Lessons In Leadership Excellence


Personal Insights on Building Exceptional Teams

In a world where 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional, mastering the art of leadership is not just a skill but a necessity.

I’ve been fortunate enough to lead teams in various environments, from small start-ups to large organizations, and along the way, I’ve received consistently positive feedback on my teams’ camaraderie, cohesion, and performance. That and hearing many times from my direct reports that I’ve been one of the best managers they’d had made me wonder what exactly was working well.

I don’t think I was super deliberate about it, to be honest. I just did what felt right intuitively over time. Maybe my experience being on the engineer manager pendulum allowed me to keep my ear to the ground and do what I would have wanted to see from my manager as an IC.

In any case, this is my attempt at writing down some of my implicit strategies into an explicit guidebook for myself and others to reference and follow. This is not meant to be a comprehensive resource such as MGMT Accelerator or The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, which I highly recommend, but just things I found putting the most amount of emphasis on. I’ll also note that you don’t need to be a manager to find this relevant. Effective leadership is a key skill for everyone to master.

So, after doing some reflection, I was able to boil down this essence of effective leadership to six critical elements, which I like to call the ‘6 Cs’. In this post, I’ll share these key elements, each backed by practical strategies and real-life lessons that can redefine how you lead. So, without further adieu, let’s dive in.

1. Communication

Transparent and authentic communication is the cornerstone of effective leadership. It’s not merely about conveying information but about involving team members in decision-making processes, even when ideas are still in their formative stages. This practice fosters a sense of ownership and collaboration.

This also extends to offering constructive feedback, where I aim for open and candid conversations without the proverbial “shit sandwich.” This authentic management style fosters workplace transparency, clarity, and directness. It empowers employees to clearly identify areas where they can make the most meaningful contributions to the team’s success.

Some professionals say you need to have a praise-to-criticism ratio of 3:1, 5:1, or even 7:1. Others advocate the “feedback sandwich” — opening and closing with praise, sticking some criticism in between. I think venture capitalist Ben Horowitz got it right when he called this approach the “shit sandwich.” Horowitz suggests that such a technique might work with less-experienced people, but I’ve found the average child sees through it just as clearly as an executive does. — Kim Malone Scott, Radical Candor

Key practices:

Questions to measure success:

  1. Do you regularly cascade relevant strategy and business updates to your team members from the company leadership?
  2. Do your team members feel like they are part of shaping the ideas from the early stages and are involved in the decision-making process?
  3. Do your team members regularly receive ongoing feedback rather than just surprising feedback during formal touchpoints like performance review cycles?

2. Connection

Connection is built on the foundation of authentic and transparent communication. Team cohesion and trust are something I value deeply, and I aim to create an environment that values inclusivity, empowerment, and psychological safety.

A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other.— Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last

I’ve used many rituals and practices, such as retrospectives, all hands, happy hours, pulse surveys, etc., with the aim of building connection and trust. No matter the ritual, it comes down to ensuring that every team member’s voice is heard and respected.

Creating opportunities for the team to bond outside of work is also particularly effective. This includes team happy hours, get-to-know sessions where team members share their passions and interests, and even occasional team retreats to strengthen in-person connections.

Key practices:

Questions to measure success:

  1. Do your team members believe they have agency in shaping how the team operates?
  2. Is there a mechanism in place to continually examine team processes and iterate based on feedback?
  3. Does the team regularly interact with each other in informal settings such as happy hours or retreats?

3. Composure

Amidst challenges and crises, maintaining composure is essential. Using the team as an outlet for venting emotions is tempting, but this can be counterproductive. Instead, I’ve learned to adopt a methodical approach: analyzing the situation, acknowledging emotions, outlining a clear plan, and providing transparent updates.

In my experience, team members look to their leaders as beacons of stability during turbulent times. They appreciate leaders who don’t just react emotionally but engage in constructive problem-solving. In fact, research suggests that for almost 70% of people, their manager has more impact on their mental health than their therapist or their doctor.

When interpersonal disagreements or conflicts arise, lean into curiosity to understand why. This is often not an easy thing to do. In her book “Dare to Lead,” Brown uses the term “rumble” to describe a discussion or conversation that is defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, stay curious and generous, and be fearless in owning our parts.

A rumble is a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts, and, as psychologist Harriet Lerner teaches, to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard. More than anything else, when someone says, “Let’s rumble,” it cues me to show up with an open heart and mind so we can serve the work and each other, not our egos.―Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts

She believes that during moments when we’re pulled between our fear and our call to courage, we need shared language, skills, tools, and daily practices that can support us through the rumble.

Key practices:

Questions to measure success:

  1. Does your team feel that they have reliable support during challenging times?
  2. Do you maintain composure and engage in constructive problem-solving rather than venting emotions during crises?

4. Curiosity

Fostering a culture of continuous learning has been a personal passion of mine. I’ve encouraged my team to embark on a journey of exploration, whether through experimentation, reading, or mentorship, to build their personal mastery. This means holding brown bag sessions and providing opportunities for team members to work on experimental ideas, fostering a culture of perpetual learning.

I’ve also seen the importance of extending this curiosity to understand our customers and the business deeply. To truly solve their problems, the team needs to immerse themselves in the customer’s perspective and become students of the business.

The highest quality of thinking cannot emerge without learning. Learning can’t happen without mistakes.― Liz Wiseman, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter

Key practices:

Questions to measure success:

  1. Do you create space for the team to experiment and fail in their learning journey without it being held against them?
  2. Does the team interact with its customers on a regular basis?

5. Clarity

Clarity serves as the guiding light in decision-making. It’s not just about relying on data; it’s about relying on the right data.

I have found setting ambitious yet achievable goals, defining clear KPIs, and diligently tracking progress have created an immense amount of clarity for the team. In addition, we created a long-term roadmap, acknowledging its inherent uncertainty, and broke it down into detailed plans every quarter to create a seamless runway for execution.

This clarity extends to written communication, where everything from team working norms to schedules and expectations is documented. Having an operating playbook in place ensures that new team members can seamlessly integrate into the team and hit the ground running.

Ideas are easy. Execution is everything. — John Doerr, Measure What Matters

Key practices:

Questions to measure success:

  1. Does your team possess a clear operating playbook, ensuring seamless onboarding for newcomers?
  2. Are goals and KPIs well-defined, and is progress diligently tracked?

6. Celebration

Recognizing and celebrating achievements, no matter their scale, injects joy into the workplace. Acknowledging accomplishments through company-wide accolades or simple ‘kudos’ fosters a sense of pride and motivation.

69% of employees state they would work harder if they felt their efforts were better recognized — Zippia, 35+ Powerful Leadership Statistics [2023]: Things All Aspiring Leaders Should Know

Leadership is not about being in charge. It is about taking care of those in your charge. — Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last

Key practices:

Questions to measure success:

  1. Is team spirit consistently high, and do team members eagerly anticipate celebrating successes together?
  2. Are creative ways employed to foster team bonding, even in distributed work settings?

Closing Thoughts

I hope you found valuable takeaways from these 6 Cs. These principles aren’t just personal opinions; they’re insights drawn from practical experiences and even backed by research at BetterUp, which happens to be my former employer and a place where I’d like to think I earned my stripes for leadership:

We found that managers who can strengthen their coaching and problem solving skills, be more authentic with their teams, and work to recognize employee contributions are riding a wave of effectiveness to the bank: Their organizations experience a +400% return on assets, +30% EPS 5-year growth, +17% boost in innovation, and more. — Mindsets on the move: what effective management looks like today, BetterUp Briefing

You could use these 6 Cs as a way to conduct a health check for your team and see where you need to focus your energies. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences as you apply the 6 Cs to your leadership journey — please feel free to share your feedback and stories!

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