24 February 2023

9 tips for thriving as a young team leader in tech, and why career advancement in this field is so challenging

Most IT professionals spend their careers immersed in technical work, so it can be a shock to suddenly find themselves in a leadership role where soft skills take center stage. But it's not an impossible mission. We sat down with Roman Suchkov, our team leader in PaaS, who has traveled down this path and has plenty of experience to share. The result is a roadmap of 9 practical tips for every aspiring team leader, based on Roman's insights.

As someone who's interviewed many team leaders throughout my career, I've noticed that those transitioning from programmer to manager often face unique challenges that aren't typically encountered in other fields. One of the biggest surprises is how abrupt and drastic this change can be. Besides, most IT professionals may not have had the opportunity or motivation to develop leadership skills, which can make the transition even more difficult.

In light of these challenges, I've developed 9 principles that I believe can help new IT managers succeed. Some of these principles are based on the book "90 Things You Need to Know if You Want to Become the CTO," published by the CTO Academy. But I have put them to the test, and I can testify to the fact that they work.

Tip 1. Make time for personal development

Skilled technical professionals constantly develop themselves by learning new programming languages, trying frameworks, and finding innovative solutions to old problems. When transitioning to a new role as a team leader, this process can be disrupted. With new responsibilities, finding time to focus on personal growth can be challenging.

If your company does not provide time for independent technical work, where the team leader can play the role of a playing coach, finding alternative solutions is necessary. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates suggested reading literature on any topic to broaden one's knowledge and see beyond their information bubble. It is important to be aware of potential threats and opportunities that could impact the business.

To create more time for personal development, it is crucial to learn how to delegate effectively. Inexperienced leaders may struggle with this, which brings us to the next tip.

Tip 2. Learn to delegate

Learning to delegate is an essential skill that every professional should possess. As an engineer, you may be inclined to micromanage every aspect of a project, but this tendency can be counterproductive. Delegating tasks may seem difficult at first, but it can save you a significant amount of time and energy that you can allocate toward your more important responsibilities.

There are 2 approaches to the delegation that you can take:

  1. Delegate execution, where you provide a clear task description to your subordinate while retaining overall responsibility for the outcome. For instance, you could tell your subordinate, "Andrew, the security team needs a log analysis solution for sensitive information. Please arrange a meeting with them to clarify the details, such as how to add search patterns and which checks to add to the service. And pay attention to the speed of alerting." This approach is ideal for delegating to newcomers who need guidance and oversight.

  2. Delegate responsibility of solving the problem to an employee you trust and who can take a more independent approach. In this case, it's important to agree on deadlines. For example, you could say, "Andrew, the security team needs a log analysis solution for sensitive information. Please find out what they specifically require and propose a solution. Let's agree on the architecture by the 1st of the month and start working on it if there are no other questions."

It's essential to recognize that tasks you find difficult to delegate can often be performed by someone else. To make this work, you should follow the next tip.

Tip 3. Trust your team

Trust and autonomy are critical factors that impact employee engagement, productivity, and teamwork. It's essential to avoid being a supervisor who micromanages every aspect of the team and dictates what they should do at every turn.

A study by Cornell University of 320 small businesses found that companies that gave their employees higher autonomy grew 4 times faster than those tightly managed from the top down."

When employees feel less pressure, they become more effective:

  • Job satisfaction, engagement, and motivation increase

  • Employee turnover decreases, and a culture of trust develops

  • Team productivity increases, and team members have the opportunity to develop their leadership skills

Ask yourself: 

  • Who among your team members can ensure compliance with the necessary standards?

  • Who has the required curiosity and judgment to handle key tasks?

  • Who understands the broader strategic picture and how their work fits into it?

If you answer "no one" to these questions, you may have significant trust issues and delegation problems. Take a step back and think about the strengths of your subordinates, then give them a small advance of trust.

Tip 4. Develop empathy

Sometimes external factors can affect the behavior and performance of your subordinates and peers. And it's important to remember that poor work is often due to personal circumstances or feelings rather than intentional sabotage. Developing emotional intelligence and the ability to listen and analyze behavior can help you manage these situations effectively.

Take note of the first signs of burnout, and create a culture of open communication where people can talk about their problems without fear of repercussions. Remember that nobody is perfect, and we all have moments of distraction. Empathy should be at the core of your leadership approach, as it helps build trust, understanding, and support within the team. By developing empathy, you can create a positive work environment where colleagues can thrive and work towards their goals with renewed energy and motivation.

Tip 5. Master the art of negotiation

As you advance in your career, the ability to negotiate effectively becomes increasingly important. Whether it's with recruiters, subordinates, superiors, other department leaders, or internal customers, you'll find yourself in constant negotiation. 

The success of your team and your standing within the company will depend heavily on your ability to persuade, defend your interests, and maintain diplomacy."

This doesn't mean that you should constantly be compromising to maintain good relationships. Instead, it's about recognizing the need to hone your skills and prepare for upcoming negotiations in advance. Read books on the topic and write down or mentally rehearse your desired outcomes and arguments in multiple scenarios. By mastering the art of negotiation, you'll be better equipped to navigate complex workplace dynamics and achieve your goals.

Tip 6. Hire different people

Hiring the right people is one of your most challenging and critical responsibilities, especially in the fiercely competitive IT industry. To identify the ideal candidate, you should clearly define the qualities you're seeking, beyond their hard skills and experience. Consider the values, traits, and characteristics that align with your team culture. 

When hiring for an established team, it's easier to determine a good fit. When forming a new team, you should carefully craft the type of person who will complement the group. Remember that a narrow hiring approach can lead to limited teams, which in turn can negatively impact innovation, profitability, and market perception.

Keep these rules in mind to build a highly effective team:

  • Be willing to invest in a more qualified specialist, even if it means spending more.

  • Do not hire if you have doubts; clarify the details or move on to the next candidate.

  • Foster diversity by seeking out candidates with varied backgrounds and experiences, rather than individuals of the same type.

Tip 7. Be more tolerant of mistakes

As Winston Churchill once said, "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." I firmly believe that making mistakes is a crucial part of the learning process. A business cannot develop innovative products or processes if it is unwilling to embrace risk-taking and learn from its own mistakes.

During job interviews, I often ask candidates to describe the qualities of an ideal leader, and many of them mention someone who is able to forgive mistakes and take responsibility for them."

It is important to cultivate a healthy attitude towards risk. Leaders who follow this approach help people overcome their fear of failure, and this can lead to unconventional solutions and a culture of innovation.

This does not mean you should tolerate repeated mistakes. However, good managers keep track of daily progress, impartially record successes and failures, and draw lessons from them with an open and curious mindset. By doing so, they can plan their next steps more effectively.

Tip 8. Communicate more with the team

Innovative leaders such as Thomas Edison, Charles Kettering of General Motors, Watsons of IBM, and William McKnight of 3M were known for communicating extensively with their employees. They did not criticize or doubt their team members but rather participated as equals in lively discussions. Studies on workplace creativity show that creating an innovative environment is important not only for giving employees autonomy, but also for showing a genuine interest in them.

"I didn't feel like just a worker," said a mechanic and draftsman who worked for Edison for half a century, "I felt like we were in it together." Show your team that their opinions matter to you, and you won't have to wait long for new ideas to emerge.

Tip 9. Celebrate even small victories

The path to success can be long and arduous, so recognizing and celebrating small wins is crucial. It's important to pay attention to and encourage every small step taken by each team member, no matter how insignificant it may seem to you. Avoid the habit of undervaluing small accomplishments—this applies to you as well.

As a new team leader, you will find yourself dedicating a lot of time to non-technical tasks. This demand will only increase as you progress in your career, given that the business world is becoming more uncertain, and companies continuously strive for more flexibility and agility. In light of this, the role of team leaders has never been more critical. If you're a new team leader or aspire to become one, remember that continuous growth, learning, and support are crucial for you and your team.

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