How to lead high-performing teams and create moments of magic

Steve Marshall, Head of Delivery at Fast Track, shares his approach to leadership. Steve believes that in order to get the best end product, every member of the team must feel empowered to fulfill their potential.

Servant Leadership

I have developed my personal approach to leadership over the last 25 years. In this time, I have led groups of 5 to 75 multi-disciplinary individuals in organisations varying from bureaucratic white collar global enterprises to innovative SaaS providers.

"Servant leadership" is an idea that has come to really resonate with me. It is a philosophy of leadership that suggests in order to get the most out of your team, you need to serve them. This means that your focus is on unblocking and guiding your team to fulfilling their potential, rather than dictating how they should work.

I cannot say that I have always applied a robust and polished version of "servant leadership", or that I was even aware of it being a “method” of management. However, I promised myself I would never follow the same inadequate, seemingly archaic management methodologies I have watched fail time and again.

My own take on "servant leadership" can be applied not only to tech companies but to any creative or innovative organisation, large or small.

Put down the club

I have always sought confirmation through collaboration rather than authoritarianism. If you want to gain respect through dictatorship, you need to be unwaveringly knowledgeable on the topic in question (or have a large army). I do not believe in enforcing my own views on others who may have as much, or perhaps more, knowledge on a subject: there may be a better solution I have not considered, or even be aware of.

Strutting around the office wearing a loincloth and wielding a large, pain-inducing club (metaphorically, of course) while grunting demands at your staff may garner results in the short-term, but this behaviour is ultimately unsustainable. You will eventually lose your high performers if you don’t allow them to perform.

Mutually trusting, empowered and well-facilitated teams, with clearly communicated visions or objectives, frequently get far greater results than those run under draconian regimes. The added benefit is that these results are delivered repeatedly, and sometimes in the most challenging of circumstances, without the need to "tighten the screws".

Treat your team like adults

A culture where individuals are free to experiment and challenge themselves, while being guided by aspirational but achievable goals, leads to more positive output. Occasionally, this formula produces what I call “Pixie Dust” moments. This is when your team feels a real sense of accomplishment and ownership and will willingly pour more time and energy into a project, producing results that go far beyond expectations. I have been delighted and excited by these moments more frequently at Fast Track than I have in any other organisation to date.

I am not suggesting that you need to give in to every whim of your team like a group of spoilt children, or that there won’t be those few individuals along the way who may try to take advantage of your perceived benevolence (they are usually easy to weed out). However, wherever possible you should support decisions and treat the team like the adults they are. Saying “no” without reason or explanation will not get you very far.

There will, of course, be times where you must make hard decisions without input from the team. In these moments, if you have earned their respect, your team will understand, trust and support your decision.

Trust the process

It takes quite a leap of faith, as well as a hard to find maturity and willingness, to drop some (not all) ego in management; relinquishing the reins of control and providing autonomy to teams. It is not easy to let go of the comfort of autocracy. This is one of the biggest challenges of implementing "servant leadership" successfully.

However, if you succeed, you will find that in times of trouble everyone will pull together and work towards a solution rather than leaving their autocratic leader flailing alone in the wind while they scrabble to update their LinkedIn profiles.

Another challenge is that not every team member may be a high performer (right now). I have taken over a number of teams where I have been informed that an individual is an “underperformer” and “ready for the axe”. More often than not, if you make a small investment of time to understand those individuals’ motivations and goals, things quickly turn around. When given an environment that allows them to climb, I have seen “underperformers” turn into shining stars in the organisation and become leaders themselves. Every individual should be given this opportunity before being written off.

Curate your toolbox

If "servant leadership" is an idea that resonates with you, there are supporting strategic frameworks, such as Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), that help with implementing this approach.

In my opinion, any accomplished scrum master should be well versed in "servant leadership". You can introduce it slowly, team by team and project by project, to gain the confidence of the leaders of your organisation, before closing your eyes and leaping from the cliff. If done even moderately well, your teams will be at the base ready to catch you.

In my experience the results are demonstrably clear. Healthy and happy teams deliver stronger and more sustainable results. A culture ripe with innovation and invention supports stronger long-term company development that is tangible and measurable in a myriad of KPIs.

Of course, there are other benefits too. Maintaining a healthy team reduces staff turnover and allows you to choose to reinvest those expensive recruiter rates into pay rises and bonuses, which in turn help ensure you keep the talent and knowledge you have painstakingly nurtured over time. A high NPS score as an organisation enables you to attract future top talent.

You have the freedom to start building a culture that facilitates the adoption of other complementary practices, such as lean and scrum, which are not just relevant to tech environments but at least any organisation with the need of a modicum of creativity. It also provides the opportunity to introduce more strategic methodologies, such as the aforementioned OKRs, which can readily foster a sense of inclusion throughout your organization and gets the most from your high performers.

What's the greatest device in the "Servant Leadership" toolbox?

It’s simply…

“Thank you”

Some extra tips from Steve:

1. This reference material from Perdoo on OKRs covers the core well and is an informative read to understand how Objectives and Key results can be embraced.

2. You’ve read how servant leadership is applied at Fast Track at least at a high level, for more information and further research I found that SHRM.ORG had some good material.

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