TSLH #053: 4 Areas To Change To Lead A Larger Team

TSLH #053: 4 Areas To Change To Lead A Larger Team

Read time: 4 minutes


Back when I had only 2 to 5 people on my team, I enjoyed sitting down with all of them and spending a full afternoon discussing about our challenges and how to do our job better.
Once I had 50 people or more to manage, this quickly just became impossible to do. Efficiently I mean. I could still have spent long afternoons with the whole team trying to discuss our challenges. I doubt though that much would have come out of such gathering.
I quickly realized that my days were just not long enough to tackle all the challenges people brought to me. There were more unexpected fires to fight, more important information to communicate, or more decisions to make and keep track for.
It felt like the core principles of what I had learned about managing and leading were always the same. Somehow, the day-to-day experience was completely different and I needed to adjust to it if I wanted to avoid drowning quickly.
Working with a coach enabled me to identify several areas of my leadership role that I needed to tweak significantly in order to retain the efficiency I needed and continue to lead and build a high-performing team.
My experience going through this, and later exchanging on this topic with other leaders led me to identify 4 critical areas that need to change if you want to make the shift from managing a small team to managing a large team successfully.
Focus on your direct reports. When you have a team of 5, it’s easy to know everyone at the personal level, where you can understand every aspect of their work, what they like and dislike, what matters to them outside of work, what they like to do with their kids and friends, and even learn about their hobbies.
With a team of 20 or more, it’s quickly becoming impossible to keep track. To start with, you will not manage all of them directly, so the interactions will not be the same. A quick note here: I have coached managers who had 10 to 12 direct reports and heard of people who had even more than that. This is crazy folks. To be an efficient leader, you should have at most 5 to 6 direct reports, maybe 8 if you’re really good at it. More than that will create a lot of challenges for you in managing your team efficiently.
They key shift to make here is to leverage your direct reports to communicate the decisions to the rest of the team, to address the challenges that each of their own teams will have, to develop these more personal relationships that are important if you want to have engaged people on the team. Your role should be to create trust with your circle of direct reports, and each direct report should create trust with their own teams.
This is also a great opportunity to delegate. You have direct reports and they are leaders as well. Delegating to them is a key skill to use here, as it allows them to grow while giving you the space you need to do your own job. Your responsibility is therefore to focus on identifying and empowering capable team members to handle specific tasks and responsibilities. And remember what I always recommend when delegating: Delegate not only the activity but also the decision-making authority.
Of course, from time to time, you still want to address the entire team when it matters. But don’t try to know everyone, to learn about each personal story, because this will make your job much harder.
Be at peace with how people look at you. From the first point above flows what is probably the biggest mindset shift you need to make when starting to manage a larger team. I am talking about the self-awareness of knowing that people will not know you well and may be reluctant to speak out.
One thing that struck me when I took on a larger team is that people kept fairly quiet a lot of the time. Initially, I thought this was because everything we discussed was fine, understood by all and we were all aligned. One day though, after such a meeting, one of my direct reports came to see me and told me how people disagreed with a decision we had just made.
Initially, I was really mad and frustrated when hearing this. After all, I had created a safe space to everyone to speak out and nobody raised any concern. And then I discovered people had continued the discussion after our meeting and raised their concerns.
What I discovered is that as I elevated myself as the leader of a larger team, I was becoming more of a stranger for all the people on the team who did not directly report to me. After talking to a few peers, I reckoned that people on the team were just afraid or intimidated of talking to me, raising their concerns or giving me feedback.
And this had nothing to do with how I put myself as a leader. My leadership philosophy was good, my values were good. It was just that the people on the team saw me in a high position of authority and they were much more reluctant to let me know when they disagreed.
The key action I took here that allowed somehow to break this pattern was to coach the team more: Listen, ask questions to them. For instance, I stopped giving my opinion on any topic first as I discovered this would become the leading opinion very quickly since nobody wanted to disagree with me. Instead, I started asking questions like “What would you do in that situation?” or “How do you want to tackle that challenge?” or “I’d like to hear your ideas or opinions on this topic.” These statements will open the discussion.
Work on structure and leadership of the team. To reinforce the previous 2 points, a game changer is really to create a level of direct reports that is strong enough to support you in communicating decisions, cascading down anything that is discussed, being able to keep the rest of the team engaged.
Having a functional vs. disfunctional level of direct reports may be the key difference between success and failure as you take on a larger team.
You need to look at this from two angles:
  1. Structure of the team: Is the team structured in the most optimal way, that aligns with the priority of the organization, the imperatives and goals, and that focuses on delivering the outcomes expected by the rest of the organization. I once was responsible for a team where the quote to contract management process, a key process for the organization, was split between 3 teams that did not work together, although each manager of these 3 teams were reporting to me. What I did was to identify a leader among these 3 managers to take over the entire quote to contract process and structure the team below them by aggregating the 3 teams that were working in silos before.
  2. Leadership of the team: Does the team have the right leadership in place to produce the kind of outcomes that is needed? This is the key question to ask and one that you need to address fairly quickly as you start with a larger team. Your direct reports are essentially your own leadership team. You want each of these leaders to be perfectly aligned with your expectations in terms of productivity, accountability and results. If one direct report fails, it could bring the entire team down. Early on, you have to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your direct reports and bring the necessary changes quickly.
Choose your battles wisely. When I had a small team, I could concentrate on any problem that arose and pretty much, at the end of the day, that problem would be solved. This was because that problem was often the major thing I had to focus on during the day. I had few distractions.
With a larger team, the amount of challenges or tasks I had to tackle on in any single day was so high that I could not end the day with everything done. On an average day, I might have a conflict with a client who disputes an item in a contract, a project that is behind schedule because people are sick, I might have to have a meeting with the team because a decision was communicated differently by different managers, I had people come see me in my office to talk, vent about something, ask for help, etc.
My number 1 focus here was always to consider the amount of time I had for the day and the things I did not want to compromise on (time with my family, me time for reading or learning, a key meeting I wanted to attend, etc.) This meant in turn that I had to make choices in what challenge I tackled first.
The last major change you need to make as you take on a larger team is therefore to prioritize. You need to understand what topics are the most critical for the organization NOW and focus on these. The rest, you need to delegate or completely discard because they don’t add any value.
Let me give you an example: In one of the companies I worked with, as I took on a larger team, I had 3 major challenges that were presented to me. The first one was that the Senior President of our international team did not have the reporting package they needed to run his business. Secondly, there was a client who wanted to renegotiate part of their contract and we were pressed to give an opinion on the revenue impact. And thirdly, the team was still working on reconciliations and analysis from an integration from almost 4 years ago.
I picked my battles here as I could not work on these three things at the same time:
  • I focused on aligning the reporting package to what the Senior President wanted.
  • I delegated the revenue analysis to one of the best controllers I had on the team, which also helped increase his visibility with leadership and gave him an opportunity to work on a complex case.
  • I asked the team to stop working on the old stuff and focus on their daily job instead. 4 years after the fact, there was likely nothing of value we could extract.
By making these 4 changes, any leader can more effectively manage and lead a larger team toward success. As you will have noticed from the above, these 4 changes all boil down to one thing: Communication. You need to create a lot of clarity on what it is that you need and that you want to see happen. This in turn will allow you to implement these 4 changes in the way you lead in a much easier way.
I wish you a great read. I’ll see you next Saturday!
TL; DR (Too Long, Did not Read)
4 areas to change to lead a larger team
  1. Focus on your direct reports.
  2. Be at peace with how people look at you.
  3. Work on structure and leadership of the team.
  4. Choose your battles wisely.

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