Five clear actions to take as a first-time tech leader

One: Establish expectations and trust through regular, individual discussions

As a new leader, one of the best things you can do is to meet regularly with your direct team members. Establish these so that they are weekly, consistent, for about half an hour, and in a private setting.

As a technologist, it’s very possibly that you find it easier to talk to computers than people - and that includes your team. It’s easy to make excuses that this is time-consuming and that there are better ways to stay in touch. Don’t fall into this trap… because it’s not true.

There’s an easy way to test this: remember back to a time where a previous manager was unhappy with something you were doing. The very best remedy (besides doing better) was to ensure you and they had plenty of face-time to talk through what was going on.

As a new manager, there’s going to be a point where you need one of your team members to do better or to act differently. It is so much easier to influence this if you already have a private - and consistent - opportunity to talk candidly with them.

Action: If you’re not doing this already, then go do this right now: setup weekly, half-hour meetings with each of your team members.

Two: Have a plan

  • Understand the goals and objectives of the company and how your team supports those.
     
  • Assess your team - this means understanding the current performance of your team relative to the goals and objectives identified above.
     
  • Identify the gaps - document any differences between how your team is performing compared to how they should be performing.
     
  • Document specific actions - for each gap, document 1 to 3 steps you and/or your team needs to take to close those gaps in the next 90 to 180 days.

Action: If you don’t have a current plan, go right now and assess your team relative to the goals and objectives of the company. (And then follow through on the rest of the steps)

Three: Provide direct, constructive feedback

The second most important thing you can do is clearly state your expectations. The first is to provide direct, constructive feedback to your team. (But here’s the secret, the constructive feedback is much more successful if your team understands your expectations).

Clearly stating your expectations isn’t about directing or micro-managing. It’s about articulating the objectives of the company and the projects your team is working on, delineating your plans to meet those objectives, and sharing your expectations of the roles and responsibilities your team has in those plans.

Providing performance feedback is easy when your team members are meeting your expectations. It’s harder when they aren’t.

In some cases, your team members may be your friends, some maybe long-time employees, one might even be the former babysitter of the president’s kids. Whatever the situation, they all deserve direct honesty from you and a clear understanding of your expectations.

Anything less is a disservice to them and to you. 

It’s tempting, so, so, tempting to skim the difficult topics or to only share the good feedback with your team. And it’s natural; few people really enjoy conflict.

To make this easier, ensure in your weekly, individual meetings to provide feedback on how the team member is doing relative to your expectations - good or bad. Sharing what you expect and how things are going consistently makes it easier to do when things get really difficult. 

Action: If you aren’t already doing this, then make a promise to start the very next meeting.

Four: Delegate

As a new manager, you’ll hear this over and over, “Don’t do the work for your team, empower them to do their jobs”. You’ll hear this so often that it becomes cliché. And then you’ll find yourself doing something anyways that you should have delegated. Don’t worry, it’s completely natural and there’s an easy solution once you notice this: delegate.

Why this happens is human nature. You were likely promoted because you were really great at being a Business Analyst, Project Manager, Developer, Tester, etc. And so now you’re leading a team that does one or more of those things. As a technologist, you probably deep down believe it’s faster and easier to just do some of these things yourself rather than giving direction to someone else. And sometimes you might even be right. But taking on that work undermines your team by sending the not-so-subtle message that you don’t value their work, and takes away from time you could be leading.

Action: If you find yourself doing something that your team members should be responsible for, then delegate it - immediately.

Five: Develop your team

If you’ve created a plan, established clear expectations, and consistently provided direct feedback, then you have a wonderfully solid base to now begin developing your team members.

  • Document the role(s) and responsibilities for each team member. Don’t just go off their job description, but instead take the time to write a profile of the job for each individual.
     
  • Identify their strengths and weaknesses. This is an opportunity for you to be explicit in your assessment of what they’re doing well and not so well.
     
  • Over a series of meetings, clarify your perspective on their role what you believe their strengths and opportunities are to improve. Focus on their strengths and how best to apply those within the organization. The weaknesses are good discussion points, but are usually less important to focus on - unless these weaknesses are hindering their performance.
     
  • Clarify their goals and aspirations - use these discussions to better understand what motivates them and how they want to best contribute.
     
  • Collaboratively build a development plan. This can be as simple as books they plan to read, coaching you plan to provide, training they plan to pursue, or as elaborate as a multi-year, multi-pronged self-improvement plan. But the key is to build this plan collaboratively. Anything less will lack your investment in their success and most importantly, their investment in the plan.

Action: If you haven’t already, document the roles and responsibilities, strengths and weakness for one of your team members. Then schedule several one hour meetings to discuss your thoughts and collaboratively build a plan. Then repeat.