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Five Myths of Team Leadership

Introduction - It’s about the leadership, stupid*

Every manager we have spoken to in the last decade has reiterated that creating excellence in customer service must start with the management team. Some companies complain that the ‘engineers’ have taken over the asylum and that the customer isn’t remotely in their strategic thinking. Then others rejoice in a CEO led top down customer centric culture change. Be that as it may it either ends or in the middle of this spectrum, why are service team leaders so neglected in terms of leadership support, investment and mentoring?

We think that there are so many myths about what team leaders should be doing, how they do it, role content, KPI’s and ultimate role purpose that supporting them gets lost in the confusion. What we do know in our long experience in service centres is that the team leader role is quite simply the most important and vital one in the centre and that when the team leaders take hold of the centre, work in unison and mange the performance of their team, the results can be amazing. We have implemented these positive changes many times over the years and in doing so have come up against constantly recurring myths. So if you are interested in high performing teams, have a think about our team leader myths and remove them in your organisation! You will certainly reap the benefits.

5 Myths of Team Leadership

Myth 1: High performing phone consultants make good Team Leaders

Myth 2: Team Leaders must be subject matter experts Myth 3: Team members should receive an equal amount of coaching time

Myth 4: Team Leaders need to coach their staff in a room

Myth 5: Performance statistics are ‘gospel’

In debunking these myths we will be developing the key elements of an effective Team Leader - what makes them capable and gives them the clear direction to drive performance and behavioural improvement within their team.

* With apologies to Bill Clinton.

Myth 1: High performers make good team leaders

In most companies, a high percentage of team leaders are recruited from the phone consultant level. Typically, a high performing phone consultant is promoted to a position of team leader without appropriate leadership training and understanding of the role. In many cases this happens with the dire ‘acting’ role - normally the most experienced person in the team is temporarily elevated after a leader departs. This seems a logical step, but it can end up with a flawed outcome – the acting leader expects the role, and when the next crisis occurs, they are often confirmed in the role to save time.

This ‘plugging the gap’ method belies thinking through the real skills required to perform a team leader role – we know the frontline consultant role is very different. If we use a skiing analogy, gaining technical experience is like climbing up a slope, using specific techniques. When confirmed in the role (reaching the ‘top’) it becomes clear that there is a completely new challenge on the other side, one that a team leader will need to learn a whole set of new skills for. In our workshops we describe that a leader will have to get new tools, adopt a different posture, acquire new skills and practice them. Skiing, not climbing.

It is clear to us through our work that many high performing consultants do not ’automatically’ have the necessary skills to become an effective leader. One common trap is that the unsupported new leader tries to rely on their technical skills and friendships with their team to try and drive performance. This ‘keep people happy’ model is ultimately ineffective and can actually end up with the leader doing a greater workload than their team members! This situation can have some of the following characteristics:

  • Team leaders spending much of their time acting as referral points or subject matter experts

  • Team leaders still wishing to be best friends with team members and as a result not addressing poor behaviours amongst their former peers

  • Low performance due to lack of effective coaching and motivational skills

  • Low staff engagement due to lack of staff development and action against staff with poor behaviours

Whilst it is important that there is opportunity for frontline consultants to become team leaders there needs to be an appropriate process in place to ensure they have the required skills and attitude to become an effective leader. One of their biggest challenges is gaining the respect of their peers through good leadership skills and not relying on friendships.

One logical incongruity we often see in a promoted ‘top performer’ is that the centre loses a good performer and gains a poor team leader to boot. We call it the ‘Double Whammy’.

‘Best Practice’ companies have the following in place:

  • a well-defined process to identify potential team leaders

  • nominated succession planning, in a pool approach or within team

  • a modularised leadership program comprising a mixture of theoretical and practical activities to prepare potential team leaders for a leadership role

  • an assessment process in which participants must achieve the required pass mark to be considered for a team leader role (no compromising)

  • an ongoing support and development programme for team leaders once in situ

  • a mixture of team leaders promoted from within and recruited externally

Myth 2: Team leaders must be subject matter experts

As touched on above, some companies believe a team leader must be a subject matter expert and therefore are restricted in who they can promote to that role. Often senior team members will believe their knowledge is a key to leadership, because by providing answers they are helping the team, all the while maintaining their seniority.

An astute manager can see the self defeating dichotomy here – a leader that sees knowledge as power (reinforced by the self evident basis of their own promotion) is the least likely to coach team members in ways to help them improve, as it will diminish their authority. We have often seen this phenomenon, it is probably subconscious, although we do wonder.

The ‘Subject matter expert trap’ prevents managers from recruiting externally and from promoting a phone consultant with obvious leadership qualities and potential. If all capable team leaders have to wait until they become subject matter experts, it could take years. Often the person with real potential has moved to another company by this stage.

Does a team leader need to be a SME to be able to coach effectively?

The simple answer to this question is no. A team leader can coach effectively without being a subject matter expert in the same way some of the best sports coaches were not stars in their particular sport. However our experience has shown that there are several optimal conditions to enable successful coaching by a non-subject matter expert:

  • there needs to be documented ‘best practice’ procedures for each enquiry type including an agreed welcome, effective questions, ID process, transfer protocols and call wrap. For administration, clearly defined work queuing, allocation and processing models are key

  • a high percentage of the coaching needs to be side by side ‘double jacking’ with the frontline consultant – observation is the best way to lead through targeted coaching

  • there needs to be a function such as a technical coach in place to be able to fill any skilling gaps identified by the team leader

  • KPI’s developed that are focussed on a few behaviourally controllable factors.

When we have implemented these conditions in service centres, staff engagement has risen, leaders have become more con dent, and paradoxically, the subject matter expert is relieved to be fulfilling their key job – technical skilling within the team. We have seen many dramatic turnarounds and happier workplaces as a result.

Myth 3: Team members should receive an equal amount of coaching time

Typically a team leader is required to spend an equal amount of time with each team member or listen to an equal amount of calls (this is not coaching), or observing (auditing) processing, regardless of their individual team member’s capability and performance. Whilst this at face value seems fair, it is not necessary and makes improving overall team performance more difficult cult. Recent organisational theory also talks about the greatest productivity lift coming from the ‘middle 60%’. Practical experience has led us to adopt a different approach from these two standard methods.

A more effective spread of coaching time is to spend some coaching time with all team members but to concentrate the coaching time and effort on the bottom performers. You might only need to spend half an hour a week coaching a top performer to ensure they are adhering to the ‘best practice’ procedures and if so to be able to tell them they are doing a good job (everyone needs some ‘love’). However, you might need to spend 2 hours a week with a bottom performer in order to start lifting their performance in a shorter period of time.

Moving the average

When we discuss role purpose in service improvement implementations, we are often talking about ‘Movement’. The best goal a team leader can have is for them to move their team performance to a higher level. Higher adherence to best practice will create a better working environment for the team members, for the team leader and for the company.

Take the Contact Centre example team summary below. Notice that it is hard to see who is performing and who is not. Looking at total calls can give a false view of performance. Look at team member 1 - taking half the calls as team member 3, however they are doing 12.7 net calls (deducting transfers) per hour.

We know from experience that one of the best productivity measures to look at is Net Calls Per Hour (NCPH). Team members appearing on the report in lower NCPH positions either have a capability issue in long handle times or a behavioural issue in over transferring calls. Regardless of the issue, we agree with leaders that it is the responsibility of the team leader to know their team, and the best place to start is to identify a potential issue from reports and then rectify by active one-on-one side-by- side coaching. For Administration areas, this process is replicable and we have been involved with models that use both a ‘standard timing’ approach and a ‘quality adjusted throughput’ reporting approach which also works well.

Ordering a report in descending order of your main KPI is a great quick way of determining the mid-point and lower performers. We know that when a team leader actively concentrates their coaching efforts on the bottom 2 performers each day, the average performance necessarily moves up. We call this idea ‘moving the average’ – whether poor performers improve or leave, team performance will rise.

In the following graphic, average team performance is depicted by the dotted line as in our team summary above. As coaching develops lower performers the entire average will increase. The added benefit of side by side active coaching often results in engagement increasing as well due to two factors:

Coaching Team Performance

• Team members see lower performers being acted upon, and;

• Team Leader visibility within the team improves morale.

Myth 4: Team leaders need to coach their staff in a room

Some coaching ‘purists’ advocate taking a frontline consultant off the phone or away from processing into a room to conduct their coaching session. They often have some recorded calls, or processing audit results for the consultant to judge their own performance. The coaching will then concentrate on where improvements could have been made to that particular transaction. We believe this is a good method for more serious transgression or continuing performance issue. However treating this as the best method for coaching has some serious flaws which are outlined below:

Off line “in room” coaching:

  • Adds a considerable amount of shrinkage (and cost) to the centre

  • Will be cancelled as the first casualty if the service levels are low

  • Takes a lot of time preparing for the coaching session (sourcing recorded calls or audited transactions to be reviewed)

  • Takes the team leader away from their team whilst in the coaching session and is therefore unable to observe real time behaviours of their team

  • (Depending on the recording capability) from past enquiries may not identify issues the consultant is having with the system or the tools they are using to solve the enquiry

  • From recorded transactions may not pick up what activity occurred whilst the customer was on hold, or the enquiry was ‘pended’

From recorded transactions may not pick up what a activity occurred after the enquiry

Due to the flaws in coaching from past enquiries we have found it is more effective to spend the majority of the coaching effort in side-by-side coaching. Side by side coaching addresses all of the flaws above and very importantly never has to be cancelled due to poor service levels. The frontline consultant can still take calls and process during the coaching session and the targeted feedback given after each or every few interactions will not materially impact the customer service levels.

Myth 5: Performance statistics are ‘gospel’

In most companies we see, team leaders are time poor and they claim they do not have enough time to devote to coaching. All agree that it is an important part of the role however they are reduced to managing their team members against their performance statistics. The previous section discussed some of those key statistics. There is however a danger in relying on statistics alone – it assumes a team member has performed badly which may not be correct, and most importantly may not take into account the cause of the issue. Remember that all numbers are ‘post-hoc’, the result of something that happened in the past. Behaviour is best observed when it is actually happening.

Information vs Observation

The most effective use of statistics is to use them to identify who you need to observe. We say “Stats are for targeting”, not action. For example, if a Contact Centre team member has high talk times on a report, the next action for a team leader is to observe the consultant to identify the reason. It may be a skilling gap or behavioural issue, however, it could be that the consultant is receiving a higher percentage of longer call types or is attempting more sales. If the team leader attempts to manage the consultant from the statistics alone without observing the reason they may draw the wrong conclusion and unfairly penalise the consultant. When this happens it can drive poor behaviours and/or negatively impact staff engagement.

Passive management

Linked to the above we regularly observe team leaders using statistics to passively manage their team. Instead of using the information to plan who to observe that day they spend time sitting at their desks compiling reports which they send out to their team members in an attempt to drive increased performance. At a recent client, the team leader was sending out team statistics every 2 hours and spent none of their day actually coaching or sitting with their staff. Much effort went into the statistics there was smiley faces, sad faces, golden star awards etc. Don’t waste time making it pretty: target, observe, coach. It’s that simple. We often say to howls of disbelief that the team members don’t need to see any stats – concentrate on the behaviour and the figures will look after themselves.

Performance statistics are a very important tool for team leaders but should be used to identify who or what they need to observe amongst their team. Coaching against statistics is passive management and can lead to poor behaviours and low staff engagement.

Team leader or administrative clerk?

Typically team leaders in Australia are hardworking, however, a close analysis of what they actually do on a day to day basis is cause for concern. In team leader Role Clarity workshops we have completed in over 50 organisations, the amount of their time spent each day on administrative tasks ranges from 70-90%.

This leaves very little time to spend with team members developing and improving their performance. As a result, team members become disengaged with the lack of time they receive from their Team Leader coaching and developing them which is one contributor to high attrition in Australian contact centres and administration areas. There is no real value in paying a team leader to spend most of their time completing administrative tasks such as taking escalated customer enquiries, complaints, approving exceptions to adherence to roster, entering sick leave and holidays into the HR systems, completing reports and sending out stats etc. An operating model is required that supports a team leader in being able to have enough time to spend with their team, particularly coaching. LimeBridge has developed a methodology called PRISM that has successfully achieved this in every company where we have implemented a better service model.

PRISM enabling effective team leadership

PRISM: Practice, Resourcing, Indicators, Structure and Management

In short we know that effective operating models , whether it be a Contact Centre, Email processing service team, Branch sales office or Administration area, combine five key elements that we refer to as PRISM:

These five dimensions, if aligned properly produce significant cant improvements in all key areas of operations including operational efficiency, increased customer satisfaction, increased staff engagement and relevant to this white paper, increased leader effectiveness.

PRISM & Team Leader effectiveness


Documented ‘best practice’ procedures for all enquiry types give clear direction to team leaders on what they need to coach against. This also enables non subject matter experts to become leaders and can be sourced both internally and externally to the contact centre.


Working to identify and then recruit the correct profile for your business will reduce the amount of team leader effort having to be spent on new recruits that perhaps never had the capability or correct attitude to perform the job in the first place.


Having appropriate behaviour focussed and controllable KPI’s for phone and processing consultants makes it very clear for the team leaders what they should be coaching. For example, giving a phone consultant a Grade of Service KPI is not controllable by the phone consultant and cannot be coached; however, an After Call Work or Adherence KPI to Best Practice Procedures is controllable and can be coached.


Changes to structure where there is no need to use a team leader to act as a referral point or take escalations frees up a substantial amount of leader time which can be invested back into more coaching time. Also, the creation of a Technical Coach function again removes the barrier of having to be a subject matter expert to become a team leader.

Management Practices

Giving the team leaders an operational framework enables them to become more effective. The key elements of the Operational framework are a daily scrum to plan out the day, taking control of running the centre through effective Real Time Management and a minimum of 2 hours side-by-side coaching.

Team leader to staff ratio

To further support effective team leadership it is important to agree the appropriate ratio of staff to each team leader . We have observed a range of 1 to 10 to 1 to 20 across the more than 50 organisations we have worked with.

The lower the ratio the more time the team leader has to spend coaching, developing and motivating their staff. The organisations with the most effective team leaders have a ratio of no more than 1 to 12 FTE.

Who we are?

LimeBridge Australia is a specialised consultancy rm that helps our clients deliver better sales and service interactions for their customers. We work across all types of customer interaction and have an outstanding track record in delivery of operational improvements that are better for the company and customer. We have a blue chip list of past clients who are references for our work and results.

LimeBridge Australia’s design and implementation programmes are targeted at improving the customer experience and often create capacity of more than 20%. In all prior implementations LimeBridge have delivered a better customer experience at a lower cost. The model has been used successfully across multiple industries.

  • We improve the customer experience and create 20-40% capacity within four months through operational transformation

  • We deliver benefits in all customer contact points including call centres, self service, retail and back office administration

  • We start with a targeted diagnostic of 4-6 weeks which confirms the customer benefits, the size of the prize and the changes you’ll need

  • Our point of difference is that we work with and train your people in our methods so that you can improve continuously.

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