Take a look at your team. If your team is like most, then everyone has a specific role. That gives people the chance to develop expertise and produce results for themselves, the group and the organization as a whole.
And having assembled a team that works well, who could blame a leader for wanting to keep a good thing going?
But what if people can do more?
What if that conventional wisdom turns out to be counterproductive? What if some members of the team could do more? And what if someone could add even more value by shifting their role?
In a world where we’re all under pressure, even a well-meaning leader could miss opportunities to improve their team and move from good to great.
That’s what my daughter discovered with the softball team she was coaching. Having finally identified a lineup that made sense, she found herself saying “no” when a player asked to try a different position. It seemed silly to tinker with something that was working.
It took a mini crisis to challenge the status quo when one of the team’s two pitchers got injured. The sole remaining pitcher was feeling the pressure. What if she couldn’t make a game? What if she was having a bad day? It was stressing her out and she expressed this to her coach.
When radical is a good thing
At the next team practice, my daughter did something radical. She said, “we’re all going to learn the basic mechanics of pitching.” She made it a fun, no-pressure situation and the result was powerful.
It brought out new insights and hidden skills from her team. One player revealed, “I used to pitch in the Under 12’s team, but I haven’t done it in years”. Another said, “I’ve always wanted to try pitching, but never had the chance.”
While not everyone was going to end up pitching during a game, this exercise became a turning point in the team. In the course of an afternoon, my daughter discovered hidden talent in the team, addressed the pitcher’s fears, promoted greater empathy among the players, and brought them closer as a team.
They also experienced a morale boost, knowing their coach supported them and had confidence in them. And they appreciated the opportunity to develop and demonstrate new sides to their capabilities.
By investing in team members, the coach made the team more versatile, which offered her more flexibility in making substitutions.
When you choose to invest in your team, that can happen for you too.
What a great leader does
In a world of rapid change, taking specialization to the extreme can stunt the growth of your team members and lead your team to underperform longer term. It can also lead to higher turnover when your high achievers get bored from doing the same thing year in year out.
To be a great leader means helping the team and its members to rise, shine and develop their potential, even when it feels unnecessary or inconvenient to change things up.
This doesn’t mean having an inefficient division of labor, but it does mean providing opportunities to experience new roles and gain insights into each individual’s capabilities.
Investing in your people enables your team to become more versatile. It also gives them a big boost as they feel capable, included and valued.
Three things you can do right now
Here are three things you can do to help create an environment where everyone can fulfill their potential.
Check your assumptions
As a leader, step back and ask yourself, “What assumptions am I making about my team members and their capabilities?”
If these are untested, then they are only hypotheses. And if you’ve based your whole people strategy on untested hypotheses, you run the risk of leaving a lot of talent on the table… and the risk of your talent leaving the table altogether.
As a team member, ask yourself “what assumptions am I making about what is and isn’t possible for me to try?”
Help people develop
As a leader, ask yourself, “how could I help my people develop and skill up?” Then, get creative about what you could do. Maybe it’s having them shadow someone in a different group for an afternoon. Or swap team members with your client for a month so both sides can gain insight.
Or give each person a budget to spend on professional development – they can choose an online course, in-person conference to attend, or some other opportunity based on agreed parameters.
If you work in a bureaucracy, find something in your sphere of control so there’s no excuse not to make it happen.
As a team member, think about how you could make it easy for your manager to support your development. Have you shared with him or her your interests? Could you get creative about proposing a program that would be a win-win, and then ask for funding? And of course, make sure you’re carving out time to invest in your own development.
As a team leader, you could prompt the discussion by asking your team members what they would like to learn about or experience. And if you’re concerned about leaving it too open-ended, then provide some choices that you’re prepared to back.
As a team member, ask yourself, “what would I like to learn about or experience?” Maybe it’s something you’ve seen others do and think you might enjoy, like developing new products or working with clients. It could be presenting at the next meeting. Or perhaps it’s thinking ahead to the next step in your career and the kinds of stretch assignments you will need in order to be considered for that promotion.
Build a stronger team
In a world of increasing specialization, it’s crucial to build role versatility in your team. That way, people can advise and support one another. And it'll make work more interesting.
This, in turn, will make your team stronger, more effective, empathetic and energized.
What about you?
What will you do to help your team develop and skill up?
Leave a comment and let me know.