Main Idea (tl;dr)
The core argument follows. The most important parts are bold.
- Manager (title) is usually some combination of (roles) Supervisor, Team Lead, and Mentor.
- These roles cannot be played well together because they have conflicting incentives:
- Supervisor: benefit the company
- Team Lead: benefit the team
- Mentor: benefit the individual
- There’s a critical conflict between Supervisor and Mentor that makes it really tough to tell your Manager you need help doing your job.
- Ideal Solution: Make sure all roles are:
- played at all
- played well
- played by separate people
- Pragmatic Solution: As the Manager, be mindful:
- that you should be playing each role
- of when you are playing a specific role
- to assess yourself in each role
Note that everything I say here has been exhaustively experienced, internalized, and formalized with Trek Glowacki.
Conflicting Roles and Incentives
The term Manager means a lot of different things to different companies. It can include Project Manager, Product Manager, Technical Lead, Team Lead, Mentor, Coach, Supervisor, as well as Individual Contributor. Most often, in my experience, a manager is responsible for at least these roles: Supervisor, Mentor, and Team Lead.
Supervisor Manager: They are most concerned with ensuring the cost of employees is justified by their output. They are incentivized to benefit the company.
Team Lead Manager: They are most concerned with the performance of the team as a whole. They provide team vision and quality. They are incentivized to benefit the team.
Mentor Manager: They are most concerned with helping team members become better versions of themselves, in a professional context. They are incentivized to benefit the individual.
For each type of manager, they play their secondary roles to a lesser degree, sometimes being absent entirely. There are managers that can play all three roles reasonably well, but they seem very rare.
The Mentor role is most often absent and most often needed. It also exposes the strongest conflict between these three roles. Mentor directly conflicts with Supervisor: When you feel like you are not doing a good job, you should be able to talk to a Mentor about it, but a Supervisor may judge you for it, affecting your opportunities and compensation.
Ideal Solution: Separate Roles for Separate People
I think the clearest solution is to split the roles, but that option isn’t possible for every organization. Either your company is too small or too rigid in organizational structure. If you can’t split up the roles, see the next section on a Pragmatic Solution. If you can split the roles, read on!
Manager is not a role. It’s a position in a hierarchy, a title. Instead of having titled managers, make sure you have people playing the different necessary roles. I’ve found the following breakdown to be effective.
Department Head as Supervisor: A Department Head is a good place to have someone playing the Supervisor role. That means you will have no other supervisors in the department. For this to be successful, the person playing this role has to do a good job setting expectations across the department. This can be done through progression and review systems. It’s not easy, but it’s also the most important role to split out from the product team’s day-to-day work because of the detrimental nature of the conflict between this and other roles.
Team Member as Team Lead: Teams should not grow so large that the person playing the Team Lead role has to focus 100% of their time on that role’s responsibilities. That leaves time for them to contribute to the team’s work on the product itself. I’ve found that a 50-50 split between Team Lead and Individual Contributor roles often works well, but it will ebb and flow throughout a project or team’s lifespan.
Company Member as Mentor: Anyone in the company with the understanding of their mentee’s role can play the Mentor role. This could be a more senior engineer in another team or your current team’s project manager. This does not need to be kept within a team boundary. This can be a 100% focus role, but that will be rare until a company is quite large. This is more likely a 25-50% role for someone playing a different role.
For those playing multiple roles, expectations should be set appropriately. It’s all too easy to expect an Individual Contributor to perform similarly to others on a team even though they are also a mentor or a team lead.
Pragmatic Solution: Strategies for Playing Conflicting Roles
Companies aren’t always large or flexible enough to split up the Manager’s roles into multiple people.
The core strategy to resolve the internal conflict is to try to only wear one role’s hat at a time. While doing this, you still have to acknowledge the conflict between the roles you play. You also need to acknowledge this to your teammates.
Act as Different People: In 1:1s, you are sometimes playing the Mentor or the Supervisor role. If possible, schedule separate meetings per role you are playing. For example, this could be a performance review meeting as a Mentor and a compensation adjustment meeting as a Supervisor.
Develop a Leadership Voice: In product management, project management, and status meetings, you are often playing the Team Lead role, but sometimes also the Individual Contributor role. Make sure that your suggestions are made as one or the other. For example, you might share a project management decision from your work with the department head and other Team Leads. You may suggest a fellow engineer explore a different technical approach to their work. One is broadcasting a decision, the other is suggesting an option.
Stay Self-aware: In other ad-hoc interactions, you may be playing any of these roles. Recognize that your suggestions can come across as commands. Be explicit with teammates about which roles you are playing when.
Performance Assessment of Your Many Hats
If your company doesn’t have clear expectations per role, you should write them out for yourself.
Given your roles’ expectations, do a self review as each one:
- Team Lead
Then, ask each Team Member to review your performance of each role they interact with:
- Team Lead
Performance Review itself is a topic for another day. The import part here is that each role is reviewed separately.