Advising Middle Managers

Three of the teams in my unit had new team leads start in October. The team leads split their time between engineering (they have a specialty in either development or testing) and managing (having 1-on-1's with teammates and communicating around the company).

Part of my job as quality lead is helping these teams, and by extension their leaders, be effective. I've had some similar coaching conversations with each of these three new team leads recently. The members of their teams have different skills and personalities, but each leader is facing some of the same challenges. Here's roughly what they're going through, and a couple of options we brainstormed for what to do or not do.

Refinement facilitation

What they notice

They're at a refinement meeting, noticing that two people are talking past each other, and they're also trying to take notes.

What they can do
  1. Point out that there is a misunderstanding and lack of listening. Summarize the points of the two people, declare that there is a gap between their ideas, and see if that's enough for them to realize they need to fix it.
  2. Ask for help. Explain that note-taker and conversation-facilitator is too many roles for one person to play for a 10-person group, and identify someone to take notes.

Objectives and key results

What they notice

The team lead has been tasked with coming up with goals for the coming quarter and year for their team, but the product goals are fuzzy and they just started at the company a few weeks ago.

What they can do
  1. Point out the discrepancy in their understanding of what's going on, and what they're expected to do to their manager. Explain that they don't have enough context to understand what purpose the OKRs should serve, and without a clearer roadmap, they aren't in a position to articulate the goals for the team.
  2. Ask for help. Gather information from the team about what previous OKRs looked like, what the team wants to work towards, and how much they care about this topic at all.

Role expectations

What they notice

Someone on their team has been promoted and they've been at the company for many years, but they seem to be doing fewer things (or different things) than the team lead would expect.

What they can do
  1. Point out the discrepancy between the work they're seeing and what's expected. Describe the specific tasks they were expecting the team member to perform. Ask if the team lead's expectations align with what the team member understood their work should be. Compare both of these understandings with the written job description for the role.
  2. Ask for help. Compare the three (lead's, member's, job description) ideas of what the team member's role could look like, and bring these ideas to the manager. Have them help you sort out which is closest to what makes sense in this context. Practice telling your team member what they need to change by giving the speech to your manager first.

Managing vs. coding

What they notice

They were hired to be a developer and a team lead. Looking at their calendar, they see that 80-90% of their time is coordinating and communicating, leaving only 10-20% for development work.

What they can do
  1. Point out the discrepancy between what they expected the role to be and what you're doing to their manager. Find out if there's a specific amount of time they should be setting aside for focused development work, and see how that compares to their schedule.
  2. Ask for help. Identify the tasks that they're currently taking on, and figure out which ones can be shared with particularly skilled individuals or anyone on the team. Team leads don't have to host every standup, refinement, retro, etc. They just need to make sure the work happens.

This was probably a repetitive post to read. Being a manager can feel very repetitive, especially while establishing new habits and common contexts. As long as the team members remain the same, working through these particular issues will pay off for months or years to come.

Luckily all of my team leads were already doing the work that's hardest to teach: noticing things. They weren't always sure what the next step was, but being able to recognize that uncertainty and bring it to someone to ask for help is what their job is. They don't need to solve every problem. They need to identify which things are problems, and work collaboratively to come to a solution.