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Stepping Up: From Specialist to Team Leader

Every single role in every single company is important.

Businesses are ecosystems and even the smallest of changes can have huge consequences at every level of a company.

Do you remember the Butterfly Effect?

Well, the point is that in a good company, every role should contribute to the same goal. Sure, the way that each individual contributes is different, but the collective focus remains the same: make the product the best that it can be.

So, what does this have to do with the journey from a specialist to a team leader? 

It’s all about which skills you need to employ and how you maintain the delicate balance of the ecosystem when you need to take your role to the next level.

What is a specialist, anyway?

For me, a specialist is like being a guru of what you do. 

If you have heard of the term “T-shaped skills” you might know what I’m going to say already, but you can think of a specialist as a person with a good understanding of a broad range of topics, and a deep understanding of a particular niche.

Just like the letter T.

T and I shaped specialists

For example, a backend developer should generally understand how the frontend works, how applications are deployed,  and they might even know how something like kubernetes work.

Still, as a back-end developer, my field of expertise is of course the backend. I need to have a deep understanding of how to create scalable architecture, how to write efficient code, and always stay up to date with best practices and new technologies. 

A specialist usually operates at what is called the ‘task’ or ‘feature’ level. 

You have a concrete task or feature, which requires a deep understanding of your field to implement. 

You’re the leader of the pack in that aspect of the company’s goals and no one else has such deep expertise. Congratulations, you’re a specialist. 🔥

As a specialist, performance is generally measured quantitatively. For example:

  • The number of closed tickets
  • The documentation you have written
  • Your code reviews
  • The deployments you have performed
  • The time you have spent developing features

Quantitative performance metrics give specialists insight into their progress and provide actionable evidence of improvement. 

What defines success as a specialist?

Well, that differs for every person. But, as a team leader, it is my opinion that completing your assigned work in a timely manner with the right level of quality qualifies as success. 

If I come home from work having completed a few hard tasks that day, I always feel happy and proud of myself, and call that day a success. 💪

As a successful specialist, you should also have aspirations and expectations about your role. 

Personally, that meant the possibility to work with the newest technologies. The most challenging tasks are a possibility to learn and provide the perfect opportunity to improve my level of expertise.

Depending on their experience, a specialist might have additional responsibilities or activities. 

This could be anything:

  • Take the responsibility to help junior colleagues
  • Participate in strategic meetings
  • Contribute to knowledge sharing

In essence, you should be using your expertise at all times to help your team and your company as a whole to make the correct decisions.

What makes a successful team leader?

So, what changes when you become a team leader?

Well, first and foremost, you have to shift your perspective on success:

  • You’ll go from “my performance” to “team performance”
  • And from and “my knowledge” to “team happiness”

Leaders should leverage not only their area of expertise but also their abilities in management.

As a team lead, you become responsible for unlocking the potential of each member of your team and aligning their skill sets to the goals of the company as a whole. 

That means getting to know the people that you are working with, understanding their strengths, the places for improvement, and then knowing how to communicate both those things in an effective and motivational way.

You also need to take care to nurture their expectations, find out what motivates them, and offer as many opportunities for team members to grow and learn as possible.

By having regular one-on-one meetings, a lead builds an understanding of a person’s character, which is arguably more important than measuring their performance.

Understanding someone plays a huge part in curating the vibe of a team. That means managing the relationships between team members, knowing their personal preferences, and capability for different levels of responsibility. 

Team leaders can set ambitious goals for a team but they should not forget that goals will be only reached if the team’s inner atmosphere is good. 

There is a great example in Patrick Lancioni book “The five dysfunctions of a team,” where the author talks about common team dysfunctions and how you can deal with them in order to unlock potential. 

This framework allows a team leader to evaluate the current status of their team and take action accordingly. 

Remember, you cannot improve what you cannot measure. 🔥

Team dysfunctions infographic

Once the people in your team are happy and able to support one another, it is time to push the team to reach for the stars.

As a team leader, I am always setting ambitious goals and giving the team the opportunity to figure out how to achieve them. 

Yes, it’s a challenge, but they don’t face that challenge alone. It’s my role to remove as many obstacles along the way as possible.

In practice, that means giving support where it is needed and clarifying things. 

Personally, I believe that micromanagement is not helpful. It locks all team potential and you will rarely see a successful company built by micromanaging.

Remember that a team is like an ecosystem and if you spend too long looking at one particular element, you will lose track of the bigger picture. 

Setting goals and motivating your team

Setting goals should foster a sense of purpose rather than create a sense of urgency. 

The image below explains it all. 😅

Urgency vs purpose infographic

I always like to challenge my colleagues. 

A challenge is a way to communicate that you can see your colleagues’ potential and it should be a path for them to improve, and evaluate problems and roadblocks from different angles. 

This is good advice in life generally and as a team leader, you will see how this approach gives your colleagues the freedom and motivation to grow faster and learn more. 

Andrew S. Grove says that “managers are responsible for increasing the output of their organizations and the neighboring organizations that they influence.”

Managers “leverage” their time by spending small amounts of time to have as large an impact as possible through three activities: 

  1. Information gathering
  2. Decision making
  3. Nudging others 

As a manager, I think about processes in the team and in the company as a whole. 

Questions like “is this an effective meeting,” “could this meeting be a Slack message,” “is this the right process” and “why we are doing things this way” should always be at the top of your mind. 

Should team leaders still be experts?

When I became a team leader, one question bothered me more than all the rest: should team leaders still be experts? 

For example, if I am leading a team of data scientists, should I be a top-notch expert in that field? 

I’d say no. 

Team leaders should be professional enough to evaluate team performance, understand the work that is being done, know what is a task well done and what is not, and, where necessary, be able to step in and help the team by picking up “hands-on” tasks.

Like Andrew S. Grove says: “the output of a manager is the output of the organizational units under his or her supervision or influence.”

That means that a team leader should be focused on pushing all of their colleagues to improve and grow.

In my opinion, skills like project management and entrepreneurship are very helpful in being a good team leader. 

They allows you to better organize the team tasks and priorities, and deliver results faster. 

As a team leader, you have the perfect chance to build your dream team. It’s one of the hardest things to do and you need to work on that constantly to get it right. 

One way to think of it is like this: hire slow and fire fast.

Put lots of effort into the hiring process, but if a hire is not successful, then you have to admit that. 

To fire fast is to acknowledge that we’re all human and make mistakes. But, we can have a bias toward giving every individual ample forgiveness, the time to turn things around, and all of the guidance too.

It’s tough to make the call when things are not working out and you have to know when it’s time to part ways. But before you make that decision, you have to ask yourself: have I done everything I could as a team leader to give this person an opportunity to succeed?

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Written by

Author avatar

Tomas Rasymas

Tomas is Zyro’s Data Science Team Lead. He and his talented team generate insights which help make Zyro better for users. He is most passionate about finding smart AI solutions for tasks big and small. He’s also a lowkey expert on machine voice recognition.

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