Balance is an integral part of every job. We have to balance our priorities at work and our lives outside of work. We need to balance the time we spend building with the time we spend maintaining. We need to balance the needs of our teams with the varied needs of the rest of the organization. And that’s just the start of it.
Never does this become more apparent than for new tech leads - we see it all the time at HubSpot. When they step into the role, they usually find themselves with new (sometimes competing) priorities. I often hear that they're not sure if they're spending their time as well as they could. And when new tech leads lack balance, they might end up losing sight of what success for themselves and their teams should look like.When you're a tech lead, you have a diverse group of engineers, a product manager, a designer, a product expert, and user researchers you work in partnership with. And you have pull requests, JIRAs, alerts, migrations, and other teams begging for your attention. Oh, and you have an evolving, interconnected product mission that your team should be working towards. And through all this, you’re supposed to be helping your engineers grow…and you have this nagging feeling that you’re not getting your own work done, and maybe even that you’re no longer growing yourself.
Somewhere along the path of leadership, new tech leads can become overwhelmed, exhausted, and burnt out. How does that happen?
In many cases, it’s because new leaders end up focusing too much on trying to control their domain. They almost always do this with good intentions. But it’s easy to pick up responsibilities that we conflate with success in our roles that don’t lead to success at all. To manage, new leaders often adopt the role of a gatekeeper early on and have a hard time letting go.
What is a gatekeeper?
A gatekeeper controls the flow of information in an attempt to narrow focus and avoid surprises. I often hear new managers who adopt this role describe themselves as a “shit shield.” A gatekeeper might:
- review all of their team’s work to ensure quality and consistency
- handle all the task management, prioritization, and design so the team can focus on their day-to-day work
- have conversations on behalf of their team
- get in front of every decision to help ensure that their team doesn’t make mistakes
- take on the grungy work themselves so that their team can focus on more appealing work
You might be a gatekeeper if:
- your team regularly waits for you to review their PRs
- your team waits to do the next thing assigned to them instead of taking initiative to find projects for themselves
- you hesitate to go on vacation because you’re concerned your team will struggle in your absence
While gatekeeping can often be detrimental to a team, this leadership role is extremely helpful for new members of a team or for someone new to a skill. For those folks, too much information can be overwhelming, and it’s unlikely they’ll have the context necessary to handle all of their tasks independently. Helping them digest their projects and giving thoughtful review of their work benefits both that person and the team, because too much autonomy could result in them getting stuck, going down the wrong path, creating more work for the team, and probably feeling like an imposter. By reducing autonomy, they can focus on skill growth and be protected from mistakes and outside forces.
But if you remain a gatekeeper as an individual contributor grows, they might end up underexposed. Their potential will likely be squandered. And you’ll become overwhelmed if you continue gatekeeping for your whole team as it expands. By not encouraging your team to grow, you’ll get stuck.
So how do you fix it? Well, you need to become a gardener.
What is a gardener?
A gardener trusts, encourages autonomy, and exposes their team to higher level problems. Gardeners turn scaling and growth into a team sport. A gardener might:
- forego reviewing work, or let other members of the team take on the responsibility
- let the team handle their own task management, trusting they understand the needs of the customer, business, and team
- encourage members to build relationships on and off the team
- let the team experience failure, trusting in their accountability to fix their problems and learn from their mistakes
- have their team take on grungy work along with the "fun" work, because they understand the value of it
When you’re a gardener, individual contributors are trusted to know when to ask for guidance, request feedback, and, for the most part, self-review and make their own decisions.
In general, we should bias towards being gardeners as long as we’re not giving too much autonomy too soon or setting our team up for failure. Like with situational leadership, you need to match your style to the individual’s skills and experience.
When to gatekeep and when to garden
A good leader will understand the right time for gatekeeping and gardening, and determine the right approach for each member of the team based on their individual skills and areas for growth. When a new individual contributor joins the team, you should assume that they have high potential, but you shouldn’t assume much else. On their first day you’ll be a gatekeeper, and become more of a gardener as they grow and become more comfortable with their day-to-day responsibilities.
You should guide this process with checks and balances. As they start to succeed in small, prescribed tasks, they can move on to slightly larger tasks that aren’t as well defined. If they struggle, use it as an opportunity to show them how to think through the problem or introduce them to resources that will help them work through it themselves. Exposing members of your team to your thought process or your understanding of the task will help them build a mental model that will help them with their future work. In doing this, you’ll chart a course towards autonomy without swinging too wildly in the either direction.
By modeling successful practices, you’ll end up sharing the behaviors that you’ve nurtured to successfully grow in your own role. And as you transition from a gatekeeper to a gardener, you’ll allow them to follow a similar trajectory in their roles. Their growth will lead to increased autonomy, and their autonomy will free you to focus on the problems that are most important to you. In this, you’ll create a virtuous cycle of team growth.
By becoming a gardener instead of just a gatekeeper, you solve for the team, solve for yourself, and help scale the organization as a whole. Gardening helps grow your organization’s future leaders. It opens you up to new opportunities as you create the potential to replace yourself in your role. It helps you accelerate the careers of everyone on your team by encouraging them to work on bigger, harder problems. And while there is some danger in encouraging new responsibilities at the wrong time - you should expect to find and learn from failures along the way - pushing yourself to become more of a gardener over time is crucial to avoiding burnout.
If you’ve found yourself questioning how to find balance in your role as a new leader, look at your team and the responsibilities you’ve assumed and think deeply about areas where you’ve become a gatekeeper. In some cases, it’ll make sense to keep things as they are, but in others, start trying to understand what it will take to boost growth in those around you.
Eventually, you’ll to get a point where you can start opening the gates. And good things will be waiting on the other side.