The power of the changing room - know your team

Understanding your team's personalities and idiosyncrasies allows you to form meaningful relationships. Former head of development at Manchester City, Peter Lowe draws on his experience in football and teaching to outline how to form bonds with your people.

Too many leaders exist in ivory towers, or at least enclosed offices that separate them from their teams. If you want to know what’s really going on you need to be part of those conversations round the water cooler.

I’ve found in my career in the Premiership, I made it my business to know the people I coached. If you don’t know what makes people tick, how on earth can you know what to expect of them and how to help them realise their full potential?

Curiosity never killed a leader
My career in teaching was an excellent foundation for coaching young footballers to become first team and international players. Like any leadership role, teaching thrives on the ability to relate to people, to find ways to connect to different personalities and understand individual idiosyncrasies. Being fascinated by people means I am eternally curious and this curiosity leads me to invest time and effort in really getting to know what people are about.

Organisations and bricks and mortar only really come alive through people. It is the culture set by organisational leaders that creates the fabric that binds teams and either supports them to achieve greater success or diminishes their freedom to develop, therefore limiting their potential.

Fixed mindsets are responsible for this sense of claustrophobia that, unfortunately, is not unusual within workplaces. High-pressure environments often cause leaders to batten down the hatches and tighten control, rather than enable people to grow, learn, make mistakes and challenge the accepted.

Building great bonds
Knowing your team means that you’re able to empathise with them. Building mutually respectful, empathetic relationships fosters a culture of genuine collaboration. The collaborative approach isn’t just a buzz phrase, it’s about real bonds, emotion and vulnerability…some of the words we’re so averse to embracing, particularly in a corporate world inhabited by clichéd Wolf of Wall Street alpha males.

Knowing your team also means looking beyond the surface and being able to read people. Psychologists call it emotional intelligence. I’m lucky because it’s always been an innate quality of mine and I’m grateful for this capacity to intuitively understand the dynamics when a group of people come together.

I routinely worked with players whose fathers had achieved careers of note in the game. These players were sometimes criticised by others who placed great expectations upon them but failed to recognise that they needed confidence building when it came to reading the game and knowing the next move to make. Shouting and balling at people doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in them, it says more about your own lack of control than it does about other people’s misgivings.

The weight of expectation
Many leaders have high expectations of their teams and are quick to judge if they fall short. In my view, expectations are only valid if you also provide the support and leadership to develop people and help them bridge the ‘potential gap’ between where they are and where they could be. Leaders must ask themselves the following questions:

Have I set an intention before I set an expectation from others?
Am I clear in the action I am taking and have I communicated effectively what I want from my team?
Am I the same person under pressure as I am when things are going well?
Will my actions leave responsibility or choice with the individual or group?

Do I encourage dreamers in my team and do I enable them to dream big?
How am I going to support people at each step in their development?

Being a great leader doesn’t mean you need constant visibility and a podium position. I always think leading from the back is more effective. You may still be in control but your team think that they, quite rightly, own their success and ultimately they are your succession plan as the leaders of tomorrow.

When it comes to sustaining high performance it’s about developing a changing room that promotes honest, authentic communication and allows people to be themselves. It also means creating a culture that values hard work as well as talent.

I used to talk about the walls of the changing room acting as mirrors. If you allow that kind of transparency and reflection, you also need to be prepared for people to challenge your leadership, which is a healthy thing.

Great leaders are often naturally interested in human nature. Their ability to motivate and unite people relies on the following skillset:

High degree of awareness
Foresight and the ability to read situations
A natural, unrelenting curiosity
Humility
Mental resilience and fortitude
Altruism rather than ego-led

Being a leader can be a lonely experience and it can be tiring and mentally demanding. Knowing your team inside out requires dedication, effort and a high degree of selflessness. However, it can be one of the most rewarding roles as you never stop learning from those around you and the chapters in your story are created by the people you meet along the way.

By Peter Lowe
Peter is the former head of development at Manchester City FC, and is the founder of First Team Ltd.