Management Skill Series – Your First Team

This is the first in a series of posts discussing management skills. If you haven’t already, please refer to the introduction first. These articles will apply to new team leads who grew from within a company and those starting their first steps in managing others as well as themselves. They aim to provide for others what I’ve had to collect from mentors, teachers, or the hard way through trial and error.

A natural step in an organization would be to take a great employee and carve a path where they would have more direct impact on the company. For example, by promoting employees to Team Leads and managers.

We all have to start somewhere, and your first team will test many of the things you thought you knew about management. Most of what managers do is not something team members see. You will learn a lot about yourself and others. You will be in position to impact lives for better or worse and there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing your people grow.

You already know your job or you wouldn’t be managing a team. This post is about introducing you to what you should look forward to.

Your position changed

The first most important thing to remember is that you are now paid to lead and manage. This is by itself time consuming work that takes effort and intent. The best example of this came to me from a CTO of a large company who mentioned that his biggest obstacle was to understand that he needs to reduce/stop doing the actual work on his own. When he first got to manage an R&D team he still insisted on maintaining the code – taking hours on end in front of Emacs when he should have been managing his team. He felt that meetings and thoughts were not actual work, and that he needs to maintain a connection to the syntax and code. It was only when he started delegating and understanding what he’s really there for was when he started to grow. He was my first mentor when leading my own team.

Not everyone needs to drop the actual work, but the basic principle holds fast – when you’re a manager, your main responsibility is making sure everyone is doing their part. The rest could be spent on mentoring, learning, and yes – even writing actual code.

Team Lead responsibilities

One basic principles define how responsibilities should be handled by a healthy team:

The responsibilities of a manager include the sum of responsibilities of everyone under their authority.

This means that if you have a team member who’s responsible for the smallest thing, it would be you who should assume responsibility in face of your manager should they fail and you who will also gain when they do something extraordinary.

Young managers might instinctively do the opposite – deflect blame towards what someone did, or attempt to take credit for the achievements of their team. Avoid this at all costs.

What you will need to learn

In order to become an effective manager you will need to learn some qualities and unlearn your bad habits. You will find that being an effective manager is just as much about what not to do and what to say no to.

The first thing I would recommend for a new team leader to learn is what I call the principle of output and how it will be applied to your new team. A separate article on this will follow this post in the Team Management series. This will provide a simple system for when to say “no” and how to manage your pipeline of tasks to team members. I would recommend following this series as it will unfold common issues such as priorities and conflict resolution.

Things to avoid as Team Lead

The most common two mistakes for new managers are either keeping too short a leash on team members, or keeping none at all. A Team Lead should be felt, but not as a hindrance.

When I first got my team everyone knew their part. Things were running smoothly, and we got by for about a year. It wasn’t until things started falling apart when I noticed I wasn’t really managing them. I was more of a member than a lead and the impact was the loss of a key member and tremendous pressure being put on us. I had then realized that I was managing the team only internally – saying “yes” to every task and trying to juggle and assign everything instinctively.

I learned the importance of saying “no,” and that a good manager will stand mostly with his back towards his team, managing what comes in through the door. It may take a lot of work until you can afford doing this.

Maintaining your friendships

If you’ve been working with team members for a while, you most likely feel a strong connection to them. It’s common to worry about losing these friendships as you move up the ladder but it’s rarely necessary. The only impact on your relationships should be that you will no longer be able to rant on corporate issues as you did before.

A manager cannot rant to his subordinates. He rants to his manager or other managers, who rant to their managers – and so on.

It is your responsibility to uphold corporate strategy with your team whether you like it or not. That said, you also carry a strong responsibility for your team. This responsibility will be guiding you as well when you discuss strategies with your manager or when taking important decisions. You will be making your best friends and worst enemies the more responsibilities you take on.

Go ahead and read the second post in the series regarding escalations.

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