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How to Lead a Freelance Team
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How to Lead a Freelance Team

by Andrea Shields Nunez, The Genysys Group

With freelancers making up an ever-increasing percentage of the American workforce -- studies estimate up to 40% by 2020 -- business owners, executives, and managers are tasked with learning how to lead teams that are vastly different than traditional salaried employees.

I recently facilitated a workshop titled “Leaders as Agents of Change” at the AAERT Annual Conference. There was a great group of participants, most of whom were small business owners who use teams of freelancers to handle much of their client work. While the participants reported that they understand the value in the approach I was sharing, the question of how to lead a team of non-employees came up again and again.

As I reflected on this question and how I could have addressed it better, I concluded that leading a freelance team requires all the same things leading any team does, but with a few important nuances.

Here are four absolute musts.

You must clarify your mission and vision. Who are we and where are we going?

Leading anyone, whether it’s freelancers, a sports team, or your children, requires a clear mission and vision. You, as a leader, must be clear on what your business is, who it serves, and where you want it to go. Every decision, every interaction, every policy, procedure, initiative, and objective must serve both your mission and vision. These are your guideposts and they allow you to be crystal clear about your expectations with everyone.

And guess what? Being able to easily and openly share your mission and vision with potential freelancers will set you apart from other people who are just looking for hired hands. Everyone wants to know what they’re doing is meaningful in some way. If you can express to someone how the work they do for you serves a greater mission and vision, they will be more energized, engaged, and loyal.

You must build relationships through empathy. What do I need to know so others feel understood?

In a traditional work environment, members of your team are often right there in the office with you every day. You have regular meetings together, you stop by each other’s desks to talk, you run into each other in the kitchen, you may even have lunch or go out after work together. Opportunities to get to know each other and create a strong working relationship abound.

With freelancers, these opportunities are significantly limited but you still must make the effort to get to know them, find common ground, and build on it. Tapping into your natural curiosity can help. Why did they decide to freelance? What do they like about it? What do they find challenging? What does the freedom from a regular 9-5 allow them to do? Everyone works better for someone they have a strong relationship with, so this is essential for creating a team you can count on.

And this is not just about you. If you have a team of people who are geographically dispersed and don’t have ample opportunities to come together and build relationships with each other, creating those opportunities can be extremely valuable. Many freelancers feel isolated and disconnected from their team members. Having a regular team call or video chat can foster valuable discussions and a collaborative environment for those who can’t stop by someone’s desk on their way to refill their coffee.

This is really about creating an environment and a culture where people are a priority. Being intentional about this will go a long way in fostering positive feelings and loyalty, even from people who serve other clients.

You must communicate and look for alignment with mission and vision. How can our work serve each other?

Freelancers are never going to be like traditional employees. They are business owners in their own right. So, understanding that you each approach the relationship from a place of independence is key. If you both understand and respect this, then you can move forward into an interdependent, adult relationship that’s mutually beneficial.

One of the traps that’s easy to fall into is viewing freelancers as simply hired hands, a necessary evil for serving your clients. This is a short-sighted approach that overlooks the benefits of viewing this as a partnership. Taking the time to build relationships with each person will help you understand their mission and vision even if they don’t always express it in those terms. So you can continually assess alignment and recognize new avenues for collaboration.

You must strengthen relationships through strategic incentives. What can I do to optimize individual and team performance?

It’s vital to understand what motivates the people who do the work that supports your business. Getting to know them better allows you to know what’s important to them. It’s likely to be different for each person, but it’s nearly impossible to lead a team if you don’t know what motivates them. And the best way to find out? Ask! Create the type of relationship where asking someone, “What’s important to you?” is easy and natural, and will be received as a genuine question from someone who truly cares.

As you get to know your team members and understand what motivates them individually, you’ll also begin to see how they work as a team. You may notice that they perform great when they’re in friendly competition with each other. Or it may be that they perform best when given additional opportunities for collaboration. Or maybe it’s as simple as recognizing someone’s great work on the team call. Just as you’ll need to consider which particular incentives work best for an individual, a team personality will emerge and it’s important to understand how to incentivize on both levels. You can only do this when you’ve built strong, trusting relationships.

What we know for sure is that the former employer-employee paradigm is in a state of flux. The traditional contract is a thing of the past and all working relationships are now seen as voluntary. Some lament a lack of loyalty on both sides, but the opportunity here is to create adult working relationships, with a foundation built on common ground, where communication is open, expectations are clear, and everyone feels valued for their individual contribution.

If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. But this is what will separate those with efficient, enjoyable, and energized teams from those who just have a bunch of contractors they need to pay. As a leader, you get to decide which route you want to take.

Andrea Shields Nunez is a consultant with The Genysys Group, a full-service change management consulting firm. She has over a decade of experience in executive recruiting, and a background in operations, management, and education.




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