How to stand out as a leader

Posted on August 29th, by Dr Rob Yeung .

Leadership is about doing the right things at the right times

Imagine you’re working with a half-dozen colleagues on a cross-departmental project. Perhaps the project will take eight weeks and you will all need to get together once a week. But no one has been assigned as the leader of the project. You and your colleagues are all peers – you come from different departments, but you all have the same level of experience and seniority. How can you make a strong impression and get recognised as the leader of the team?

This is more or less the question that researchers led by Fabiola Gerpott at WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management tried to answer. What helps a leader to get noticed – or to use the technical research term – “emerge”?

Understanding different categories of behaviour

Gerpott and her colleagues identified that people in project teams tend to engage in three types of effective behaviour:

  • Task-oriented behaviours – these are about solving problems and sharing knowledge about the tasks at hand. This may involve describing the problems and outlining possible solutions. It may also involve conducting analyses, sharing knowledge, or identifying other people who may have the skills or knowledge necessary to complete the task.
  • Change-oriented behaviours – these behaviours are about articulating a vision or overarching goals in order to build commitment for the project. So rather than being just about delving into solving the problem, these behaviours tend to be about getting people excited by the prospect of change and committed to taking action.
  • Relations-oriented behaviours – these behaviours are about involving and supporting other people on the team. This may include behaviours such as encouraging quieter members to contribute to the team or using praise or other positive language to show that people’s work is appreciated.

Appreciating the effectiveness of different behaviours

The researchers monitored and gathered data from 42 project teams who were all involved in an 8-week consulting project working for a large automobile manufacturer. When the researchers analysed their data, they found that the people who became leaders of their teams tended to display a high number of task-oriented behaviours. That makes sense. People in teams tend to appreciate it when a leader can focus on getting things done. So, task-oriented behaviours matter.

However, the other behaviours mattered at different times. In other words, it’s not just about what leaders did – but also when they did it.

In the very first team meeting, people were most likely to emerge as leaders when they demonstrated more change-oriented behaviours. They tried to define a broad vision for the team as well as an agenda for the team. They tended to ask “What do we want to achieve?” rather than “What should we do to get started?”

Towards the end of the project, leaders tended to engage in less change-oriented behaviour. As the weeks progressed, relations-oriented behaviour became more important. During the middle and later stages of the 8-week project, leaders tended to engage in more behaviours aimed at strengthening bonds within the team and creating a positive climate. For example, leaders increasingly provided support for other people’s suggestions; they also praised others or otherwise showed their appreciation for others’ efforts.

Understanding the implications

So, if you want to get spotted as a leader, think about what you do – and when you do it. At all stages of a project’s duration, make sure you are effective at completing real tasks. Task-oriented behaviour matters from the start right through to the end of a project.

At the start of the project though, do also spend time thinking about the big picture – your overall vision, the outcomes you’d like to achieve, the agenda for the project, and so on. But as the weeks go on, start to think more and more about how to build bonds within the team so that everyone enjoys working on the team and is making genuine contributions to it.

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