Team Lead Fireside Chat: A Recap

A few weeks ago, Moses, Rob, Stefanni, and Svenja met to discuss how Team Leads work at thoughtbot. You can find it on our YouTube channel if you missed the chat. Below is a summary of everything we discussed.

Team Lead Fireside Chat

Team Leads at thoughtbot

The concept of Team Leads is new to thoughtbot and has evolved over the last few years. When Rob joined the company in 2016, everybody was a Designer or Developer. Each office also had a Managing Director, Design Director, and Development Director. The Directors were responsible for the general running of each studio.

Over time, the studio teams grew. We found that the Directors needed more time to support all their team members. We added the Team Lead role to help folks continue to work at a sustainable pace.

There are some things to note about Directors and Team Leads. People in those roles continue to bill on client work as Designers or Developers. Folks in people management positions need to continue doing this type of work. They came into this industry because they love design and development. They also love people management. They want to have the best of both worlds.

Team Leads are responsible for holding regular 1:1s with their team members. They use this time to help them identify areas for growth. Beyond that, the role is very “light touch”. We encourage people managers to help their team members define actions. They should avoid doing the work for them.

Particular characteristics are essential to us as people managers. We all love the coaching aspect of the role. We want to help people grow and help them identify how to achieve their goals. Continuous improvement in ourselves and our team members is also vital. This is one of thoughtbot’s values, which we hold ourselves to.

There is also the importance of trust, transparency, and vulnerability. We want folks to be themselves, and we must lead by being true to these characteristics. Everybody on the call said they had cried in a 1-on-1 at some point. Being a people manager involves ensuring your team members’ work fulfils them. Only when people’s work fulfils them are they doing their best work. We need to coach those folks to bring fulfilment in everything they do. At the end of the day, we are all humans, and we want everybody to be happy.

Questions from the Live Team Lead Fireside Chat

“What is the definition of a thoughtbot people manager?”

One thing to note is that every Designer and Developer is a Tech Lead. It is an attribute we look for when we hire folks, and it’s part of our interview process. We do this so that nobody is the focus point of a project, and we can reduce any bottlenecks. For this to work, we need people to have good self-management skills. One of our Team Leads’ responsibilities is to coach their team.

As we mentioned earlier, we book all our Team Leads for projects. This means that they bill on client work for four days a week. The other day of the week, we focus on investing in the community, thoughtbot, or ourselves. The responsibilities are to coach and support team members. We expect Team Leads to have regular 1-on-1s. This is the core of the work. It is very light-touch.

In other places, we get the impression that people managers focus more on the product roadmap. Those people managers spend the majority of their time in meetings. We could be wrong, but this is our impression.

One person on the call left the following comment.

At [my company], two roles cover that. Each developer has an engineering manager who helps us with career progression. And then each product team has a tech lead who helps unblock developers, etc.

As you can see, leadership roles vary from company to company. It depends on factors such as their business model and engineering size.

“What kind of leadership coaching do you get?”

In the past, we sent people managers on Be Plucky’s “So Now You’re a Manager” training. This would involve flying folks to a location to join people from other places in training. Some of the skills we would learn would be coaching, 1-on-1s, and asking open questions. Be Plucky’s founder, Jen, has values that match ours. Everybody enjoyed her training, and we were better people managers for it.

Since we started working from anywhere, we have used a more remote-focused approach. We now work with LifeLabs Learning for our people management training. This is like Be Plucky’s approach. We have several 90-minute sessions that cover different topics. They include coaching techniques like the SOON (Success, Obstacles, Options, Next steps) Funnel. These tools help team members unblock themselves.

We also have regular internal training that we take part in throughout the year. These will include topics like DEI, harassment, and feedback. Last year, we focused on giving feedback. We learned about tools like the BIQ (Behaviour, Impact, Question) model from that.

Some of us also have personal leadership coaches outside of thoughtbot. Rob has been working with Chris Free for the last three years. It is sometimes helpful to have an outside perspective. This is where external coaching helps.

“How do you transition to people management?”

When making any decision, it is vital to understand why you want to do something. Is it the job title that interests you? Do you want better compensation? Do you want recognition? What other reasons are there? Why do you want those things? From there, you’ll better understand what is best for you.

There are differences between being a Team Lead and being a Project Manager. Successful folks often fall into the trap that management is the next step in their career. You have to want to be a people manager. There is a whole new set of skills you’ll need to learn.

Being a Project Manager is more focused on the delivery of a product. Your daily work will focus on improving the process and ensuring that the project will be a success. This is something we expect from all our Designers and Developers. Project management requires different skills to people management.

It helped the people on the call to talk to folks who had been through the same journey. What did they learn? Where do you need to level up? What are the challenges? What does success look like? How will the role fulfil me?

All this comes back to understanding why you want a change in role.

“What resources do you recommend for people managers?”

The team shared many resources that have helped them grow in their careers. These resources have helped folks regardless of their current role.

“What do you find challenging about being a people manager?”

One key thing that can be challenging is understanding your team members. We are all humans, and everybody is different. We are all in various places in our lives and careers. You have to find the best way for you to communicate with each other. This is easier when you are on the same project as each other.

When you move up in a role, giving an opinion without being dogmatic can be challenging. You want to give advice without stymying your team members’ creativity. Your job title gives your voice more weight, and you must know that.

Wrap up of Our Team Lead Fireside Chat

We had a fantastic discussion amongst ourselves. Our viewers also provided excellent comments. We plan to do something similar again, so keep your eyes peeled.