Behind every great team are great leaders

How to develop leaders and elevate the whole team

By Dina D'Avirro Varacalli

Behind every great team are great leaders

“Got the glue in my hands, I’m stickin’ to the plan, stickin’ to the plan that says ‘I can’… But my star’s gonna shine brighter than your sun, and I will reach so high, shoot so far, gonna hit, gonna hit, hit every target.” Even Scarlett Johansson can belt out this tune, because it rings true in many ways. A great, high-performing team won’t happen spontaneously, it needs a plan. Starting with building the team, framing the problems, motivating and the evaluating performance, good teams take careful planning. Stagnation is the bane of agile teams. Naturally, great teams change and develop over time. Individuals need to develop and learn, in fact, learning is a key factor in motivation. Individuals also need to move beyond being code monkeys toward being leaders. Developing successful leaders needs a solid plan.

Every rocket ship needs a booster. Teams that have good leaders, go in good directions. Good leaders come from the strong developers that see the entire forest, that ask questions, and think outside the box. Just like a rocket ship can’t reach the stars without a powerful booster, a development team needs leaders to propel them forward to success.

Leaders aren’t appointed. The people who you report to, who drive your performance evaluation and who sign your expense reports, those are your bosses. Hopefully your boss has some good leadership qualities, but they aren’t necessarily the leaders. Who are the leaders? It could be the kid who was an intern 2 months ago, it could be the new hire that just moved from overseas, it could be the seasoned veteran who’s seen it all before. It could be anyone on the team, and on teams that out-perform their peers, it’s closer to everyone on the team. Leaders are the engines that drive teams to the frontier of innovation and performance.

Hay, hay everywhere! Where did that needle go! Identifying a potential leader can be tricky. Just like deciding who should make the crew of the next shuttle mission, it isn’t all about numbers on paper. Finding the potential talent on a team needs you to look at several factors. Crew members can be evaluated based on tests and former mission stats, much like performance evaluations which give you specific numbers based on past performance. This doesn’t tell you if a person is ready to lead. A performance evaluation is a retrospective of how someone has performed in the past, on tasks deemed to be at their level, it says nothing of how someone will perform at the next level. At most we can extrapolate someone’s potential, but are they ready to board the rocket now?

Just like potential crew members are put through rigorous training, tech talent can be assessed as ready or not. Readiness can be determined with a combination of assessments, scenarios and stretch goals. Having one-on-ones and discussing readiness, including self-assessments, to look to future performance is key. Evaluating where someone is on their growth path, can help to decide if this talent should be put into the development pipeline. Scenarios, or mission simulators, can gauge theoretical readiness. Better yet, here on Earth, giving someone stretch-goals can give clear insight into someone’s readiness to lead now. Being given the opportunity to prove readiness by succeeding at a stretch-goal is the makings of a supportive culture that will grow many high-performing leaders.

If you build it, they will come. Supporting talent coming down the pipeline is one way of ensuring the development of good leaders. Organizations that have a formal mentoring culture have 20% lower turnover, 46% higher leader quality, and can fill 23% more roles immediately. Formal mentoring programs are also associated with greater financial success. Organizations that have development of high-potential talent throughout their ranks are 4.2 times more likely to outperform similar organizations. Formal coaching opportunities and mentoring programs are a good indication if an organization is striving for a supportive culture. But formal programs are just the tip of the iceberg, a supportive culture starts with the attitude of each individual team member.

Building a supportive team culture will ensure that leaders come out of the woodwork, or their cubicles. Without the proper culture, leaders will struggle to develop and, with the environmental odds stacked against them, potential leaders will fail. Potential leaders need to be empowered and encouraged, and not be shot-down. Embrace the different perspectives brought to the table from your diverse team members, pay attention to the off-the-cuff ideas the intern has. Encourage broader discussion and ask questions, such as, “How can we be stronger? How can we be better? How do we get different perspectives to the table? How do we make everyone feel comfortable sharing their views and their ideas?” All team members should help to drive the team culture. In turn, this supportive culture will encourage the forward-looking and future leaders to reach for the stars and that nebulous land of success and innovation.

Welcome to the jungle: success is a journey, not a destination. A lot of elements factor into creating a supportive team culture. That’s because one size does not fit all, in fact, it’s that diversity that will carry the team farther. Conversely, no one person’s path will look like anyone else’s. Most people’s development into a leader looks more like a kid playing on a jungle gym instead of an adult traveling down a straight and narrow pipeline. Encourage the unconventional journey, remember diversity, different experiences and different perspectives are good. A supportive team culture will support the journey along the monkey bars, down the slides and up the climbing walls.

As you agilely make your way around the jungle gym, support your teammates and they will support you. Learn, innovate and reach for your stretch goals. Use your supportive culture and diverse team to reach your stretch goal of becoming a leader. After all, you’re all on the same rocket aimed at high performance and success. Leaders boost us all higher and guide us in the right direction. In the sage, slightly altered, words of Metallica, “Take my hand, we’re off to Innovationland!”