The Leading Contact Centre Magazine

Making a real success of leadership


Smiley, happy people: just how do you get to this position with your staff? Jonathan Wilson talks us through the 10 things team leaders need to bear in mind in order to make themselves better leaders and ultimately make their teams much happier places to be.

As a call centre team leader, you will spend some time leading, some managing and some doing. Leading is different from managing. Leading is very much an emotional talent, while managing is much more a rational one.

You lead when you enable and inspire people. Conversely, you manage when you control and organise events and activities.

So what are the 10 things team leaders need to think about if they want to be better leaders? Below, I’ve listed what I believe to be the most pertinent considerations. The question now is: how many apply to YOU?

“You lead when you enable and inspire people”

1) To be a very good leader you must do very little – except those things that you need to do in order to demonstrate or to stay in touch.

In other words, you need to delegate everything you can and get out of the way. Do not interfere. And by ‘interfere’, I’m referring to interference as any uninvited help. Rather, you should use the time that you save to listen to people and to make connections with them, for them and between them.

‘Doing’ feels easier and quicker than ‘managing’, and managing is easier than leading. However, leading gives the greatest value to your team and organisation. Your ability to lead determines the total value that you will create in your life for you and for others.

2) Leading is a strategic skill based on talents that you have.

This means you can develop your leadership ability by thoughtful practice, but many people do not. Instead, they focus on immediate operational rewards.

If you wish to lead your team successfully, keep practising. You will find that it will come more easily and more people will recognise your ability. You will gain more power and more influence. You do not have to get it right all the time. If you do, you are probably being too timid. But you should try to learn all the time and apply that learning the next time that you can.

3) You lead a call centre team best by building a good system for them to operate in and by inspiring them to perform well.

A good system links processes and people so that the people in it are able to do their best and so that the customers get the most value from it. You must get your people the right tools and procedures and the right training to do their jobs well. You must enable and encourage your people to work first at being effective, putting this above being apparently efficient.

Therefore, you should guide them away from worrying about call length. You should help them to see that their role is to please the customer, to make the customer glad that they have chosen you as their supplier and to want you to supply them more. When the people in your team have achieved that, only then do you help them – by training and mindful practice – to reduce the time that they take to add that customer value to the least possible.

Ultimately, while reducing the time for such calls is important, the key is not to reduce the value at the same time. Customers feel good when you have solved their problems, fully, quickly and courteously – most of all fully. In order to do this, you may often have to protect your team from misguided measures imposed from elsewhere.

4) You can inspire your people most with your own enthusiasm and sincerity.

You inspire people by helping them to feel the importance of the work that they are doing. You should therefore help them to find the meaning in the tasks that they perform, no matter how mundane or menial they may seem.

You should do those tasks occasionally yourself with your people, partly to keep yourself aware of the issues that they face daily and partly to show that you would not ask your people to do anything that you will not do yourself.

Overall, you should do these things lightly and with grace. You need to demonstrate your authenticity throughout. The only thing that you should not do is moan or gripe – even if you have good cause. You must wear a professional face even if you are feeling tired or fed-up. You do that best by not feeling bad about yourself. You also do that by thinking much more about the people who you are leading than about yourself.

5) You are particularly well placed to lead a call centre team if you can recognise that they should be delightful places but, in practice, are often soul-destroying pits.

Call centres are warm, dry and full of people who want to help people. They should be safe and great social places to work. However, often operators are harassed and confused by misaligned targets. They are also often bullied by poorly trained and unsupported managers who themselves are trying to do the wrong things with the best of intentions.

Call centres are difficult to lead because they mechanically measure people’s performance in far too much detail. No other aspect of business or management is measured in such excruciating and mindless detail. And such measurement misdirects management and masks wise insights by an excess of spurious, irrelevant accuracy.

To lead well, you should learn about statistics and the mathematics of probability and of queuing theory, and use that information to educate all around you in this critical skill. This core management competence will enable you to spot the important trends and signs in call centre performance and to help others around you to gain wisdom from numbers. It will also put you in a different league than those call centre managers who do not understand the power or limitations of the statistics that their ACDs produce.

In this way, you will make people in your team feel much better than most people do in many call centres. To reiterate: to lead your team well, you should help to make them aware, safe and confident about themselves. You should defend them against anyone from outside your team, taking full responsibility for them and their actions while holding them accountable to you for their own performance.

6) If you accept there will be a culture of blame aimed at the call centre, you’ll be better able to lead.

It’s not a pleasant thought, but another key consideration in leading your team successfully is having the ability to recognise and accept that the directors of the other departments that cause service problems often blame service call centres for them.

Like all ‘support’ functions, those who are responsible often use them to evade their own responsibility. When you hear others talking about ‘the need to change’ and saying that every other function than their own needs to change, you should recognise this as human nature. You should encourage your own team to constantly seek to improve how they receive inputs from other people and functions. Similarly, you should show to them how they can make it easier for other people, departments and customers to take the value that your team offers exactly how they want it, where they want it and when they want it.

In other words, you should lead change by being the change, not by blaming everyone else for the problem. You should lead by changing what you can change most directly and what you understand better than anyone else does.

7) You should not try to coach people in your team yourself, although you should work hard to promote a coaching culture.

Aware leaders find it very, very hard to coach their own people well – no matter how much they may want to. You cannot genuinely coach these people because it is very difficult for them to talk openly about their mistakes and challenges with someone who may soon be assessing their performance for the purpose of pay or promotion.

It is also very difficult for a leader to avoid giving advice, and even more difficult still for their report to challenge it.

Having said that, do remember that coaching should not be about giving advice anyway. It is about helping people to find the best way for themselves to improve their performance. This means that it is best to train people how to coach and then to encourage peer coaching rather than trying to do it yourself.

What you can and should do is get a coach yourself because this shows better than anything else does that you really believe in coaching.

8)Some of the best leaders use the time they have saved through delegation to seek out things that people around them are doing well and commenting on them.

This is one of those considerations that applies at all levels: it works for your boss and for people in other departments too. A positive feedback loop is the fastest way to build and sustain excellent practice. You are showing people what you value in their behaviour.

Most people want to help and be successful, but they rarely find out how they can really please their boss, so they try to cope. They emotionally opt out when they get vague job descriptions, performance measures and subtle signs that do not align with alleged values. It may not be true all the time, but it is a good starting point to believe that everybody wants to do the best that they can, if they only knew what you really want them to do. In other words: help them.

9) Make sure that people in your team get good, timely feedback without judgement.

People do not like to be judged – especially by their bosses. But they do value knowing how they are doing while they can still do something about it.

Unfortunately, ‘feedback’ has become a euphemism for ‘complaints and criticism’. As a leader, you can counter that perception in and around your team. Top performers in arts and sport rely and thrive on immediate and direct feedback from their audiences, competitors and colleagues all the time. This comes as the roar or boos of the crowd, the ball in the net or over the bar, the hug or scowl from the team, the applause or silence of the audience, and the response of the rest of the group, choir or orchestra. Ask any top performer and they will tell you such feedback is far more important to them than the money.

Sadly, in the call centre workplace, we do not get feedback so spontaneously. Others delay, mediate and judge it before we see or hear it. It is like driving on the motorway in fog, using the rear-view mirror.

10) Immediate feedback also helps us to internalise good behavioural routines in a very specific way.

By practice, we change the neurological make up of our brains so that we do not have to build cognitive links in our prefrontal cortex again each time, but develop pathways over time. This is the transition from conscious competence to unconscious competence. It is important because this is how excellence becomes a habit. It then uses much less energy or attention than conscious competence, so it leaves people able to concentrate on the higher success factors that separate the best from the average.

As the leader of your team, one of your highest aims should be to make yourself redundant. You will be redundant when you have designed and built a self-sustaining system of processes and people, whom you have inspired and educated to perform at the highest level of personal and customer satisfaction.

Ultimately, the reward for your success will be promotion to repeat your success at a higher level.

Jonathan Wilson is an accredited executive coach, a member of the UK Association of Coaching, The European Council of Mentoring and Coaching, and the International Association of Coaching. He has extensive call centre experience in industries as diverse as airlines, utilities, banking and finance, IT and direct sales. He is a member of BT’s new Executive Coaching Service, and is an associate of Budd, where he specialises in leadership coaching and change management.
Tel: +44 7971 018921
Website: www.budd.uk.com

The following comments have been posted relating to this article:
Some times we are so focussed on our product or metrics that even we know we need to coach and think we’re doing it. To have this kind of support and share experiences it’s the best way to find the track again and continue we the good job thanks endeed (posted by Zahid Luna)
Hi, Mr.Wilson.  Hopefully this message will find you in your best of mood and peak of your health. Right now I am working with a call centre based in India as an ops manager. Earlier to this job I was a Team Leader in a different company. I have gone through your article it’s FANTASTIC.  It will definately enhance my skills and ability. I would still like to know more about your experience which will improve my potentials. I am impressed with your saying (DOING FEELS EASIER AND QUICKER THAN MANAGING AND MANAGING IS EASIER THAN LEADING…..) (posted by Sanjay Shah)

Published On: 4th May 2007 - Last modified: 19th Dec 2018
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2 Comments
  1. I agree that it’s difficult for direct reports to accept their managers as coaches, especially when they know their PMFs are written by their managers. I wish they could see the flip side, like we try to see.

    Susan 10 Feb at 12:54 am
  2. I found this very interesting and educating. It will go along way to help me be a successful team leader. Thanks a lot

    Judith 24 Sep at 12:49 pm
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