black and white shot of an empty conference room
PHOTO: Drew Beamer

Managers today shoulder more responsibility than ever before: Quarterly, weekly, even daily goals. Keeping existing clients satisfied while also bringing new ones on board. Maintaining budgets. And of course, they are challenged to build effective teams to execute business imperatives. 

Without actively engaged, effective employees, it is impossible for any team, much less a manager, to reach goals. Great performance on the front lines is the difference between achieving success and failure.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many complacent managers get comfortable managing employees from the vacuum of conference rooms, staring mindlessly at decks and reports.

As the unemployment numbers in the US continue to shrink, skilled talent is in shorter supply, so managers need to get more actively involved in building the right team for the right job. Nurturing employees should be a priority — acknowledging their individual needs and evaluating their skills in the context of their overarching mission.

Over my career I've cultivated a set of best practices, borrowing liberally from other leaders I respect, to develop high-performing teams.

Help People Excel

Like a sports coach, identify individual strengths and put people in roles that will help them grow with the company, even if it means creating new roles.

Employees often start in certain roles because they have a specific expertise. However, if employees aren’t passionate about their role, they can quickly become average performers. You need them to be outstanding and transformational. 

Passionate employees perform better — period.

Consider baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken. He wasn’t passionate about playing shortstop when he started his career. He was passionate about baseball. Midway through his career when his skills waned as a shortstop, the team moved him to third base. The result: Cal Ripken holds the record for most consecutive games played because the organization realized there was point when he became better suited for a different position.

This overwhelmingly positive outcome is not unique to the baseball diamond. I once managed an average employee in an operations-centric role who had a passion for building client relationships. Upon recognizing this, we moved the employee to a business development role. It was a win/win. The employee was happier and performed better.

Related Article: How Leadership Can Inspire Employees (and Remain Relevant)

Spend at Least 50% of Your Time on the Field With Your Team

Yes, 50 percent. It’s the only way to really know what each team member is handling, from the mail room to the sales desk. Employees on the frontlines know what clients want, are familiar with pain points, and usually have the answers to solve their problems.

Employees often do a task a certain way because, "that's the way it's always been done." Since I joined my current team, I noticed each employee had to complete a manual task that took at least fifteen minutes every day. Despite the time commitment, it wasn’t adding value to the business. That’s fifteen minutes multiplied by three hundred employees that flew under management’s radar for years, resulting in endless hours wasted. This exercise completely changed my view on prioritizing development to automate this specific task in order to free up employees to focus on tasks that add value. 

I learned this lesson from former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. After spending time talking to soldiers on the frontlines, he quickly understood that some of the soldiers’ gear wouldn’t stand up to the harsh desert conditions, and consequentially made the needed changes.

Related Article: Frontline Workers: The Untapped Knowledge Workers in Your Midst

Don’t Be Afraid to Have Difficult Conversations

Everyone wants to be liked — even managers. Leadership begins with the ability to be up front and discuss mistakes. Not everyone appreciates constructive feedback, and not every manager wants to give it.

For managers, this problem can extend to dealing with other managers. All too often, a manager of one department won’t discuss problems stemming from a manager in a different one. It creates tension with employees on both teams. If the sales team has a problem with operations or vice versa, it’s in the organization’s best interest for both managers to figure it out. Put feelings aside for a minute and focus on optimizing the performance of both teams.

Related Article: A Lesson in Leadership and Building Resilient Organizations

Even the Best Business Plan Will Fail in the Hands of a Low-Performing Team

Win or lose, your team will face the consequences together. Understanding what motivates people and adjusting for that is the most critical capability of a frontline manager. 

Managers have to help people find meaning. Managers have to place individual roles in the context of the larger picture. What is their contribution to corporate goals? What are the individual rewards for the organizational achieving What happens if corporate goals aren’t met?

Outside of corporate goals, managers can give employees meaning by placing their performance in the context of impacting a customer’s life. If a bank’s back office employees repeatedly make mistakes, it could affect a customer’s ability to pay the mortgage or buy groceries.

Throughout my career of building high performing teams, I’ve come to realize that there isn’t a single approach that works in all cases. However, more often than not, if you get out of the conference room and actively engage with the team, good things will follow.