Role of the Team Lead vs Manager

A role is a set of connected behaviors, rights and obligations as conceptualized by actors in a social situation…
— Wikipedia

True story

“Ken, I am pro-GRAM-mer, not baby-SIT-ter…”

Read-aloud that sentence again with your best English-speaking, Russian accent; then keep reading.

“If you don’t do something about <Designer X>, I swear to God I am going to rip his throat out.”

</Developer R>

This was many years ago, when I was leading a team designing and developing a SaaS solution in the cloud, before anyone used either of those terms.

Now, <Developer R> and I had both served in the Army (me: U.S., him: U.S.S.R.), so my initial reaction was to smile hearing a universal language that only a soldier can appreciate.

But the way he delivered that line told me that he’d reached a tipping point; that the team was dysfunctional.

My team was dysfunctional. How did this happen?

It would be easy to make excuses and lay blame on individuals, but the real answer was simple: <Leader K> was in a player/coach role, balancing the often-conflicting tasks of directing design and technology with human capital management.

In the beginning, it might seem like common-sense: why not have <Leader K> directing design/tech also manage the people in the contributing roles? This happens frequently in start-ups; one of the founders or early hires is the CTO or lead designer and becomes the de facto VP in a similar role.

But it never works, in my experience; at least, not for long.

Inevitably, the demands of staying on top of design/technology leadership leave less-and-less time for care and feeding of the individual contributors. Worse, the team will take this as a cue with which to model their own behavior so that in larger organizations, sub-ordinate leaders (e.g. managers) will also start to prioritize design/technology leadership over managing their respective team members. This behavior drives a culture that subordinates the value of individuals to thought leadership. This isn’t the intended consequence and may not even be recognized as a problem by the <Leader>, but obvious symptoms will present:

1.     Skilled individual contributors or managers leave the organization;

2.     Projects fail to meet expectations by large margins (budget, schedule, market impact).

Why do people leave? Because they don’t feel empowered to make decisions and, as a result, to assume ownership of their own work. Once good people start losing focus or leave the organization, it becomes impossible to accomplish anything non-trivial, so projects start missing deadlines and fail to exceed, let alone meet, expectations.


An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

To avoid such team dysfunction, I have learned to do two things:

1.     Push decision responsibility far down into an organization by creating many small teams, even as small as 2-persons, with a dedicated leader <Team Lead>;

2.     Carefully separate the roles of <Team Lead> from <Manager> and communicate expectations for each role.

The Team Leader’s role surrounds project deliverables

1.     Project’s technical direction and vision

2.     Individual contributor’s tasks and their implementation

3.     Decision responsibility for design and technical implementation issues

The Manager’s role surrounds resource commitment

1.     Project’s on-going alignment with agreed-upon requirements

2.     Personnel management

3.     Decision responsibility for deployment of people and resources to projects

Usually the hardest part of the separation is the opposing forces of project leadership and resource commitment. Specifically, getting <Manager> to let go of being the technical or design mentor and, conversely, teaching <Team Lead> to look at their team members as tools with which they can accomplish project goals.

Tools, huh? OK, maybe that’s being cynical, but <Team Leader> isn’t there to correct issues of resource commitment; when <Designer X> isn’t showing up for work or isn’t focused on the task at hand, that’s a problem a good <Manager> sees coming from a distance.

There is another important goal in separating the roles of <Team Lead> and <Manager>: to put people into roles that maximize their skill-sets, experience and maturity, whether those attributes be technical or social-centric.  

The best leaders I’ve followed understand the importance of developing the social skills of those in their charge; usually, you are not even aware they are doing it.

In a follow-up post, I will write about the Responsibilities of the Team Lead, as well as steps you can take as an individual contributor to ascend to the role.


Ken Krutsch is Managing Principal of KRUTSCH Associates, a digital strategy and design firm, specializing in product vision and realization, including customer research, roadmap development and full-stack user experience design.

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