Tag Archives: leadership skills

How to be S.M.A.R.T. and Lead Your Team

I wrote a letter once to a personal hero of mine named Homer Hickam. He went from a financially challenged coal mining town in West Virginia to be one of the foremost NASA rocket engineers of his time. If you’ve seen the movie October Sky or read his book Rocket Boys, you know his story and you know what he had to do to get where he wanted to go. In the letter he wrote back to me, he had this to say about pushing yourself to succeed:

“The Rocket Boys succeeded with their rockets and with their lives because the followed what I call the three P’s for a happy and successful life: Passion, Planning, and Perseverance.”

-Homer Hickam

The tenets I will explain here are tried, tested, and true methods for achieving the three P’s you may be after in your life, and it all starts with setting objectives that lead you to your goals. Think for a moment about something you have always wanted to do. That item you just thought of is your goal. Goals describe the purpose or result toward which some effort is directed. Goals usually do a good job of describing the desired results but provide few specific tactics.

Now think about what you must do to get there. Some goals are easy, low-hanging fruit that can be obtained instantly or over a short term. Others will take years of preparation and planning to realize and are reached through specific steps. These specific steps are your objectives. Objectives are often more detailed and easier to measure than goals. Objectives are the basic tools that underlie all the planning and strategic activities you have to undertake. They define tactics and action plans that get you to your goals.

Be S.M.A.R.T. About It

All that sounds much more complicated than it really is, especially if you know how to map those objectives. If you don’t map a map, that’s what will make all your goals hard to reach. Many know where they want to be at the end, but few can plot the course to get there. To be sure that your goals and objectives are clear, try putting them up against the S.M.A.R.T. test:

S—Specific: What are you trying to accomplish, and is your objective precise in targeting your goal?

M—Measurable: What metric will you use to measure your progress or success?

A—Attainable: Is this goal something you can actually do, or is it an unachievable carrot on a stick?

R— Relevant: What is this goal or objective mean to you? What is it going to do for your success in your bigger picture?

T—Timely: Can it be achieved within your resources and within the time you’ve allowed yourself to reach this goal?

The S.M.A.R.T. test was developed by George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham in their 1981 article “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives”, and while trying to fit a goal to every letter of the acronym, the authors left you some wiggle room in their formula. When applying this method, remember that not every goal worth achieving is measurable, and each objective does not require the agreement of others. However, sticking close to this method will increase your chances of success in reaching your goals, or perhaps expose the reasons why you should alter a goal that could be unmeasurable or unattainable. In a team setting, this method is powerful and can save your department valuable time and money.

Stages of Team Development

Let’s apply the above method to a workplace team setting. You have now set objectives and goals for your team using the S.M.A.R.T. method. What happens next? Another tenet Mr. Hickam touched on in his letter to me is the teamwork, and sometimes the lack thereof, among The Rocket Boys while trying to build and launch their test rockets. In October Sky, they go through different phases of team cohesiveness much like a group of co-workers can find themselves in when things aren’t going well, or when the team is firing on all cylinders.

Educational psychologist Bruce W. Tuckman suggested that all teams go through four distinctive stages in their development. They were originally referred to as Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing, and this simple model has been in use since he unveiled it in 1965. The model offers important insight for organizing, building, and leading a team that can help you recognize which phase your team is in and ways to move forward. Let’s take a look at each phase and see if you can spot where your team is in right now.

Forming (High Enthusiasm, Low Skills)

When in the Forming stage, team members exhibit high enthusiasm and motivation for doing something new, though their skills and productivity concerning this new activity are low. Team members will come with high, unrealistic expectations accompanied by some anxiety about what their new role is, how much they can trust others on the team, and what demands will be placed on them. Team members are also unclear about norms, roles, goals, or timelines of others while everyone finds their place. Behavior is usually tentative and polite, with many not wanting to step on toes just yet. In this stage, there is high dependence on the leadership figure for purpose and direction. If the leader neglects their duty to the team, secondary leaders will assume the reins and confusion quickly follows concerning who is in charge. An effective leader of a team that is forming will do lots of careful explaining to help the team understand exactly what the leader expects them to do.

Storming (Low Enthusiasm, Low Skills)

As the team gets some experience under its belt, there is a decline in morale as team members experience a rude awakening between their initial Forming-Stage expectations and reality. The difficulties in working together to accomplish objectives can lead to confusion and frustration. In some cases, there can also be a growing dissatisfaction with dependence upon the leadership figure. Negative reactions to each other develop, and subgroups can form which polarize the team. Even the leader can fall victim to this bump in the road. The breakdown of communication and the inability to problem-solve result in overall lowered trust. At times, the frustration builds to where team members might choose to leave rather than commit to resolving the conflict, adding more stress to an already overtaxed team.

A team that is in the Storming stage will have less enthusiasm and motivation for doing something new or working together. Conflict in the phase can be rampant while skills and productivity are still low. Leaders in the Storming stage can weather the storm by continuing to make objectives and expectations clear by demonstrating to the team how they can succeed and know when and when not to get involved. A key to managing this phase is remembering to publicly recognize your successes. The world is full of insecure people who have been told their whole lives they were never good enough, and I’m willing to bet you have more than one of them on your team right now. This is your chance to start them on a new path toward self-confidence and the willingness to grow by taking a chance and buying in to your system of leadership. Improvement is always necessary, but if you act as if you think their efforts are half empty, that’s how they’ll feel and that’s how they’ll perform. Focus on what’s right versus what you perceive to be wrong.

Norming (Rising Enthusiasm, Growing Skills)

Teams in this stage will likely exhibit higher enthusiasm and motivation to achieve their goals. As the issues encountered in the Storming Phase are addressed and resolved, there is a noticeable uptick in morale and task accomplishment. The team starts thinking in terms of “we” rather than “I” and mountains become mole hills. Team members are more positive toward each other and the goal. Trust and cohesion grow as communication becomes more open and task oriented. To-do checklists grow smaller. There is a willingness to share responsibility and control. This phase can be the most rewarding for leaders and teams due to increased commitment to purpose, roles, and goals. However, beware the pitfalls.

Even the best of teams can find themselves in trouble during this phase because the euphoric feelings of trust and cohesion are still fragile. Team members sometimes avoid conflict for fear of upsetting the positive atmosphere, and that reluctance deal with conflict can bog down progress and cause fewer effective decisions. Leaders of teams in the Norming stage can gain success by offering team members copious amounts of freedom to act on their own but standing ready with guidance and coaching when the team needs it.

Performing (High Enthusiasm, High Skills)

This is the phase all teams strive for. In the Performing stage, teams have higher enthusiasm and motivation to reach their goals, and their skills are up to the task. All cylinders are firing, and life is good!

At this stage there is a sense of pride and excitement in being part of a high-functioning team. All members focus on performance and readily assist others. Purpose, roles, and goals are clear. Standards are high, and there is a commitment to not only meeting those standards, but to exceeding them. Team members are confident in their ability to perform and overcome obstacles. They are proud of their work and enjoy working together. Communication is open and leadership is shared among the team. Mutual respect and trust are not the exception, they are the rule.

The pitfall of a high performing team is complacency. A Performing stage leader continues to enable team members to take ownership and to keep moving toward their goals, both for the team and for them personally. Leaders in this stage also must be mindful to identify and develop new leadership potential. Every leader should be looking to train their replacement, and high performing teams is where you will find them. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: EVERY LEADER SHOULD BE LOOKING TO TRAIN THEIR REPLACEMENT!

Good leaders can anticipate what a team is likely to go through and navigate their team to a better position to reach the goal on their own. Recognition of the stage your team is in is a critical skill. Once you learn to identify the signs, you can draw your map to move to your next objective and migrate toward the ultimate Performing stage. Spotting the signs can prevent team members from being staggered or depressed by the negative elements during the Storming stage. Strategies can be developed to smooth the progress of an evolving team by establishing ground rules for the Norming stage. Leaders of Performing teams can positively influence others by example and sharing their methods for success.

An interesting aspect of this concept is that teams may progress through different stages at different speeds and can find themselves in more than one stage at a time. Be careful not to set time limits for your team to break through a stage. Teams should avoid making self-fulfilling prophecies about how long each stage will last, because they will almost always be wrong.

It is also possible to regress to an earlier stage as changes within the team occur, a process that can be affected by the individuality of team members and their personal progress. Not everyone on the team will always be on the same page. One of the biggest reasons for regression is a change in mission or leadership vision. When that occurs, the usual fallback is the Forming stage, as the anxiety of learning and meeting expectations starts over again until everyone learns their role.

A team responds best to leadership tailored to the stage the team is experiencing now, and good leaders should develop more than one leadership style to navigate it. When unveiling a new set of objectives or taking on a new team, the leader must assess the level of enthusiasm and skill exhibited with respect to the set goals, then match their style of leadership to the people and the situation.

There are two final items Mr. Hickam shared with me in his letter that I would like to share with you, and these can apply to any professional or personal situation in your life. For the first one, he said, “Nothing will happen if no one takes the initiative to make it so. To be passive and wait for something good to happen in your life is probably to experience vast disappointment.” Take a look at your list of goals. Are you actively pursuing them or are you waiting for them to happen to you? The second thing he said was, “It is my belief that there are no boundaries to excellence and success except for those we place on ourselves.” Take a look at your list of goals again. Read them out loud and ask yourself what is holding you back from checking each of them off? Now apply those same quotes and questions to your team. What is holding your team back from accomplishing their objectives and reaching their goals? You’ll likely find the only thing holding you back both personally and professionally is the boundaries you’ve placed on yourself.

Communication Barriers and How to Overcome Them

January 2022 This is my first article in a series I’m calling Be a Better Leader. Each month in 2022, I will share with you some useful tips and tricks on leadership that I’ve learned through the years.

There is no shortage of resources on leadership in the world. Books, magazines, Ted Talks, blogs, vlogs, websites, flyers, Prezis, Power Points and the list goes on. So, what makes this article any different than all those others?


Other than occasional witty banter, nothing you are about to read is something that hasn’t been said a thousand times before in a thousand other places. But do you know what will make this particular article different? You. You’re here reading it because you want to learn something. What makes this article different is what you will do with this information after you read it. No difference will be made by these words. The difference will be made by your implementation of these practices to make you a better communicator and leader.

The Blueprint of Communication

Aristotle is remembered by history as a pretty smart guy, and he summed up the blueprint of communication over two-thousand years ago. His summation applies almost the same today as it did in his time. Are you ready? This is a hard concept. You’re going to want to write this down. According to Aristotle, communication has three components: the sender, the receiver, and the message. Now that’s an earth-shattering revelation, right?

Aristotle and his blueprint of communication
Aristotle and his blueprint of communication: Sender, Receiver, and Message.

There is no fluff in his analysis, but here’s where the modern era pokes holes in his simplicity. He’s right about the physical parts of a message—if I write instructions on a card and hand it to you, we’ve technically met Aristotle’s definition. The card says, “Go do X-Y-Z.” I’m the sender, you’re the receiver, and the card is the message. Now, is that all you need to go do X, Y and Z? Maybe, but maybe not. We don’t live in Aristotle’s world anymore, and what may have worked back then has become an extremely nuanced skill that few possess in the modern era. One key unlocks this skill. To be a good communicator, you have to learn to listen.

Good communication begins with intentional active listening by both the receiver and the sender. When your staff is speaking to you, don’t get in their way. Don’t let your thoughts, opinions or agendas interrupt active listening. Hear them. Whether working with one person or a thousand, a good communicator will listen to their receivers by paying attention to both the spoken and unspoken signals that indicate whether the message is getting through. Communication then becomes a two-way process, not just instructions on a card. Both the sender and the receiver have responsibilities to make the message happen, and never overlook constructive feedback from the receiver to help guide you as the sender.

Aristotle leaves out the details, particularly three critical caveats that are needed for good communication. Those are intent of the sender, clarity of the message, and perception of the receiver. If you want people to trust you and value your presence, you’d better trust them and value their presence. When a sender is not actively listening to their receiver, that’s when communication barriers pop up.

Common Barriers of Communication

I am inundated with weekly calls from someone out there who is worried to death about my car’s extended warranty. You probably receive these calls, too. Do you hang up instantly once you hear that pre-recorded voice, or are you an empath that politely waits to tell the person that finally picks up no thank you? If you wait for the spiel to finish and let them down easy, you’re a better person than me because I either prank them or hang up pretty quickly.

"We've been trying to reach you concerning your car's extended warranty..."
“We’ve been trying to reach you concerning your car’s extended warranty…”

Why do we hang up?

It’s because the caller on the other end has not and does not make any attempt to break through the barriers to effective communication and deliver their message. Here are some of those barriers they commonly ignore, and tips on how to work around them.

Lack of Common Ground

The person calling knows nothing about me except that I probably have a credit card and I obviously have a phone since I answered it.

How to overcome it: The more you know about a person, the greater is the common experience that you share, and the easier communication becomes. Before you can lead others towards a goal, you must first seek to understand how they see themselves in the world you are trying to create. Getting to know your staff and letting them get to know you allows for an opportunity to meet on a common ground. Make efforts to learn the entire employee professionally, not just the part that gets the work done. When staff feels cared for, camaraderie, teamwork, and commitment are the result. Your communications will be much stronger when bound by mutual respect rather than authoritative fear. Leaders must be careful here to understand where the boundary lies between getting to know your employees and becoming buddies with them. Beware of the pitfalls!

Pro Tip

Pro tip: People tend to express who they are as well as their likes by what they display in their work areas. Pay attention to what they display and recognize common inroads.

Lack of Sincerity

The caller is only interested in making a sale. They are not concerned with any long-term satisfaction with a product or service, or that I even need their service.

Fitting a puzzle piece that says "trust" into a wooden puzzle.
Without trust, there can be no sincerity.

How to overcome it: It is difficult to lead without earning trust, and without trust, nothing you ever say will be sincere. A lot of ingredients go into building trust, but it starts with being present. Being present isn’t a skill. It’s a commitment and it takes sincerity. Make other people a priority, set aside distractions, listen to understand their point of view and, most of all, demonstrate that you care. The sender must care about the message and care about the receiver of that message. Otherwise, there is no point in passing it along.

Pro tip: Your staff may not need you all the time. But when they do need you, they need all of you. Be present and learn to recognize when you need to step in and when you need to step back.

Lack of Authority

The caller is hired simply to make the calls and read a script. They know nothing about what I drive or it’s current condition. There is a good chance the caller is unqualified to answer questions of substance about the product or anything about my car.

How to overcome it: Ideally, a leader should know what they are talking about. However, there will be times when the leader is not an expert in a subject or simply doesn’t know the answer. What becomes important then is the willingness to learn along with the staff and be coachable. If I tell you, “I know nothing about astronomy, but I’m leading a star party this Friday night and I need you to be there.” I essentially just told you this is my program, I don’t know what I’m doing, and you’re going to be there to help make me look good or we’re going to look bad together. You’re probably thinking, ‘this is going to be a disaster’. But if I say, “I can’t tell the difference between the Big Dipper and the moon, but I’d like to have this event and I need your help. Let’s research how to host a star party, find an expert to help, and put on a good show.” While the leader’s technical skill in this area may not be high, their ability as a good communicator maintains their authority while engaging you in a potentially interesting and worthwhile learning experience.

Pro tip: Don’t be a know-it-all and know when to seek help. If you don’t know an answer, don’t make one up. Find out. Nothing erodes authority and trust faster than a leader who is consistently wrong.

Lack of Clarity

The caller may exaggerate, blur the truth, or fail to mention weaknesses of a product to land the sale. They have made no attempt to earn our trust or prove they are being honest about the benefits of their product.

Glasses focusing on a blurred landscape
How clear are your instructions?

How to overcome it: Your words create your world. Trying to hide part of a message or twist the truth leads to fuzziness and confusion on the receiving end. Leaders who are good communicators can reshape the perceived reality of any situation by choosing the right words, so reduce the fluff, get to the point and be clear with your intent. It’s vitally important to think through your thoughts before putting them into words because the next thing out of your mouth could have a lasting effect on the relationship with your staff, be it good or bad. Leaping before we look gets us into trouble all the time.  Think it through and listen first before speaking. Leaders who care about their messages and care about their receivers and communicate with clarity.

Pro tip: When communicating electronically, use every tool at your disposal to ensure your spelling and grammar are correct. Message clarity is easily lost when the receiver has to wade through a mire of mistakes. If grammar isn’t your strong suit, don’t feel embarrassed to recruit a proofreader.

Poor Presentation Skills

Callers may badger people or argue with them, be bored because this is their hundredth call of the day, distracted, unprepared to answer the simplest of questions, or barely there at all. The listener tunes them out with ease.

People sleeping in a meeting
Are your presentations putting your audience to sleep?

How to overcome it: There is no magic formula for this one. Presentation skill is simply practice, practice, and more practice. Even if you’re terrified of public speaking, accept any and all offers to address groups. Recruit your family to be a practice audience. Present your topic to your pets (sounds silly, I know, but it works), or use a mirror and speak to yourself. Also, anticipate the weak points of your discussion and develop responses to potential tough questions. Master the art of research and becoming an instant expert when needed. If you sound like you know what you’re talking about, you’re halfway to a good presentation.

Pro tip: If you have a script, presentation, or speech to give, read it out loud to yourself. Your ears will pick up problems with clarity and errors in grammar more than your eyes.

Lack of Receptiveness

The caller is not receptive to any of your needs outside of making the sale and getting your credit card number. Any discussion that isn’t leading toward a sale for the caller is wasted time.

How to overcome it: Much like in real estate, where you’ll hear location repeated three times as the most important tenet, communication has a mantra, too: timing, timing, and timing. If you’ve gotten to know your staff, you know when they are the most productive and when they struggle. You’ve learned most of their strengths and weaknesses. Using these clues, you also can surmise the best time to tell them important information and dole out important tasks. Time is especially valuable in the workplace, so work with the times you know your staff to be the most receptive.

Pro tip: Learn to be succinct. Articulate your points in the most uncomplicated manner possible for best results.

Call Environment

Callers disrupt our personal or family time, often calling during the dinner hour. This intrusion into the home environment generally makes people less receptive to their message than if they were to receive that same message in an e-mail or mailed flyer, for example.

Woman yelling at her phone
“I think I caught you at a bad time…”

How to overcome it: As stated above, timing is everything. If you drop a massive change bomb on your staff at the end of a workday or right before a weekend, chances are you just ruined their off time, and there’s a greater chance the important details will be lost in the noise of life outside of work. Unless it’s dire to pass the message along, it’s likely better to wait until you have the receiver’s full attention. A good communicator recognizes opportunities to get the most bang for their buck to get a message across with the least amount of disruption. Sometimes you have information that just can’t wait, and everyone needs to be brought in quickly. Be aware of possible diminishing returns in message reception if your timing is off.

Pro tip: Choose the right delivery method for the type of message you’re sending. Face-to-face meetings are expensive in both time and dollars, and not always necessary when a call or e-mail would suffice. Be efficient and considerate of your audience with your communication methods.

The Take-Away

Even with all these barriers to good communication, companies still invest millions of dollars into this business model of cold-call selling for an extended warranty you may or may not need. That tells you that even with these barriers, this method still works. Now, step back and think how successful these calls could be if they made any effort to overcome these communication barriers. They may convince you to buy an extended warranty after all!

Think about how successful you could be if you found ways to get over communications barriers with your staff. Here’s a challenge for you: Next time one of your staff makes a mistake, before you deliver your reprimand I want you to really scrub how you communicated your expectations to them. Were your instructions clear? Did you send a mixed message? Did you give partial information? Did you expect them to just “know” what you wanted?

Sometimes the mistake they made is actually yours from poor communication. If it was your fault, own it, then let the employee know you own it and help them fix it. You’ll see an instant improvement.

In February, I’ll share with you one of my favorite leadership topics: Coaching and Mentoring! Until then…