Being an effective leader includes managing differences -- Part II

In one of the recent episodes, I talked about ensuring that your new leaders were both technically proficient as well as effective.

And in response to that, I was asked, what about cultural differences and background in the team or with the new leader and what about levels of experience and skills and the difficulty to reconcile them?

Again, thank you so much for the question!

Because I felt that these were two complementary topics, I chose to address them separately. In Part I, which was the previous episode, I answered “What about levels of experience and skills and the difficulty to reconcile them?”

And, now, for Part II, let’s answer what can new leaders do to help address varying levels of experience and skills and the difficulty in reconciling them within a team?

Begin with an assessment

Start by addressing the various levels of experience and skills within the team by reviewing who is in your team. The needs will be different. The time commitments will be different in terms of who needs more guidance or may have more questions. And this may be partly because of the level of experience and the skills, but it may also be in response to how new they are to the team.

Someone who's brand new to a team may have a lot of questions regarding operations, potentially HR or systems or how things are done. And I would say that someone like that will ramp up much faster than someone who is actually building up the experience and the skills.

Get a sense of who's on your team and where they are. Among the reasons for doing this, again, if someone is new to your team or new to the organization, you really want to be aware of the types of needs that they may have versus someone who has been around for a while. It will be very different.

That also applies to the leader, by the way. If you're new to leading any team, then you will really want to dig into who are these people who can complement your knowledge, who can you go to if you have questions about processes etc.

Hopefully you've been assigned someone, but if you haven't, then you have a whole team here that can be amazing resources. Especially if you're new to the organization. If you're quite familiar with the organization, there may be less of a need for that. But if you're brand new to the organization, your team is there.

Some team leaders, especially if they're new team leaders, are concerned about going to their own members for answers. I would say mostly because it's usually a confidence thing. They feel like they have to show that they're the leader, they're the supervisor. That's an unnecessary concern. Usually, team members are very happy to be supporting you and helping out and potentially maybe even getting to know you a little bit better and seeing who is the person behind the title. So don't worry so much about that. They'll be paying attention to the type of work you do, the quality of work you do, and how you treat them, that's more important.

As you are doing this assessment of your team members, it may also be helpful in helping you notice which team members seem to be coasting a little bit and which team members may seem to be struggling. It may give you this idea of who is really finding it easy and who really could use a little bit of extra support.

Another reason why you might want to do this type of team assessment is if your team is making a lot of mistakes. It might help you see who needs extra training.

This assessment might also help you recognize when there's a misalignment between the capability and the tasks or the expectations for that particular skill level. You might realize that this person is actually not quite right for this role, or they're not ready for this role. And it may not be just a question of needing a little bit of training.

When you're doing this assessment, just do a rapid assessment.

Think of each team member:

  • What role do they have?
  • Where do they fit in within that role?
  • Where do they fit in in terms of skill level within the team?
  • What are their strengths and areas of development needed?

That's enough just to start with. Then you'll build on it. As you’re considering strengths, also recognize and appreciate the unique contributions that each individual brings to the team.

And this type of assessment doesn't just work for the same roles. You might realize that different roles can also complement each other. Especially in terms of mindset, professional behavior, dealing with challenges, etc. You might recognize that this person may actually be a good collaborator for that person because they're going to complement each other really well on this particular project.

Allocate tasks based on skill and level

Once you've done this assessment and you're aware of who's on your team, allocate tasks based on skill and on level. And before I go deeper into that, I'm just going to add a caveat here. The person should be within a certain range of skills. They were hired for this particular position, so they should be able to accomplish what needs to be done with a certain level of ability. If they can't, and it's not just a question of leveling up a little bit, then, at one point, it may become problematic.

So when you're giving out these projects, try to balance the tasks or the projects that are more challenging with some that may align more with their proficiency levels. That way, they can continue to stretch themselves and grow while also building their confidence by easily accomplishing other tasks. Because if you're always giving them things that stretch them, at some point, internally, it's going to start feeling like they are not very good at their job. That's why you want to keep an eye on that mix of stretching, but also making sure that some of the work is completely in their wheelhouse that they can just do it like it's nothing.

As this unfolds, make sure to provide consistent and constructive feedback. And, when it makes sense and it's truthful, remember to also point out the positives and what they did that went really well. You don't only want to focus on the areas that need improvement. That becomes really discouraging, really fast. You want to also make sure that they feel like they are there for a reason.

Earlier I mentioned maybe this person could complement that person. Well, maybe a more experienced team member can be a guiding voice on a certain project and present a more seasoned way of thinking. When it makes sense, of course you don't want to force these things and it becomes an operational nightmare and nothing gets done.

Another important aspect when giving out these tasks is to clearly communicate the goals and expectations. Just ensure that everyone understands what they're supposed to be doing.

Promote a continuous development mindset

Another element that might help is promoting a continuous development mindset. By creating that continuous development mindset, we are showing that seeking development isn't just for those who “can't” or those who are “weak”, it's for everyone. Work with team members to create maybe a quarterly individual development plan. I really like quarterly because I feel that it’s long enough that you can see change, but it's also short enough to remember what happened and talk about it. In my experience, the quarterly goes by super quickly. Next thing I know, it's time to meet again. That's why it’s my favorite cadence. But of course, you decide what works for you and your team, and it may vary by who's on your team and who needs more support and less, etc.

As part of that individual development plan, make sure to include areas of development and aspirations. I like to make them a little bit more encompassing because I feel that everything builds onto each other. If somebody is only doing a certain thing and they're not particularly excited by it, well, it shows. It shows in how they show up. It shows in how they interact with the team. It shows in the energy that they're giving off. But if there's something that is also aspirational for them, something that really excites them, it changes their energy, it changes how they show up, and it's worth the extra effort or time or potential investment depending on what it is.

Again, adding to the idea of collaboration, think about opportunities for pairing and mentoring. I mentioned how you could do that as part of a project, let's say having some more senior members with some less experienced members, but maybe it's an actual pairing. Maybe it's actual mentoring. You could even do some cross training maybe, if it makes sense. You could host workshops, you could do a lunch and learn. There are many options to help individuals with their development plan.

And in creating that culture of continuous improvement and collaboration, it also encourages this free-flowing feedback. It removes, or at least alleviates, that fear of making mistakes because it's okay. If we're all improving, we're all growing, we're all developing, making mistakes is part of it. It's part of the journey.

As the leader, also share what you are working on. What are you learning? As the leader, demonstrate that commitment to learning and growing. By doing so, it will encourage others to do the same.

Reconciling the differences is challenging

When managing the differences in abilities it’s important to recognize the potential issues. We need to be mindful of burden. We want to be cautious to not “reward” our most productive team members – who are also providing high-quality work -- with… more work because someone else on the team isn’t pulling their weight. It requires keeping an eye on need for training vs not right for the position.

It also means striking a balance between leveling up team members and operational requirements. There’s a cost associated with training, not just the time spent learning but also the time not spent working on billable tasks or advancing the release of a product that will bring in extra revenue.

But spending some time addressing the varying levels of experience and skills will help encourage more open discussions, better guide less experienced team members, and provide fresh perspective to the seasoned one.

Ultimately, it will also contribute to creating a supportive environment that values each team member's contributions, which will very likely in turn foster a cohesive and high-performing team.


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