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How to Build a Top-Performing Team (Even in a Pandemic)

An interview with Nils Vinje, Founder & CEO of Glide Consulting and Author of 30 Day Leadership Playbook
Ben Winn
December 16, 2020

Nils Vinje is a Top 25 Influencer in Customer Success, a bestselling author, he’s done everything in Customer Success from being a CSM to being a Manager, Vice President, and for the last 6 years he’s been consulting some of the best in SaaS to help them build world-class Customer Success teams. 

Recently, I spoke with Nils about his new book and about leadership best practices in general. In the article and the video below, we discuss:

  • The four pillars of leadership and the impact of Covid-19
  • The biggest challenge for first-time managers
  • Strengths-based leadership
  • How leaders should approach their team’s mental health and wellness
  • The challenges facing most managers today

The Four Pillars of Leadership and the Impact of Covid-19

Nils uses the following four pillars to categorize the elements of leadership:

  • Leading yourself
  • Leading others
  • Leading with communication
  • Leading with metrics

These principles of good leadership evolve over time at a very slow pace, but the application of them rapidly changes. Covid-19 is an excellent example of a rapid change that challenged leaders everywhere to adapt their practices while remaining true to their core principles.

For example, before the pandemic, building rapport with team members, or giving them feedback was relatively simple to do, but building rapport and giving feedback through a screen is much more difficult. 

Companies and leaders who had already been working remotely for a long time had a major leg up on everyone else because they’d already figured out solutions to these sorts of challenges, and they’d already built systems to accommodate for the needs of a distributed team.

One of the biggest challenges many teams are still facing is around communication. In an in-person environment, leaders can talk to their team members face-to-face, look at expressions, body language and other cues that show them whether or not that team member is engaged and understood what was told to or asked of them. 

This type of non-verbal communication is not possible in a remote environment. In its absence, leaders should have team members confirm in writing that they have understood what has been communicated to them, especially around deliverables. Whether it’s in Slack, Notion, Google Sheets, Asana, or some other tool, over-communication is now what is required in order for teams to continue functioning smoothly. A simple way to do this is to require something like a checkmark reaction emoji in Slack to confirm the direction has been received. 

Nils is hopeful that these practices will make teams stronger even when they are no longer remote: “Covid-19 is an opportunity to take the level of tribal knowledge down so that new team members are not fighting for months to learn how a company or team functions.”

The Biggest Challenge for First-Time Managers

Moving from an IC (individual contributor) to a team leader is one of the biggest transitions anyone will do in their professional life. It is a fundamental shift in mindset and behavior whereupon the individual is moving from managing themselves, whom they have full control over, to managing other people, whom they have relatively little control over. Yet despite having less control, they are still responsible for them and their output.

This transition requires the new manager to put themselves to the side and dedicate their energy and attention to helping others do their jobs well. It is the most common pain point because the realization that “it’s not about me, it’s about my team,” is a difficult concept to truly understand and put into practice, especially because so many managers were promoted to that role precisely because they were so good at execution themselves. 

Nils advises managers to always return to this one simple principle when managing their teams:

“Do everything possible to make my team successful.”

He says “it’s not about imposing your way, even if you were the best IC in the world. Everyone has different skills and different lenses through which they see the world, so you should be much more focused on facilitating getting your team to the same level you were at, but in their own way.”

Strengths-Based Leadership

For individual contributors who are unsure about whether or not they should even be aiming for a managerial role in the first place, the best place to start is with a StrengthsFinder assessment. The previous section of this article highlighted only one of the key differences between being an IC and being a manager, but there are many more, and the two roles require entirely different skill sets. Nils advises:

“When you’re in a role that matches your strengths, you get the most amount of output with the least amount of input… and that’s where the fun happens.”

Regardless of their role, when team members are engaged at the highest level, they are delivering at the highest level, which means the company is getting the maximum amount of value from its employees, and for companies who can achieve that flow—the sky's the limit. 

Everyone is wired to see the world and do things in a certain way, and when people elect to or are forced to take on things that don’t fit well into their strengths, friction inevitably arises. This is why companies and managers should be striving to create environments where everyone is doing work that aligns with their strengths. 

One of the key approaches that is demonstrated by great leaders is that they don’t think about things in terms of capacity. They don’t ask “who on my team has time for this task?” Instead, they ask “who on my team has the best strengths to align with the work that needs to be done?” One person might have capacity but the wrong strengths, so while a project might take them 10 hours, it might take another team member 2 hours. When leaders can optimize and align their team and the work that needs to be done, that is a true strengths-based leadership approach.

Managing your team’s mental health and wellness

Whether remote or in-person, the same level of connection still needs to be there between team members. It goes back to the principle that a leader needs to do everything possible to make their team successful. Mental health and wellness is one of the most important factors in success, both for the individual and for the team.

It might seem more difficult to broach the topic of mental health and wellness virtually, but as long as the questions come from a place of genuine curiosity and genuine care, people will respond. Leaders need to do the work to understand the big picture of what is going on in the lives of their team members, and they need to do so in both individual and group settings. If they don’t, it will be assumed that they don’t care, and that will lead to a disengaged team. 

Challenges Facing Most Managers Today

There are three major challenges shared by most managers today. They are:

  • Having enough time
  • Inspiring their team
  • Getting promoted

Leaders are responsible for their teams as well as themselves, which means they have incredibly packed schedules and often find themselves with not enough time in the day. When it comes to saving time, if a leader is stuck in back-to-back-to-back meetings, there is a better way and while it might take a bit of time to understand and implement those better strategies, it will be beyond worth it in the long-term. 

In order to maximize their team’s output, leaders also need to inspire. During the pandemic, it’s even more difficult to do this, but it’s more necessary than ever. Every manager wants a team that doesn’t need them to be looking over their shoulder, and in a remote-world, that option isn’t even really on the table. To have a team that is motivated, hitting or surpassing targets, and working well remotely and asynchronously, team members need to be inspired and excited.

In addition to thinking about their team’s output, and managing their own packed schedules, leaders also need to be the CEO of their own career and be thinking about their next move. They need to know how they’re currently performing, what skills they should be working on developing, what networks they should be building, and what the next step in their career is going to look like. 

Leaders might have flashy titles, but it’s a considerable amount of work, and all the normal challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Nobody is doing everything perfectly, and everyone, ICs and managers alike, are works in progress. To learn more specific leadership strategies, make sure to get your copy of Nils’ book here.

Better relationships. Less churn.

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