Leads walk a fine line between front line and supervision

Dear Joan:

I have an employee who is a bright, young woman but who is creating problems in the team. I promoted her to a lead position a few months ago, because she is a go-getter who gets a lot accomplished. She does very well with our customers, and she gets a lot of praise for her work—she meets deadlines, is friendly, etc.  

I thought she could provide leadership and be a role model for her teammates. My team has grown from six to twenty people and she is the lead for five specialized people who support our customers on projects. (We provide technical support for the other departments in our company.)  

The problem that has surfaced is that she is abrupt and even condescending to her co-workers. There was some of this before she was promoted but it has gotten worse since. I have had two complaints recently from employees who said she was disrespectful to them and she was “pushing her weight around.”  

When I spoke to her about it, she got defensive and told me that they don’t do as much as she does and that she can’t babysit them if they aren’t professional enough to do their jobs. She said that she tells them what to do but then sometimes they don’t do it (or they don’t do it right), which makes her frustrated.  

I really don’t want to remove her from this new role because she does have the technical skills and I do think she could grow into this job. I am really swamped with project work myself, plus managing my team, so I need a technical lead to provide assistance and direction. Do you have any advice? 

Answer:

“Leads” are in a difficult role. Typically, they are technical experts, who have a lot of responsibility but no real authority. Usually, their job is created to provide direction to their coworkers, but if the members of the team don’t do what they are supposed to do, the Lead can’t fire or discipline those coworkers. As a result, the Lead walks a fine line between the front line and supervision. They aren’t the boss and they aren’t at the same level of as the rest of the team.  

Before the problem escalates, I suggest that you first set some expectations with the Lead and then meet with the entire team, to set some mutual expectations.  

First some questions:  

  • Have you recalibrated the Lead’s workload, so she has some additional time to spend coaching and answering questions? If you have just dumped the Lead job on top of an already packed project load, it could be contributing to her short fuse. 
  • Have you spelled out exactly what her new duties and responsibilities are? Just telling her to “help people with their technical work” isn’t going to be specific enough. Because the role is ambiguous by definition, identifying exactly what you expect of her will provide some direction. For instance, do you expect her to train or orient new specialists? Do you expect her to assist with projects as a technical advisor—not a doer? Do you expect her to help resolve problems with customers?  
  • Have you made it clear what she has the authority to do? Her “babysitting” comment is a clue that she needs clarification about her role. For example, she might be accountable for getting them the technical answers and resources her team needs but not accountable for their work output. You are still their manager, and you are the one with the authority to make sure their work is meeting your expectations.  

Sometimes leads will either threaten (“I’m going to tell the boss on you.”) or leverage friendships (“Be a pal and do this for me, okay?”). They would be more effective to act as the technical expert/advisor (“I will help you learn and provide you with resources. I will coordinate our efforts as a group. But you report to the manager, not to me. I will give input to the manager on how you are performing but ultimately, your performance is between you and the manager.”) 

If she does have the authority to coordinate employees’ work, and to direct their activities, and they resist or refuse, does she know how to handle that? I’d suggest that you agree on a process, before sharing it with the team. For example, most leads will go to the manager when they aren’t able to get cooperation from someone on the team. The manager then intervenes and supports the lead’s directive, or mediates the conflict. If someone does an “end run” around the lead, the supervisor needs to support the lead, provided the lead was acting appropriately. 

  • Are you spending enough time managing your employees? You put the Lead in place because you have a heavy workload yourself, but the fact remains that you are the leader of your team and they need to have access to you and get enough face time, so you know what they are working on and can assess their work. It’s important for employees to get feedback and positive reinforcement from their manager. 
  • Be prepared to coach your lead during weekly, one-on-one meetings. She needs to learn how to be more respectful when she interfaces with her group. She can bring situations to you and role play how to handle them. Make it clear that her success as a lead will be based in large part on her ability to build a collaborative, congenial relationship with her group. She has already proven she can do it with her customers, so now it’s time to show you she can do it with her new team.


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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