As a leader on your team, your primary responsibility is to ensure that the company's goals are clearly defined, articulated, and communicated to the people who depend on you for direction.
Great leaders trust their teams to do great work. For a team to function well, they need to feel confident that the outcome they're working toward is impactful and valuable to the company. And they need enough ownership over their work that they can make decisions based on their expertise to best achieve that outcome.
What can leaders do to make sure their team has everything they need to succeed? Well, there are three things I've received from every leader I've loved reporting to. And now that I've moved into a leadership role, I do my best to offer the same to my own reports.
1. Clearly define the expected outcome
For a team to do excellent work, they need to know what's expected of them. It's the responsibility of the leader to set good expectations and eliminate any ambiguity about what success looks like.
It's important to define an outcome and not an output. Being overly prescriptive about the work strips your team of their creativity and eliminates their autonomy. When you define an output, the decision is made for them, and they're only there to execute on someone else's mandates.
When you define an outcome, however, you rely on the team's expertise to get to the desired end state. By letting the team make the tactical decisions, you're sending a clear signal that you trust and value them.
As an example, if you're on the hook for driving new user activation in your product, define an outcome along the lines of ‘new users are aware of our key features and understand how to use them’ instead of ‘create a new onboarding sequence’. An onboarding sequence is one way to raise awareness and understanding, but not the only way. Defining the outcome instead of the output lets the team come together to apply their expertise and create a strategy to get to the desired outcome – and that leads to more ownership, engagement, and satisfaction.
Make sure the outcome includes a measurement
Setting an outcome is important, but it must also be provable. This means choosing a measurement that indicates success. Without a clear measurement of success, there's room for interpretation, and that's a recipe for disaster.
When we're talking about the success or failure of a team project, there needs to be absolute clarity on what's expected and how to prove that it's done. Otherwise the team can't make decisions with confidence because they can't verify success.
Using the example above, if the defined outcome is ‘new users are aware of our key features and understand how to use them’, a potential measurement of success could be the combined metrics of:
- 10% increase in new users who activate one of the key features of the product within the first 30 days of signing up (people are using the features)
- 50% decrease in support tickets and feature requests asking about functionality that the key features provide (people are aware that the features exist)
(As a tangential aside: it's useful to measure with tethered metrics instead of a single metric. A single data point can be gamed and that can cause really dangerous incentives; tethered metrics do a better job of creating a story in numbers that accurately reflects the desired behavior we're trying to achieve.)
2. Provide context on why the work matters
An outcome without context can leave the team feeling disconnected from the goals of the company. Leaders need to connect the dots between a specific outcome and the overall company goals so that teams understand how the thing they're doing contributes to overall organizational success.
Make sure to answer these questions for each defined outcome:
- Why are we focused on this outcome instead of other ideas?
- Why is it important?
- What does this unlock for the future?
It's much easier for the team to take ownership of the work if it feels meaningful, and telling the full story of how a given project moves the needle for the company is what gives work meaning.
While providing context is important, there's a catch: you need to communicate the right amount of information. There's a balance between undersharing and oversharing, and going too far in either direction can cause significant problems:
Sharing too much risks overwhelming folks
So much of leadership is managing the constantly shifting needs and priorities of a complex network of employees, customers, investors, partners, and other stakeholders. If we share too much of how the sausage is made, we can freak people out. We need to avoid sharing the more stressful and chaotic parts of what's happening or we risk giving the impression that the company is in turmoil.
Sharing too little creates an information vacuum that starts to fill with speculation
If someone asks for information and we stay silent, people will start to apply their deductive reasoning to fill in blanks. At best, this leads to misalignment of priorities and actions. At worst, the team will interpret the silence as sinister and start to worry that something bad is going on. Negative speculation can completely destroy trust within the company, so it's extremely important to avoid creating information vacuums.
3. Get out of the way and trust your team
Once the team understands the desired outcome, how it will be measured, and why it's important, your job as a leader shifts. At the beginning of a project, your role is to drive strategy and get the team moving forward. After the team has everything they need, the most important thing you can do is stay out of the way and let the team do what they were hired to do.
A leader that jumps into the middle of in-flight work risks derailing the project or sucking all the air out of the room. If the team asks for help, great! Get in there and help them get unblocked. But otherwise, focus on the strategic and operational work that you own as the team lead and leave the tactical execution to them.
I'll be the first to admit that this is not easy. I love getting into the tactical details of a project and thinking through how it could be built, what could be improved, and all the other fun and messy details. But power dynamics matter! If I show up and make a suggestion, the team members who report to me often aren't sure if I'm tossing out an idea that they can ignore or if I'm giving a specific instruction they could get penalized for ignoring.
As a leader, stay out of the tactical plans or you risk micromanaging. Presumably, the team you hired was specifically screened for being extremely good at what they do. If you don't let them own their work, it's like hiring a plumber to fix a sink and then pushing them out of the way to start messing with the pipes yourself – it's a waste of their talent, it leads to worse outcomes, and everyone ends up sad and frustrated.
Set your team up to succeed
It's both professionally and personally rewarding to see your team perform well. If you clearly define outcomes, provide the right amount of context, and then get out of the way, you'll set the stage to let your team do great work.