Surprises When Becoming A Team Lead
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Being a team lead is a natural step from many mid-level and senior positions. It’s also a bit of a culture shock if you haven’t done it before. In many organizations, you may get promoted to a position and expected to deliver, without anyone giving you a clue about what is expected. Worse still, you are going to have to learn quickly, or you could very easily lose your job.
If you have a sense of pride in your ability to code and think it is extremely important, you might be surprised at some of the other things that are expected of team leads. Not only do you have to be far more careful to be professional and fair to your coworkers, but you may find yourself in a position to lead them in various ways, including mentoring. You’ll also probably find that a lot of activities that you don’t particularly enjoy are considered extremely important for your job. Finally, you may also have bad habits that you need to correct in order to be an effective team lead.
Until this point in your career, most steps in your career have consisted of doing more (or more difficult) work than what you did in the previous position. While this happens in a team lead position, these positions do tend to add a lot of responsibilities that have little to do with code. If you plan to eventually be higher up in management, such a position is a great introduction to the skills that you’ll need for those higher positions. However, make no mistake, a team lead position is the first step in a career change away from software development and you need to be serious in how you approach it.
A transition to a team lead position is a huge step. Not only is it a better position in many respects, but it’s often the first step towards moving into real management positions later in your career (provided you want that). However, by its nature it’s also the first step towards a complete change in your career. As such, there are some things that will almost certainly surprise and frustrate you about that position. However, if you are prepared, you are more likely to be able to handle the position well.
Interpersonal relationships change.
Previously you interacted with your coworkers as equals. Now, however, there is a tinge of management in anything you say, whether you want it there or not. This can make relationships less warm and make people cautious around you. This also means that you have to be careful to avoid even the appearance of favoritism, because it is corrosive to the team. Worst of all, your friends may not understand that. If you are still coding, you still have to pull your weight or your team WILL discuss it when your back is turned. This probably means longer hours or greater discipline (possibly both).
Communications with your team will change.
You are effectively the leadership of the team (hence the whole “team lead”) term. Suggestions you might have casually (or even jokingly) made before can be taken seriously now. This has the potential of backfiring if you don’t watch your mouth. Team members will start coming to you for help now. They might have before, but they are going to feel especially abandoned if you don’t help them. You also have to be careful to keep communication lines open. You are now the nexus of communication between your team and those that are higher up. You want to make sure that your team doesn’t feel the need to route around you to get things done. You will need to check your ego at the door. You can be right about absolutely everything and be a terrible team lead if you communicate poorly. If you are sure you are right about everything, not only are you wrong about a lot, but you won’t find out you are wrong until it really hurts.
Expectations of your work change.
You’ll likely still be expected to be as productive as you were previously. This often occurs while you are still being expected to mentor/lead a team and attend lots of other meetings. Your team will also have the expectation that you will protect them to some degree from the rest of the organization and that you won’t mislead them. Expectations will need to be set in both directions. While managers are typically either a “crap funnel” or “crap umbrella”, as a team lead, you are often expected to be both. Your manager expects to be able to delegate to your team without fuss, and your team expects you to keep them from being overloaded, distracted, and blamed for failures. You need to be more careful about both your code quality and the way you review the code of others, because you are expected to avoid stupid mistakes, and you probably have time and attention constraints now that make you more likely to make them.
Culture is now your problem
Your team looks to you for an example and for guidance. This means that a lot of things that were previously acceptable no longer are. This also means that you are going to have be a bit more tactful and political with the way you handle things. If you’ve gotten into the habit of bashing other team members or other teams, you have a big problem. You also need to watch how you present your work ethic. Looking lazy or regularly overworking can now impact your coworkers, as they are liable to emulate your behavior. Interpersonal mistakes are more likely to get you in hot water with management, because you can much more easily cause turnover and lawsuits.
You still aren’t “real” management.
You probably don’t have the ability to fire people as a team lead, and you almost certainly don’t have the ability to hire them either. Nevertheless, you are quite likely to get blamed for either situation, because your team members will see you as part of management, rather than as part of the team. Management will also probably blame you for the actions of your team, but not give you any real authority. Your pay scale probably also reflects all these things.
What leads actually do is different than what you think.
While leads are generally expected to code, there are also a lot of non-coding responsibilities on your plate. You’ll be expected to act as a go-between between your team and management in both directions. You’ll also be expected to assume some responsibility for the productivity of your team. You’ll be expected to mentor other developers and help them get unstuck from problems. You will probably also have some reporting responsibilities, either to your manager, or to their manager.
Your schedule changes a lot.
You might have long periods of focuses work before. You might still get them now, but they will be rarer, as you are transitioning to more of a manager’s schedule. You’ll probably also find that your ability to schedule things over the longer term is also more difficult, because you’ll probably get pulled into more meetings with less warning than you might have had as a developer. Expectations around work/life balance may change as well. You may face expectations of longer workdays and more availability during your time off. This can also mean that you end up dealing with emails after work and the occasional crisis. As a leader, you may want to do this, just to keep pressure off your team.
Responsibilities change and you have to delegate what you used to do.
While you probably still are coding, if you want to move up, that means that you need to train your people up to the point where they can replace you when you move up. You also probably have less time and more responsibilities on your plate. This means that the rest of the team will necessarily have to do some of the work that you used to do. Delegation alone won’t work, however. You’re going to have to learn to both delegate, and to set reasonable expectations. You have to be willing to see that those expectations are met as well. Make sure that your methods of communication are up to snuff when you delegate work. You don’t want to have to scramble to find out where things are when YOUR manager asks you.
Your network at work changes.
Instead of your network being mostly developers and other adjacent positions, when you become a team lead, you need to be actively building your network outside of the IT department. You are also on a different playing field in regards to office politics. You may have to worry about your own team members, and you will be jockeying for position with other teams while trying to protect your team. Being able to work well with other team members is going to be even more important, because failure is more expensive at this level. Your networking with other departments should probably include eating meals with them and socializing.
What you DON’T do changes.
You shouldn’t be making jokes about the quality of someone else’s work, jokes about firing people etc. Once you have even minimal power, those jokes can be taken as threats. You also have to stop gossiping, if that’s a thing you do, because now that not only sets a bad example, but the results of it can land on your team. You can’t be seen visibly slacking off, or at least not often. You may not always be busy, especially if you have gaps between meetings, but you’ll need to look busy to avoid resentment. You also can no longer afford to tolerate certain personality types. For instance, perpetual complainers and “smart boys” because they quickly become backstabbing toxic monsters and they’ll damage your team morale.
Tricks of the Trade
Different roles on teams mean thinking about things differently. This episode was about moving up to a lead role and how you will have to change your thinking for doing that. The concept applies to other areas of your team though. The various members have different goals and functions so what a BA thinks is important may not even be something that the QA or DBA even think about. Learning about the other roles on your team can help you to understand what motivates them and what they think of as important. The same concept applies outside of the work place. Different people have various goals not only in their work life but also in their personal lives. Understanding these motivations will help you to understand the people around you, helping to the reach their goals will encourage them to help you reach yours.