Operational Leadership: underestimated and underrated
One of the most underrated and underestimated leadership responsibilities relates to the most frequent interactions with your team: team meetings, 1-on-1 meetings, and appraisal meetings.
I refer to it as Operational Leadership.
For some leaders and team members not the most exciting part of the week, for some an anchor to keep their ship stable for a moment to set out the course.
The essence of Operational Leadership lies in setting the boundaries and maintaining discipline. As free as you want to be or you want your team to be, boundaries and discipline are the enablers to make sure that objectives are achieved, that people’s confidence is supported, that it is clear what is expected, and that nasty surprises are as much avoided as possible.
Operational Leadership is a strong hygiene factor: when you let your team meetings, 1-on-1 meetings, and appraisal meetings slip in quality, quantity, punctuality and frequency, you will spend much more resources on keeping your ship on course.
There is no need to run your team, department or organisation as a military unit, as a certain level of autonomy, mastery and relatedness is key to self-actualisation. But having some routines in place avoids derailment.
1. TEAM MEETINGS
Team meetings are great and vital for building relationships between team members and finding support & help, learning about our colleagues’ motivations, fears, hopes, troubles, etc. even when it isn’t said.
Also, team meetings provide a ‘safe’ environment and an opportunity to share information we wouldn’t be so comfortable sharing by email, or in a report. Team meetings allow for a level playing field and an open forum, where everybody gets the chance to speak and hear what’s said – the role of the speaker isn’t reserved just for the leader.
Team meetings create a space for giving each other feedback, as long as it is pitched at the right level and allow attendees to lift their head out of day-to-day operations. Team meetings let attendees focus on something else, and work on cross-functional tasks together.
Team meetings are a learning and improvement opportunity; they are a good place to learn about the wider organisation, how to work in a team, how to manage a team towards its objectives, and what improvements a team can achieve together.
- Team meetings should typically take place every week, same day, same hour
- Keep a fixed agenda for each meeting, so people know what to expect
- Free up time for each attendee to contribute and make sure everyone is prepared
- Depending on relevance and urgency, not every topic needs to be discussed every week
- If there is anything that can be left out of the meeting by reading beforehand, go for it
- Consider inviting other colleagues from outside of the team to exchange information and provide the team with a different perspective on stakeholder needs
- Do not punish or discuss conflicts between team members; use 1-on-1 meetings instead
- Make sure that your team members organise the same team meetings with their teams, but with topics that are relevant to their needs and responsibilities
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The purpose of 1-on-1 meetings is to build high-quality relationships between you and your team member and to go deeper into your team member’s responsibilities and assignments.
During 1-on-1 meetings, you can both address questions, challenges, and solutions in more detail than during team meetings, and also discuss sensitive personal issues which are not suitable for team meetings.
- 1-on-1 meetings should typically take place at least once a month – provided that you stick to high-quality team meetings as described above
- Be present and let nothing disturb your 1-on-1 meeting
- The length should be flexible and adjusted for each of your needs
- Skipping a 1-on-1 meeting should be kept to a minimum as it means that you both missed an opportunity to at least check in with each other
- Ask what you can do to support your team member
- Be clear about the boundaries, responsibilities, and expectations
- Avoid solely broadcasting whatever you have to say
Whether you meet with your team members or you meet with your team leader, annual appraisal meetings will have a lasting impact, in particular on the team member’s motivation and future performance.
Make sure that there is time and attention from both sides. From my experience, quite a several team leaders consider the (bi-)annual appraisal meeting a tick-the-box exercise, which is perceived as time-consuming and is used as a meeting only to determine the bonus for the previous year.
As a leader, you should approach the annual appraisal with your team members as if you would meet your top clients.
Your top clients appreciate it very much when you dedicate time, come well-prepared, listen to their needs and make sure that they feel comfortable telling you their views, to strengthen the relationship and grow the business of your clients; when they grow, you grow!
The same approach is valid for how you approach your team members:
- Dedicate time and make your team members feel appreciated – even when you are not satisfied with their performance
- Prepare yourself by reading into the targets that were set, listing the possible external opportunities and threats concerning reaching these targets
- Review your own performance and the impact on your team members, in terms of your own priorities and your behaviour
- Create a positive and constructive atmosphere, which supports the psychological safety of your team members, so that you both can be open to each other without fear
- Make sure nobody disturbs your meeting and avoid any distraction
- Make the annual appraisal meaningful and be mindful. There are always reasons for poor performance that you are not aware of and that have nothing to do with the skills or competencies of your team members.
- Set the stage by asking the right questions and asking why when needed. Treat the answers of your team members with openness and fairness:
- What did you do well? Why?
- What could you have done better? Why?
- What did I do well to support you? Why?
- What could I have done better to support you? Why?
- What should I continue to do to support you? Why?
- What else can I do to support you? Why?
- And then proceed in a well-documented and formal fashion with the targets and achievements for the past year.
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The topic of Operational Leadership has become part of my standard Leadership Development repertoire. Not only first-time managers, but also several seasoned leaders benefit from digging deeper into how effective they lead their teams day-to-day and week-to-week.