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Five Habits of Successful Team Leaders

Start raising the bar with yourself—your team will follow.

Much has been written about leadership principles—individuals, schools, executive consultants, even countries are disciples of one discipline or another. But is there a common thread found in such indispensable leaders? Is there a conceptual model to follow? Are there specific habits that can be duplicated?

At The Oechsli Institute, we’ve conducted multiple research projects on wealth management teams and leadership over the past 20 years—and the answer is an unequivocal ... Yes!

Granted, successful team leaders are as different as they are similar, yet our studies have identified five particular qualities of great leaders:

  1. Goal Driven;
  2. Excellent Communication Skills;
  3. Empower Others;
  4. A Caring Attitude; and
  5. Total Commitment.

Before thinking of these five team leadership qualities as a conceptual model that can be duplicated, it’s helpful to take a quick look at human nature. Which takes me to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Fredrick Herzberg’s hygiene factors.

Most people are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy; first, food and shelter; second, safety and security; third, belonging, friendship and love; fourth, self-esteem and ego; and fifth, self-fulfillment. Maslow’s theories are based on the idea that people naturally attempt to satisfy lower needs before moving to higher levels.

Understanding where you are in this hierarchy is useful to motivating yourself, then your team members, to higher levels of performance. The first step is to be aware of your needs, then those of your individual team members. The level at which they’re currently performing provides an understanding of their personal agendas, just as your performance mirrors yours. The key is targeting all motivational efforts at each individual’s personal agenda—and this level of precision requires a real commitment on the part of the team leader.

Herzberg, a social scientist from last century’s ’50s and ’60s is best known for challenging the common perceptions of motivation. He labeled a number of commonly regarded motivators—salary, working conditions and company policies, for example, as “hygiene factors,” meaning they were important for morale but had little relevance in motivating high-level performance. So accurate was Herzberg’s work that it remains one of the more commonly applied management principles today.

Now let’s look into developing these qualities into indispensable leadership habits.

1. Goal-Driven—Elite team leaders have ambitious goals, subgoals and corresponding fixed activities for almost everything. History has proven that the strongest leaders have the most clearly defined mission, that all motivation is self-motivation and that they are able to hold themselves accountable. Alas, you can’t motivate another person, be it your son, daughter or junior advisor. However, what you can do is create an environment that stimulates self-motivation. This is where everyone is committed to results-oriented, time-specific goals that support the team’s goals. This doesn’t mean that team members develop an entrepreneurial attitude, only that they buy in to setting professional goals that support the bigger team goals.

Goals are the prerequisite to achievement—and most people want to see themselves as an achiever.

2. Excellent Communication Skills—Everyone on the team, from the part-time intern to the senior partners, needs to be able to communicate the team’s long range vision and the ambitious goals and subgoals that will make all of this a reality. This high level of communication takes time and repetition, which in turn requires both energy and creativity. Metaphors and symbolic rewards have proved very effective in fostering the right atmosphere; “We’re the A team scaling Project $500 million.” Symbolic rewards should be used in partnership with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and two considerations are important: the current need level of an individual, and a reward that fosters motivation.

Despite the importance of metaphors and symbolic rewards, the most powerful medium is your spoken word, privately, to a team member. Your one-on-one communication, followed up with supportive action, can move mountains (How’s that for a metaphor?). The power of personal praise has proved, without a doubt, to be the best motivator. Recognition and praise push people closer to their potential than envelopes stuffed with money.

People will move heaven and earth if they believe in themselves, their dreams and their leader. Keep an open-door policy, establish activity targets and rewards, and challenge people by using the “hug ’em, smack ’em, hug ’em” method (praise, discipline, praise) of communication.

3. Empower Others—Have you ever noticed how certain people always make you feel good? They don’t shower you with false praise; rather they possess a special quality that’s transferred and lifts your spirits. Behavioral experts refer to this as positive energy transference. Many people mistake this for charisma, implying that either you have it or you don’t—this isn’t true.

Elite team leaders employ strategic delegation that transfers positive energy and empowers that individual to grow in a variety of ways; accepting more responsibility, acquiring a new skill, expanding their knowledge base, etc. All of which stimulates personal growth that is aligned to the team’s goals.

This involves requires continually strengthening team belief through weekly meetings that reinforce the team’s goals, connect individual goals and has both collective and individual accountability. Nobody wants to be seen by their peers as the weak link, while everyone loves to be respected as a contributor.

4. A Caring Attitude—An old saying sums up this leadership habit: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Profound in its simplicity, the applications are boundless. Children, spouses, vendors, clients, neighbors, team members—any personal relationship will thrive using the power of genuine caring.

Make a point to develop an emotional connection with everyone on your team, not just your favorites. Do something special on an individual basis, know what’s going on in their family and other aspects of their lives. This is where it’s important to remember that little things mean a lot.

5. Total Commitment—This is the habit that fuels all the others. This is what provides the focus to the team’s mission. Total commitment means listening to a team member when you’d rather be doing something else, carving out one-on-one time for someone who might need a boost, holding someone accountable for not meeting performance expectations or going over something for the fifth time with a team member who’s challenged by their expanded responsibilities. And all of this, even career counseling, must be done with a caring attitude.

These team leadership habits are nondiscriminating. Although experts claim that it takes only three weeks to develop a habit, a sensible action plan is to dedicate three months, one full quarter, to develop these qualities into personal habits. Start raising the bar with yourself—your team will follow.

Matt Oechsli is author of How to Build a 21st Century Financial Practice: Attracting, Servicing, and Retaining Affluent

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