Who’s Got Your Back?

One of the most memorable managerial light bulb moments I have had was interviewing for a development leadership position. It was a robust interview schedule. One of the interviews was with a team of about six who reported up to the vacant role. By the questions they asked, it was apparent they had taken the time to think about what they were looking for in a leader and manager.

Midway into the interview, they asked me a simple but telling question, “What three things would your direct reports say they like most about your leadership style?” I gave my first two examples, which they seemed to affirm by nodding, and then I said, “My team members would say, I always have their backs.” The energy in the room immediately shifted, and they wanted to hear more. It was palatable. Some of the teammates were leaning forward, looking at each other, and smiling. They asked me for examples of what that looked like, and we started an enjoyable conversation.

That moment opened a door for me and provided me with insight into what I perceived they might be lacking. This team had the hunger for a leader they trusted, felt safe with, and had their backs. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Isn’t that what we all want? I have been lucky to have that modeled for me, but not everyone has.

Building trust with your team and creating psychological safety is of paramount importance for having a high-performing winning team or “dream team.” There are several factors that I have found instrumental in building trust with my teams over the years.

Honest communication: Information is power, and everyone wields it differently. Not all information can be shared, but I am always honest and open and let my team know when I can’t share information or answer a question directly.

Creating a safe space for dialog: Problem-solving and strategizing produce the best results in a team. However, that always requires having the safety of a judgment-free space for free thinking and dialogue.

Providing Feedback: As one of my team members says, “feedback is a gift.” Providing it promptly with examples and a clear shared understanding is essential. Feedback is important to celebrate what is going well and course-correct for different outcomes.

Supporting career growth: Talent hoarding is common in the ranks of management. When a manager has a star employee, they rarely want to let them go. However, boxing an employee in only leads to disengagement. Having bi-annual conversations about the next steps is vital for all employees. You can identify competencies that can be honed, so your team member is ready for their next role.

Doing my job: It is never lost on me that I serve in a particular position for my team members. My job is to share information, provide clarity, block, tackle, assist, intercept, convene, mediate, and negotiate as needed. I am also a co-pilot who is ready to take the wheel at any time and is a strategic advisor and partner. I work for my team; they are my customers.

So back to my interview. That experience was educational. It helped provide me with a greater understanding of team culture and insight into what employees need to bring their best selves to work. It also affirmed a core principle of my leadership style; my team is my tribe, and if I expect them to follow my lead and reach our collective goals, I better always have their backs in the same way that I would like them always to have mine.

So, I won’t keep you hanging, I was offered the job, but I did not accept it. What left me most uncomfortable about that decision was that I did not have the chance to have the back of that team.

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