First Things First - 4 Action Items

Action items that should be at the top of any new leader's To-Do list.

Ask anyone who's been there: your first few weeks as a team leader can feel absolutely exhilarating -- and utterly baffling. But don't despair. We asked in-the-trenches leaders and experts on teamwork to identify the action items that should be at the top of any new leader's To-Do list. Here's what they said.

First Issue to Address: Team Expectations

Setting the proper expectations is a prerequisite for leading. So your first meeting should explore two simple questions. What should people expect from you? What do you expect from them?

Teamwork guru Kimball Fisher, who learned his first leadership lessons in the early 1980s as head of Procter & Gamble's Downy Fabric Softener team, explored those questions with his team. "It was an opportunity to strike a contract about what we could and couldn't do," he recalls. "I look back at that list to this day."

Resource: "Acceleration -- New Leader Transition," a workbook developed by the U.S. military, marches leaders and their teams through a one-day process of clarifying expectations. Sample topics to discuss: how frequently you should meet with team members; how to do performance evaluations; what team members should do if they think you're making mistakes. Available from Aviat Inc. of Ann Arbor, Michigan ($8.95; 800-421-5323).

First Issue to Skip: Status Reviews

Status reviews are an efficient way for new leaders to get up to speed. They're also counterproductive, insists Boeing's Bruce Moravec, at least until the team has learned to work with its leader.

"You're supposed to be helping them, not the other way around," Moravec says. "It's better to start with team building. With the 757 team, I set up a series of voluntary lunches where we went over Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." We learned a lot about each other."

Resource : The TeamCenter Web site (http://www.teamcenter.com offers) downloadable articles and tools on effective team building. The site, created by First Step Training & Consulting in Port Orchard, Washington, includes material on how to ask good questions during meetings, sources of stress for teams, and case studies on teams that work.

First Document to Create: A Team Charter

You won't lead your team very far unless everyone knows where you're going. That's why establishing a clear mission is critical. For

Kerry Shampine, who led one of the first formal teams at Northwest Natural Gas, writing a charter was a way to put everyone at ease with a new way of working together. "We also mailed the charter to key people in the company," he explains, "so they knew what we were up to."

Resource : The "Team Success Kit" offers a blueprint for creating a charter based on four elements: purpose, priorities, people, and parameters. Among the simple -- but powerful -- questions the kit asks: Why does our team exist? Are there any activities we are doing that are no longer important? To whom is the team accountable and for what? Available from Learning Point Inc., Vancouver, Washington ($75; 360-992-0830).

First Ally to Recruit: A Mentor

Effective leaders manage up as well as down. But they learn horizontally, by gathering advice from peers about the professional and emotional challenges of running a team.

Mentors come in many varieties and from many different sources. Boeing's Moravec had hundreds of potential mentors to choose from inside his team-obsessed company. But Kerry Shampine, the team pioneer at Northwest Natural Gas, had to search outside his company.

Resource: TeamNet (http://www.workteams.unt.edu/teamnet/teamnet.htm) , organized by the University of North Texas's Center for the Study of Work Teams, is an electronic community with more than 600 potential mentors who can serve as a sounding board for ideas or questions. Recently, a request for advice on creating team schedules generated eight dense pages of suggestions, all with phone numbers or email addresses for further advice.

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