Years ago, a mentor of mine talked to me about the distinction between leadership (coping with change) and management (coping with complexity). A tech lead does a little bit of both: we have to come up with the vision for growing the technical systems that solve problems for our customers and shepherd the solution from concept to production. While all that’s going on, we need to guide, manage, and support the people on our team so that they can always be growing. For first-time TLs, this can be an intimidatingly wide spectrum of responsibility. I know it was for me.
Now, as a senior TL, I have found some modicum of success at HubSpot. There was no rulebook or guide that helped me master this role overnight. But a lot of mistakes and ‘ah-ha!’ moments helped me realize a lot of things I wish I had known when my title changed to tech lead for the first time. Here are four that I think are key in getting started as a leader.
You Can’t Learn Everything on the Job
Unfortunately, just like how an education only prepares you in the most basic ways for being an effective individual contributor, being an effective individual contributor only gives you a fraction of the skills you need to be an effective leader. That’s why I think it’s important to be proactive about learning as much as you can about leading a team before, during, and after you become a TL.
I was lucky enough when I started my career to have a manager who hooked me up with someone outside of our company who helped me navigate my career path. He shared tons of insight with me on what’s expected of a TL, recognizing the different strengths of people on your team, and balancing people and product demands simultaneously. Whether they’re your manager or someone with a similar career trajectory at another company, finding a mentor is a serious asset in becoming a leader. But you have to be intentional about it; no one’s going to knock on your door begging you to let them mentor you. Be on the lookout for events where maybe you can make a good connection or communities where leaders can connect.
Depending on the company, you might not have to go too far to find ways to cultivate your leadership style. One of the most exciting things I learned after joining HubSpot was that there’s an internal team here that provides explicit training for managers. They run a 12-course program on everything from running effective 1:1s, to providing coaching, to discussing career goals. These classes have been invaluable as a manager and full of practical insights that I’m still trying to master. Luckily, if these types of programs aren’t available at the office, organizations like Intelligent.ly (in Boston) host leadership workshops and management trainings, too.
There are a handful of books I've gleaned leadership insight from over the years, too. In his book, Turn This Ship Around, former submarine captain L. David Marquet frames the success of a leader as creating more leaders instead of followers: if you are a good leader, when you leave your organization, it continues to function well. In order to do that, you have to establish technical competence in all the members of your team and provide them with the organizational clarity to know what to do. This has been really helpful for me to navigate our culture of small autonomous teams. On a more personal note, I recently read The Heart and the Fist by Eric Greitens, which captures the importance of resilience and willpower when facing challenging situations, something every TL does frequently.
There are a million resources out there that have the potential to change your thinking and prepare you just a little bit more for running a team. But you have to be proactive about seeking them out and making learning part of the job.
Leadership Style Should Reflect the Team, Not the Leader
When I first became a leader at a previous company, I knew what I didn’t like. I had been on teams that were “agile” because “agile” (aka scrum) was the thing to do. We had standups where people who had just been working together would stand up and say what it was that they were just working on. We had standups where people who didn’t work on any of the same things (but were on the same “team”) gave cursory summaries of work they were doing for people who didn’t have any context. I went to retrospectives where no one wanted to say anything.
I dreamed of being part of a self-organizing agile team, the kind you hear about in scrummaster training but are never part of, where individuals pick up the work necessary and make it happen amongst themselves. I wanted meetings that were interactive and inclusive. So, I just tried running my team and meetings that way.
Parts of my strategy worked out okay. For example, having people write ideas on sticky notes during a quiet brainstorming period at the start of the meeting instead of calling them out in-person (a trick I stole from Dave Gray’s Gamestorming book) helped some of the quieter people on my team engage during planning and retrospective meetings instead of being overpowered by a few forceful personalities. It may feel strange to do the first time, but a few women on my team told me it made a big difference for them.
Others parts fell flat. My team wasn’t ready to be self-organizing because they never had had to be that autonomous before. We failed to deliver projects on time. Tasks didn’t get done; it was like watching a volleyball hit the ground because no one called it. Instead of leading and managing, I let the team run itself sideways.
Don’t assume that what’s right for you will be right for your team. I’ve realized that when you match your leadership style with what the individual (and team) is ready for, you feel more confident in their output and they feel more comfortable doing it. Once you’ve established a rhythm, you can work on growing their skills and giving them more independence.
(Over)communication is Key
I was having dinner once with our CEO, Brian Halligan, when he asked every HubSpotter at the table what we would do if we were CEO. I said I would make scaling communication and transparency a priority. I had been at companies before where the core values and mission were diluted by the time they trickled down from management to individual contributors. Every quarter, the CEO or the VP of our business unit would hammer home the vision. But there were so many layers of middle management and so much PowerPoint markitecture that it was hard to link our day-to-day individual contributions to the bigger picture.
When companies grow, especially when they grow quickly, it gets harder to be proactive and intentional about every moving piece. But good internal communication should never get lost in the shuffle. Upper management has to be thoughtful about keeping an entire company in tune with how they’re driving the business, and as a TL, you have to be fixed on doing the same for your team.
My team here is hungry to know how they can contribute, find something to own, and make an impact. I just need to make sure I’m guiding that energy and skill in the right direction for the business. Sometimes, I realize haven’t communicated the context of a project or technical decision as well as I could have. But when I do distill the bigger picture in a way that’s actionable and personalized to our team, their world becomes clearer, their ability to work independently improves, and they can tie their efforts to our larger mission.
It’s also important to communicate beyond your team to help the larger organization understand what you’re up to. Especially when things aren’t going well, I’ve found it very helpful to document everything in a shared document (we use Google Docs), that has the most up-to-date information. This allows the team to collaborate and contribute to solving the problem, but also becomes a resource to bring other parties (e.g., legal, operations, other development teams) up to speed quickly, without requiring that people read through hours of chat logs or email threads.
You’ll know when you fall short on communication. You can see it in the direction your team took a project and their confusion when they need to rethink their solution. You will hear hard questions coming down from your management. That’s why it’s best to over communicate.
Lean On People Smarter Than You
The TL is almost always the final arbiter of technical decisions regarding the product in our organization. We love giving people responsibility and we can afford to do that because we make sure they have all the tools and knowledge they need to make the right decision. As a TL, I have multiple “spotters” who watch out for me and help me get back on track if things go off the rails.
My first spotter is my manager, who holds a regular 1:1 with me. My manager has proposed alternatives that I had forgotten to consider, and also pointed out times when I wasn’t providing enough leadership and my team was getting lost. We also use 15five as a tool to encourage everyone to reflect on their week; my 15five reports give my manager a different view of what’s going and allow him to ask questions and make suggestions. Having a more experienced and detached eye that can look at the situation and provide feedback has been invaluable.
As a SaaS company, we also need our operational systems to be highly reliable. Our Director of Reliability functions as a spotter by helping TLs manage operational crises, conduct post mortems successfully, and implement remediations. For me, working with our reliability team has taught me how to think about the severity of issues and apply best practices from the rest of HubSpot to our Sidekick organization.
TLs are also are given explicit opportunities to learn from one another. In addition to the daily work that span teams (giving implicit opportunities to learn from peers), we have a weekly rotating TL lunch program. This gives us a platform to share problems and solutions with minds we might not get to work with everyday. Beyond tapping into other TLs, we have another program that gives us the opportunity to lean on our senior executives from time to time (sometimes over dinner, drinks, or bowling.) I've realized there's nothing wrong with asking for help or looking outside yourself for guidance. In fact, it's the only way to grow into an effective TL.
Becoming a great TL is a long-term investment. I’m still running into new problems and hard conversations all the time. That’s why the last thing I wish I had known a few years ago is that TLs, especially those just starting out, need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Being proactive about reaching out to mentors and learning as much as I could early on was in my control, but I learned just as much, if not more, from the things that weren’t. Instead of letting a mistake throw everything off course, it’s important to look at it as one more lesson that’ll make leadership come more naturally down the line.