition of your people. Your primary skill (and the test of all your activities) must be whether or not you are able to raise the level of commitment and drive of those you influence.

The contributions group leaders can make include:

•creating energy and excitement;

•being a source of creative ideas and stimulating creativity in others;

•forging teamwork;

•helping develop a common purpose that everyone can buy into;

•helping solve problems and break down barriers for team members — making it easier for them to succeed;

•acting as a sounding board — helping people think through their issues;

•enforcing standards (deal gently, promptly, but firmly with noncompliance);

•being a conscience (“gentle pressure”) when self-discipline fails; and

•being a constant source of encouragement to improve effectiveness, quality and efficiency.

Patrick J. McKenna and David H. Maister are authors of the newly released book

First Among Equals

(The Free Press, 2002), which examines managing groups of professionals. For more information visit

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