Five Tips for Newly Promoted Team Leads

Daniel Shir

Congrats on your promotion from individual contributor to eng team lead. Now what?

Transitioning from an IC developer to a team lead is a major tech career milestone. It’s also relatively uncharted territory.

While some companies offer coaching and management training, many others – particularly startups and smaller companies – don’t offer structured programs to ease the transition. And the switch itself can be jolting.

Going from writing code to delegating and overseeing the work of others requires a dramatically different skill set and mindset. So in order to help, we enlisted our community of dev leaders to share some of their most important lessons learned along the way.

#1 Focus on the similarities

There’s no doubt that being an IC and a team lead require different capabilities. But it’s also easy to overstate the differences and get fixated on what’s new and daunting. This is counterproductive. 

At a high level, great engineering is about understanding how systems work together. Writing clean, elegant code requires a grasp of how different languages and services operate best. And debugging demands a detail-oriented and problem-solving mindset. 

Being a team lead leans on all these skill sets. The major difference is that the field of focus is a team or engineering organization rather than a code base:

  • Optimizing the output of a team requires an understanding of how different contributors and workstreams work together
  • Motivating an IC requires an understanding of her motivation, or how she works best
  • Resolving team challenges requires the same root-cause and five why’s mindset as debugging code

Additionally, as former IC devs, newly-minted team leads are uniquely positioned to empathize with the challenges of their direct reports. 

So take a deep breath. It’s not all different. But it’s important to recognize where it is – which brings us to... 

#2 Embrace the differences

As an IC, your success is determined by your ability to write phenomenal code. As a team lead, your primary goal is to manage and scale a high-performing team. This requires keeping people engaged, on-task, and efficient.

A common failure mode of new team leads is to micromanage the work of direct reports by getting too involved in actual day-to-day coding. In general, this behavior comes from one of two places:

  • Lack of understanding of how to empower ICs to deliver high-quality output
  • Insecurity about one’s abilities and effectiveness in the new role of team lead

Stepping into the team lead role requires the ability to slide across what Matt Johannes calls the “manager-contributor continuum”: intervening with technical contributions when required to unblock the team, but knowing when to take your hands off of the keyboard and bring a critical managerial perspective.

#3 Be vulnerable

Devs can be a tough crowd. We’re often stereotyped as skeptical, fiercely independent, and ultra-rational. This dynamic can be daunting for a first-time manager, especially one who is insecure about her credentials.

Understandably, some newly-minted team leads take a “show no weakness” approach to leadership. The mindset is that acknowledging uncertainty will undermine authority and open the door to dev team mutiny. 

This approach often fails. What a team leads perceives as strength and confidence are easily read by team members as rigidity and arbitrariness.

In contrast, the most successful team leads often approach their team with humility. It’s tough to strike the right balance, so here are some concrete suggestions:

  • Ask open-ended questions. A question like “can you have test coverage done by Tuesday?” immediately puts somebody on edge. It immediately raises the stressful implicit possibility of a “no” answer and narrows the conversation into a yes/no rather than a problem-solving dialogue. Instead consider the open-ended “what would help you have test coverage done by Tuesday?” This conveys a collaborative, supportive stance and shows a genuine desire to understand. 
  • Admit the limitations of your own experience. Rather than delivering proclamations, share your past experience – and open up the possibility of updating your beliefs.  “I'm not sure Java is the best language for this task. However, I've been wrong before, so I might be wrong about this, too. How long will it take you to research this approach and see if it works out?"
  • Be transparent about the learning curve. Acknowledge that the challenges you’re facing as a team lead are new. And consider modeling continuous improvement by sharing the steps that you’re taking to learn and improve: joining new communities, for example, or learning from mentors.  

#4 Get used to managing up (and sideways)

Many newly-minted team leads focus on the challenge of managing direct reports. This is sensible, since it’s the one thing that’s glaringly different from being an IC.

But focusing just on managing downward misses a key component of team lead success: as a team lead, you’re more centrally embedded in the decision-making fabric of the organization. You’re required to weigh priorities, participate in tough tradeoff conversations, and advocate on behalf of your team’s needs.

This demands a focus on both managing up through the organization and engaging more with cross-functional peers.  

  • Understand the priorities of the organization and your manager. At the highest level, the projects that you’re responsible for are nestled within the organization’s priorities. Understanding how your team’s projects contribute to the org’s strategy will help you participate knowledgeably in key decisions about scope and direction. Similarly, understanding the pressures that your boss is under will help you navigate tradeoffs more skillfully and resolve resource conflicts in an optimal way. 
  • Build relationships with your peers. Cross-functional peers (e.g., in release management or product management) are an invaluable source of context and intel on the “why” behind key decisions. Which customers are clamoring for new capabilities? Why was the product scope changed at the last minute? Being armed with these data points can equip any team lead to operate more effectively. 

#5 Unlock motivation and engagement

In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink asserts that beyond satisfying basic material needs, there are three factors that drive human motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. His research finds that supporting employees in satisfying these desires leads to greater engagement, satisfaction, and performance excellence.

In the “heat of battle,” it can be difficult for a team lead to balance the need for short-term execution against long-term motivation. (E.g., you know that Daniel on your team would really benefit from launching a new front-end feature, but you urgently need him to refactor some code in the next sprint.) But the most effective team leads are always looking for opportunities to cultivate greatness among their team members.

Here are some ways that team leads can support team motivation:

  • Autonomy: Set clear expectations with team members about quality and deadlines – but allow them to set the course on approach and intermediate milestones. 
  • Mastery: Assign team members to projects in areas where they excel and shine. Additionally, identify opportunities to put team members on projects that will provide growth, learning, and expansion of a core skill set. 
  • Purpose: Invest in providing the team with context on why their projects and initiatives matter – to the company and the end customer. 

Closing Thoughts

The shift from individual dev to team lead is exciting, but it’s also challenging and unnecessarily lonely. 

Team leads have the unique opportunity to interface between company strategy and the day-to-day engineering work. But team leads often report feeling like they don’t have a home base. Some describe it as having given up the joy of coding, but not yet feeling like a real part of company leadership.

Be patient and know that there are others out there going through a similar journey. In fact, we’ve been so inspired by the stories from team leads that we created a community for like-minded folks wrestling with questions of professional development, engineering ops, remote work, and more. 

If you’re eager to connect with a network of devs on similar topics, you can sign up here. 

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