Growing New Leaders: Using Team Leads to Advance Your Organization

If you’re an IT organization leader, you know that filling a management position can be really challenging. Identifying new leaders isn’t an easy task, and hiring an unknown can be daunting when a mistake can have a big organizational impact. While we’re sometimes lucky enough to have a great candidate show up when we post a position, it can be very helpful to lay the groundwork ourselves. Fortunately, we have a great opportunity inside our own organizations to test potential leaders and to benefit our teams while we’re doing so. That opportunity is the role of team lead.

What Is a Team Lead?

So what is a team lead? Typically, a team lead is an employee who provides grassroots leadership within the team without having a traditional management role. In some cases, team leads are senior team members who are the team’s default representatives and serve as the bridge to other parts of the organization. In other cases, they’re the people who are solving relationship problems, leading projects from within the project team, or working as the almost magical trust brokers behind the scenes of your critical successes.

Successful team leads combine an understanding of the team’s subject matter with the ability to build and maintain relationships both within the team and with other organizations. They also have to understand organizational politics and how to get things done—a skill that’s easier to describe than it is to prescribe, as each group that your team works with will have a different personality and path to success.

During my career, I’ve seen a lot of teams with a technical wizard, but fewer have a team lead. As with many working relationships, teams that have a lot of success often have both, and if the team leads and the technical wizards understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, they can make the entire team immensely more capable.

Of course, team effectiveness isn’t the only reason a team lead makes sense. Team lead roles are also a great place to “try out” a promising team member for a management role. Even if it’s not a named position in your team, recognizing that a team lead can help you succeed as a leader can be a big win.

Identifying Team Leads

If you’re thinking “wow, I have someone who does this already,” you’re in great shape. If not, you probably won’t be surprised to know that identifying a potential team lead can take time. But be warned: you may be surprised by who steps up. I was! My division was created as part of an organizational redesign in 2013. When it was created, I was fortunate enough to start with a strong group of managers, but I knew that I was going to keep them busy. Thus, I asked them to start to identify team leads who could help with the load. Here’s what we looked for:

  • People who form teams to accomplish tasks
  • Individuals with a willingness to step up to fill the gap when needed
  • People who take feedback well and then apply it
  • Those who can step back from a situation to assess why the situation occurred, rather than just reacting to it
  • Staff members who understand that preserving a relationship, or fostering it, is important to long-term success, in addition to delivering a product or solution

Team leads don’t have to want a management role, but it does help if they’re interested in learning what it is like to be a leader.

Building a Team Lead

A lot of ingredients can go into the recipe to make a great team lead. In my case, my management team members spent some time working with their staff to identify team leads. This was some of the first homework I assigned them after our division was created. After a few weeks, more than half came back with candidates they thought would make good team leads.

With our list in hands—along with some good discussions about who was on the list, why, and where we thought they could grow—we invested time and effort working with those staff members in a variety of ways:

  • Providing leadership opportunities as part of their project and task assignments
  • Asking them to act as substitutes for management meetings
  • Training in project management, kaizen, and other leadership skills and techniques
  • Spending more time with them in one-on-one conversations about leadership topics
  • Identifying mentors for them both inside and outside of our IT organization to provide a broader view of the university
  • Understanding their career goals and direction and offering ideas and opportunities to see and experience their options

And that’s where things got interesting: some of the people we initially identified weren’t as interested in being team leads as we thought they might be. At the same time, people we hadn’t immediately identified began to exceed our expectations in the new organization. We were pleasantly surprised, and we engaged with the people who were stepping up. That allowed us to reinforce positive behaviors and to take advantage of talented people who wanted to do more in a new environment.

Now What?

Just having a team lead won’t solve all of your problems, but it does provide you with options you may not have had before. Your team lead can serve as a focal point for critical projects or can tackle issues in parallel with a team manager. In fact, you’ll often find that a strong team lead will take care of problems before they end up on your plate—and you’ll know about the problems only because the team lead will tell you they’re fixed!

When you hit this happy point, you both still have a lot of work in front of you, so don’t stop. As a leader, you made a great investment, and the team lead has invested along with you. If you’ve been having career and next steps conversations, your team lead will probably ask you how to take those next steps—and you’ll have the opportunity to see the team lead take on a new set of challenges in a new role.

From Team Lead to Manager

What does the path from team lead to manager look like? The first thing to understand is that not all team leads will want to be managers, and not all team leads will make great managers. That’s OK, but you have to be willing and able to have that conversation with your team lead.

If your team lead is a great management candidate, then there a few ways you can help in lining up that next job:

  • Identify a place where the team lead can act as an interim manager.
  • Find an opportunity (e.g., an organizational job-rotation program) that will provide the team lead with management experience.
  • Set the team lead up with a small team to manage for a longer-term project.
  • Put the team lead in charge of student or temporary employees.
  • And of course, make sure the team lead gets the right exposure to be in the right place at the right time for a great next position.

It’s tough to see great team leads move on, and their shoes will be hard to fill, but there’s nothing like seeing them take on a role that you know they’ll be great at!


David Seidl (dseidl@nd.edu) is Senior Director for Campus Technology Services at the University of Notre Dame.

© 2016 David Seidl. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.