Recently, I took the decision to move to another company. It’s not an easy decision, believe me. Even you were not having the best of the times in that job, leaving a place is like saying goodbye to an old friend. In these moments, your mind starts to process all the memories and experiences you have passed. In my case, I carry lot of learnings that I can use in my next challenge. One of them is definitely my first experience as a Team Lead, something that was brand new for me.
In this post I won’t be telling you exactly the best official guidelines to follow if you want to be leading with excellence. There are plenty of good trainings and set of rules on internet that you can check for that. In this case, I will be only talking from my experience. A guide that I developed by having proper training and taking my own observations. This is what it worked for me and I wanted to keep it as simple as possible.
The definition of Team Lead
Let’s start explaining what is a Team Lead (from now on, TL) anyway! As Wikipedia states:
A team leader is a person who provides guidance, instruction, direction and leadership to a group of individuals (the team) for the purpose of achieving a key result or group of aligned results.
Every company understand this role in their own way of course. You will find TLs that will have lot of additional responsibilities as reviewing the work of the employees, taking technical decisions or having direct conversations with customers.
To put you in context, my role was Engineering Team Lead, which is a mix of technical lead and team lead. I had the responsibility of leading the team to achieve the best result in what we do, but also I contributed directly to the project itself. In addition, a good TL should not focus only on results, but also take care about the team members, guiding them to be successful, solving conflicts and keeping a good environment.
Skills of a Team Lead
People will expect from you some skills that you will need when leading a team. These are some of them which I think are the most important:
There are plenty of situations when meetings can take longer than expected. A really common reason is that a discussion is taking longer than expected. Two employees are trying to get an agreement, both have good arguments, but someone has to take the decision. In these cases, you will need to take the action to resolve the conflict and keep the things running. You need to do it in a fair way, ensuring you are not under any unconscious bias and explaining why this decision has been taken. Ensure that people don’t waste time just because a decision is not made. You can always revisit it later, but avoid blocking the flow of the team.
A person that have no passion about what he is doing, cannot be a good leader. You must show every day your commitment of keep going and encourage the people with the mission you are trying to accomplish. This doesn’t mean you are blind and sometimes projects will become your worst nightmare. In these cases, don’t deny that bad things are happening. People won’t trust you if you just hide those problems and ignore them. Face them, accept them and raise up the good environment. You are all together in this boat.
Sometimes you won’t have all the time to finish your tasks or employees won’t be assigning the right work for themselves. In these situations, you will need to delegate specific tasks or responsibilities to your team members. Sounds easy, right? Not at all, delegating tasks could be one of your biggest challenges if you don’t actively think about it. Some people resist to be helped, other will hide you the real progress of a task just to don’t show that they are not capable to do it and, very frequently, people will fail on planning the amount of time that a task will take. Keep an eye on all of these and take the best decisions to ensure a smooth flow of the work.
Maybe one of the most important skills of a TL is to understand how the people feel. This is extremely important to ensure that people is successful in what they do, detect frustrations, prevent conflicts and ensuring a good working experience. Listen actively your team members and pay attention to all the details that could give you hints of how a person is. Follow up any concern you can notice. If you get a good understanding of their feelings, the rest of your work will be more easier. Lastly, keep an eye on your own mental health, handling the problems of lot of people can consume you if you are not careful.
Leads never forget about the timescales, they are not distracted in meetings and they always know what to do. At least, this is what the people expect from you. Don’t disappoint your team, be a person of influence, an example for others. Use tools to take notes and write down all that your head cannot hold. You are not a leader because you have a title, you are a leader cause the people see you as a leader. This is something that you earn by showing that you really care about the team and the project.
If everything above is already under control, congratulations, you are doing things right. However that’s not enough to generate a good and relaxed atmosphere. Let the people know that they can trust in you. Accept that we are all humans, we have bad days, we take bad decisions, but we are all together on this. The people should not fear you, it’s totally the opposite, you are here to make things easier for them. Make social events to improve the communication, use humor to break the ice and remember to have fun! Build a strong relationship with your team members and people will appreciate it.
Leading your team members
The project is not the only important thing. If you forget about the people you are working on, you will have lot of problems to deal with. To prevent this, you will need to implement meetings to talk about the issues that are impacting them (for example, in retrospectives) and have 1:1 meetings to each individual to track more personal topics. These are my tips to handle these kind of conversations:
Logically, if you want to build a strong relationship with your employees, you need to start by listening them. This is more complicated than you can think. Leaders normally are talkative people, they always have things to say. In these moments where the temptation of interrupting the employee’s speech is irresistible, bite your tongue. Let the people freely express themselves. Meanwhile, it would be a good idea if you take some notes and show yourself interested. You can orient the conversation in the topic you want to explore, but have in mind that this is a moment that belongs to them.
Let them speak
It’s really usual to meet shut-in people (specially in the IT world). In this cases, you will need to use some tricks to help them speak. For example, focus only on open questions: “Tell me about…”, “Why…”, “What do you think…”. These questions cannot be answered with yes or no, so those are the better ones to engage a fluent conversation. Even if there is silence for a moment, just wait in case they still have something in their minds. Silence creates some tension in the environment that forces people to speak more. Use it wisely.
Like everything in life, you need to develop a good individual plan to guide the people in their career. This should be an open discussion too, both speakers need to reach an agreement on what’s the next steps. You can find lot of methodologies and apps to tackle this, for example, you can start checking OKRs that are implemented in Google. If you achieve to set objectives that employees love, they will be more engaged than ever.
Track their progress
Having a good plan also facilitate a lot tracking the progress of it. Ensure that the path is clear and there is a real evolution on the objectives. If you achieved to create SMART objectives, this step will be even easier. Make sure to revisit them, specially in case there is no progression. If this is the case, this may not be always related with the performance of the employee, but with the plan itself. On the other hand, if the progress is awesome, make sure you fight for a good recognition (salary increase, promotions, etc). This will let them know that their efforts are worth.
Is that everything you need to become good Team Lead?
Of course not, there are plenty of different situations you will deal with a responsibility of a TL. For example, having difficult conversations, not reaching the project’s deadlines, people quitting, etc. All of these situations are really common and you will need to be prepared to defend your team, amend the issues and have long discussions with all the people involved.
This was a good summary of what I think is key to have in mind when you become a TL. Still, I encourage you to explore and investigate all those topics and get your own conclusions.
Lastly, remember that a higher responsibility will always have a higher impact in your organization and the people that surrounds you. Don’t be scared, but don’t get too comfortable neither. Be the leader you always wanted to work with.
Hi! My name is Alejandro and I’m Technical Lead (Full-Stack). I’m really interested on new technologies and programming skills. I also participated in some gaming development competitions. I hope you enjoy this blog! 😉