I’ve gone one year without being team lead anymore.
Fading Soft Skills
Looking back, it’s surprising how quickly I untrained soft skills which were hard to acquire like:
- running interviews 1
- having hard feedback conversations
- juggling moderating a discussion while listening and being open to voiced viewpoints
- taking notes and tabs on everything
- reading and influencing the team mood
- “over”communicate: communicate proactively and with clarity
- describing expectations
- enduring meeting marathons
- keeping multiple stakeholders in check
- balancing protecting the team with business needs
- motivate and nudge people to change their behavior and embrace change
- thinking in systems, optimizing processes
These soft skills need to be practiced with regularity to keep them around2. Time let them fade, but gave me more self-reflection. My biggest realization:
While my job title was team lead, I was a team manager.
Going From Developer to lead for the 1st time
When promoted, I followed the helpful foot steps laid out for me: I continued practices and kept structures my (good and experienced) predecessor had put in place. I mirrored what I had seen — “fake it until you make it”.
- Yes, I hired more people into the team.
- Yes, I recommended some raises / bonuses and declined some requests.
- I promoted some team members 3.
- Yes, I held 1:1s and 360 degree feedback where I tried to provide helpful feedback and get my own 4.
The good bits
Besides “human resource” management, my job was to manage expectations in all directions. Making sure work was smoothly shipped in line with the growing demand. Ensuring the business could rely on the team like on a well-oiled machine.
I was good at it.
Manager ≠ Leader
But I did not set fundamental directions — I felt trapped between a multitude of forces pulling and pushing me in different directions, commitments, and responsibilities. I did not break free of them.
- I did not empower people to strive for breakthroughs.
- I did not leave a dent on the organization or product to prevent them from drifting in the direction they eventually did 5.
It’s painful to hear what followed: Two restructurings with massive churn. The product is in a buggier state than it was in when I left. Rarely am I in touch with ex-colleagues. To conclude: It does not feel like I built something lasting as “team manager”.
Do I miss heading a team? I’d lie if I’d say “never”.
Which I had to re-learn quickly though. ↩
Which lets me wonder whether it’s required to pick between working as an individual contributor vs. in a “people position” at some point. ↩
Some prematurely, based on the organization’s hunger for more mid level overhead. ↩
And did not always manage to find the right words to the right points across. I’m also guilty of selling opportunities the organisation had in stock instead of giving advice how to get the things people were actually striving for. ↩
To be fair, it’s an old-school multi-national, the software division was a few hundred heads strong, and there was at least 4 management layers further up. It’s highly questionable I could have done anything about things had I tried stronger. ↩