Being the Team Player Among Leaders

Everyone at Harvard is pretty much trained to be a leader. They arrive having been the president of the debate club, CEO of a small company and captain of the fencing team.

One of the major transitions is learning how to work as a team amongst a group of type A people. It’s easy to lead when people are used to following, less so when other people are used to leading.

There are a few strategies you can take to help lead a team of leaders without appearing to be THAT obnoxiously bossy person.

1) Not pissing people off is an important life skill

Some people seem to waltz through life acting like [insert body part here], stampling on others and gathering flowers of bad emotions.

However, unless you’re a super genius and thus deserve? some of that swagger and arrogance, chances are you need to learn how to make nice with others. You’ll probably hear this over and over, but the people here (especially classmates) are what make the experience worth it.

You’ll learn the most from them. And in some ways, these are the people who will be leading our grown up world — the peace keepers, the editors, movie producers, presidents, CEO’s. While you shouldn’t go to Harvard wanting to schmooze like a skeeveball, you should realize that these are the people who can potentially help you out and connect you with other people.

2) Realize that everyone has something to contribute

One of the most important aspects of being a leader in the trenches is NOT getting people to do what you want them to do, but rather getting everyone to step up their game and contribute their best.

Everyone approaches problems differently, has a different take on things, has learned different lessons. Assume, that people all have something to contribute, but that they may not all be as facile at doing so.

Thus, when you notice that someone isn’t saying that much, ask him a direct question: hey, what do you think about XYZ? I know I’m not personally good at directing a group conversation and always feel appreciated when someone does ask me for my opinion.

You don’t want to be that person who just dominates a conversation and cuts other people off. Big no-no.

3) You don’t need to go Crazy Alpha on everything

There’s a difference between being appropriately aggressive — volunteering for new projects, asking for more responsibility, initiating new programs — and being a power whore — hogging all the power. We all know that person who takes control of absolutely everything, be it from leading a scavenger hunt to organizing meetings.

If your team is of high caliber people, it’s probably safe to assume we all meet the basic competencies. We can all schedule meetings, explain our progress, set an agenda, so on and so forth.

The issue is NOT delegation. The issue is team coherence. If you are NOT designated as a leader, you should not always pick up the tab if your team members are competent. (You might have to if your team is just lazy/incompetent, but that’s a different entry.)

While, you should take the initiative if you think something needs to get done. You should definitely try to encourage others to pick up some of the pieces. A simple — I’ve noticed you haven’t gotten a chance to set an agenda for our meeting, do you want to write something and send it out? — changes the tone of everything, makes people happier, and generally makes them more willing to help out since they are more invested in the project.

4) Setting people at ease

If you’re tossed in a group of pretty competitive people, they might subversely think that you’re their enemy. They might not be particularly friendly to you, but not outwardly mean either.

Once you get a read on this scenario, realize, that you’re going to have to be the bigger person, at least in the beginning. Be as friendly as you wish they were:

  • Ask how they’re doing, how their weekend was, what their plans are — AND follow up, or else it sounds like you don’t really care (obviously, if you don’t care anyway, don’t bother)
  • Ask them questions about their background/experience/interests. One of the most random books I picked up at the library years back was “How to Talk to Anyone” (or something? by Larry King), and the way you can talk to anyone is to ask them questions. People LOVE talking about themselves, which means they will LOVE talking to you.
  • Volunteer relevant information. It’s not an interview. If they mention that their favorite food is “pizza,” say that your favorite pizza is XYZ from MNOP. That way, they can learn more about you with v. little effort on their part. (Thinking up good questions is HARD.)
  • Realize that some questions are going to sound contrived. But, unless people are exceedingly awkward (also possible), they will appreciate that you’re taking that step to break the ice.

5) Watch your presentation style

You may be a loud/demanding person, generally, but try not to come off as that, especially when you’re dealing with other high caliber people. There’s NO need to RAISE YOUR VOICE SO EVERYONE WITHIN 20 FEET KNOWS HOW AWESOME YOUR IDEAS ARE.

Don’t do that. It just makes people less inclined to meet or get to know you at all.

So, watch your volume. Match it to the person you’re talking to. If you want to be more creepy, try matching your body positions. If they’re leaning back in their chair, do the same. People subconsciously feel better around people who are literally doing the same thing as them.

Essentially, don’t think of each conversation or meeting as a chance to showcase who you are as the most brilliant person alive, but rather as an opportunity for you to contribute and learn from everyone else.

6) LISTEN and REPEAT, and REPEAT, and maybe clarify

After almost two decades of life, we can all pretty much easily pick out people who are talking or asking questions without listening. They’re no fun. No one likes them. Maybe those who do the same do.

Active listening is not just knowing and remembering what someone said, it’s about asking follow up or clarifying questions. It’s about recapping what someone said — “Let me get this straight, so you were in Seattle when this happened?”

This type of listening is essentially a strong signal to the other person that you care.

And to put icing on the cake, if you can incorporate any conversation history (without leaving someone else in the conversation out) into future conversations, you will be golden.

And finally, if you accidentally cut someone off, or someone cuts someone off, once you or that someone finishes making the point, ask the person who was cut off, what they were in the process of saying. This does all sorts of good for a number of obvious reasons.

7) If you don’t get it, someone else won’t either

Sometimes, someone will very quickly explain something and then give their own recommendation or analysis of the situation without fully walking you through it. This is no fun. If we’re equals, there’s no need for you to just lecture at me.

Instead, just say, “Not quite sure what you meant. Can you walk through the situation again?” And then, ask whatever clarifying questions you need if the other person isn’t giving you enough information.

I call this, training people to communicate better. Exciting!

8) Why bother? Recap.

Because this is how the world works. Most of the “real world” is going to be team based — that’s why we had a billion poster projects with partners as middle schoolers.

Yes, you need to impress your boss, but you need to remember that teammates are your peers (and perhaps future bosses). No need to strive for the best liked, but definitely aim for like-able.

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