Staffing Management

How Should Project Teams Pick Their Leaders?

By Staff Report

Sep. 16, 2015

Dear People Power:

This sounds like a self-directed work team (SDWT), which is one led by employees. I’ve implemented SDWTs in a number of organizations for more than 10 years. In nearly every instance, the team selected its own leader. There were three main factors that had to be considered in determining whether the team would be allowed to select a leader or one would be appointed for them. The factors were:

  • What responsibilities and authority will the team leader have? Will the team leader be responsible for leading team meetings, making decisions about how work is to progress, resolving conflict, assigning roles, tracking and reporting performance, etc.? Or will the team leaders serve primarily as a facilitator helping the team make these decisions? These responsibilities have to do with project management. There are other responsibilities that can go with team leadership that are more in the realm of supervision. For example will the team leader be responsible for discipline, selection, hiring, making pay decisions, etc. The role and expectations of the team leader have to be clearly defined and explained to everyone on the team regardless of whether they decide who their leader is or not.
  • What is the purpose of the team and to whom is it directly accountable? What type of team is it? Is it a project team created to work on a specific issue? A cross-functional team comprised of people from different departments? A virtual team with members in different locations, maybe different countries? A work team that will be together as a work unit over an extended period of time? Or will it be another type of team? Each team type requires a different set of leadership competencies. Team members have to be aware of the requisite competencies in order to make a wise decision. Accountability is another issue in determining team leadership. Will the team be accountable as a whole or as individuals? To whom will the team leader be accountable? The organizational level to which the team and/or leader reports will affect accountability.
  • Are team members qualified to lead a team and do team members understand self-direction? Leading a team can be a very responsible job requiring leadership skills, knowledge, and experience. Are there people on the team who possess those traits or will some training be necessary? My experience taught me that it was wise to provide team leadership as well as self-direction training to the entire team so they would understand what the role entailed and what was expected. It helped people be more appreciative of the difficulties the team leader would face and be more supportive of its leader.

Bottom line: We found that allowing a team to select its leader was most effective. It helped them become empowered and reinforced the concepts of self-direction. However, we held a lot of meetings discussing team expectations, which team members set themselves, and role clarifications. Asking a team to lead itself without a full understanding of the responsibilities associated with that was to invite problems.

SOURCE: Alan Landers, president, First Step Training, San Diego, Aug, 21, 2015.

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