Team leader walks fine line between management, employees

Dear Joan:
I have recently been appointed to a new position of "Team Leader." My primary responsibility is to oversee my department’s day-to-day activities, so that my boss is free to work on other things. There are a dozen people in the department.

What advice do you have for someone new to a "team leader" position, in regards to peer feedback, feedback to my boss—I don’t want to be a tattletale—managing myself, and anything else I haven’t thought of.

This new team leader position could be a wonderful step up in your own development. It could also be a political quagmire, if you don’t structure the job correctly on the front end. Your chances of making this a great experience will depend on two things: a clear set of mutual expectations you negotiate with your manager, as well as strong interpersonal skills you need to demonstrate with your peers.

Team leader positions can be precarious. The job description of a typical team leader consists of many of the same tasks he or she was responsible for in the past, along with new, supervisory type duties. In other words, they have many of the same responsibilities and tasks of a supervisory position, with limited or no authority to carry them out.

In many environments the manager does the hiring, firing and disciplinary activities. The team leader coordinates and schedules the work, holds some team meetings, helps fellow employees solve daily technical problems, and a variety of other communication, training and coaching activities.

The need for team leader positions has grown out of the leaner corporate structures we now see in many organizations. The managers have more direct reports than they can realistically manage and coach. The manager is often spending more time in meetings
and on projects. Many managers we work with complain that they just don’t have enough time left in the day to give employees adequate "face time." The team leader position is a way to fill that need.

Here are some thoughts to consider when setting up this role with your manager and your co-workers:

§      Discuss how much time your manager expects you to spend on leadership and coordinating and how much on actual production work. You will find that leadership activities will quickly fill your days to capacity if you aren’t conscious of putting in time on both. Set clear goals about how you will be measured in both areas. It’s important to find this out up front, not at performance and salary review time.

§      Clarify exactly which duties your manager is expecting you to perform and what authority you have. For instance, if you are expected to schedule vacations, workflow, and who does what, it will be important to have enough freedom and authority so that your manager isn’t undoing everything you’ve decided, any time someone comes and voices a complaint.

§      Discuss what management style your manager wants you to use. I recommend that you solicit a lot of involvement from your co-workers. The more you act collaboratively with them, the more likely they will accept your position without resentment. Your leadership will be earned and diplomacy and inclusiveness will be key.

§      Focus on the company and team goals, rather than taking sides with management or the employees. If you become a spokesperson for either management or the employee group, your influence will erode. You must walk the line down the middle as a catalyst for helping everyone reach the same goal.

§      You’re wise to be wary of the tattletale role. Rather, get agreement from your manager that you will work with problem performers from a coaching and training perspective, but he or she will need to step in if things take a turn down the path to discipline.

§      In potential disciplinary situations, get agreement that your manager will pay closer attention and get first-hand information by doing more direct observation of the employee’s performance.

§      Find out what role you will play in performance reviews. You will no doubt provide some input to the review process but your manager will probably conduct the actual review.

§      Ask your manager to hold a meeting to explain your new role and the new set of expectations. It will go a long way toward a smooth transition. Too often, we see damage done ("Who does he think he is?") when this important step is skipped.

§      Ask for cooperation, help and feedback from your co-workers. In many cases, it means that long-time friends now need to adjust to your new role. You can’t do it without their help. If you position yourself as someone who is there to facilitate the work and help them get it done, they will be receptive. Follow the principles of open communication, invite involvement and treat each person with respect, and you will be a team leader everyone will want to work with.

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) 573-1616,, or 
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