What you learn when you thrown in the deep end

Nearly 2 years ago I took over as the team lead of the team I worked on. That, in and of itself might seem to have little significance for a blog post, on a blog centered around design, but the team I took over being the lead for was a bit different.

At that point I was one of 2 designers on a team of 4 people, what made things a little different, for me, was the nature of the work my team was responsible for – the team I belonged to was very much a developer first team. It was our responsibility to make sure that WooCommerce.com, the site through which we sell our extensionsv (that allow you to customise WooCommerce itself) was performant, stable and secure while also working on a broad spectrum of new features. So how, as a designer, was I going to effectively lead this team?

Becoming a team lead is a tough enough transition. As a team lead you become responsible for so much more – and in this case, it was not even a team of designers I was responsible for – it was a growing team of developers – and this meant dealing with developers – and which designer really understands developers? I mean they just different right?

Now, nearly 2 years later as my team reached the ratio of 1/6 (1 designer to 6 developers) and we have moved to restructuring our teams internally as the company has continued to grow I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned and things I tried along the way:

Trust your team

This is one of my core values in life, I place my trust in someone until proven otherwise. Yes, I have been burnt with this approach in the past, but I hold firm to it as the basis by which I live. So it was the first thing I placed in my team – trust. By starting from this position, I could rather focus my energies as a new lead in other places.

Understand ‘who’ is on your team

As my team grew I took the time to try to understand the ‘people’ on my team, so less about their technical skill set, and more about them, personally. If you take the time to do this you will find you will have a better understanding of how the people in your team fit together as a group and ultimately work better together as a team. Some people will naturally work better together than others, some people prefer working on their own. In a remote working company, where you can have a completely multi-cultural team (which we did) this is important, as some things can be interpreted differently across cultures, and the more you can do to make sure your team works well together will result in a more performant team.

Learn to Delegate

At the start, I tried to be involved in everything. Every notification came to my phone, I did not have office hours set-up for Slack, I would check my phone before I went to bed, the minute I woke up, I felt this was part of the expectation on me as a lead from both my team and the company. Believe me, this does not work. You may find yourself doing that now, and it may even be working for you – but I feel you actually doing a dis-service to your team if you take this approach.

At some point, I decided to start delegating and I saw the success of our team increase in proportion to the more I delegated. In my opinion – you should not be involved in every decision even if you can – it does not build a sense of team or allow each individual team member to grow and improve their own skills. Yes, sometimes things don’t work out as expected, but we learn through mistakes.

Code (even if you can’t do it as well as your peers)

I am not sure if this goes the other way – i.e. should a developer leading a team of designers try code? But this worked for me. By learning to code I felt a part of my team even if it was a fairly small contribution I made in this regard.

For me, this was my way of building trust with my team in return. I got involved on the code side of things where I felt most comfortable, or where a bug was just too small to have to ask a developer on the team to stop what they were doing to fix, or for changes to existing pages. In doing this, I also learnt about how the site actually worked, and how the pieces fitted together.

As my team’s role now changes – I took a look at the contributor charts to see where I ended up – and I was surprised by the result – yes those contributions may have been small at times, but they all counted at some level.

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Your role extends beyond your team

And finally, to be an effective lead, you will need to foster relationships with people outside of your own team. It does not help if you and/or your team develops a reputation for being unresponsive or unwilling to assist. I went out of my way to be accommodating to others, will still maintaining a level of control over what my team was ultimately responsible for/or working on.

And finally, as a parting thought to my old team – essentially the team I joined no longer exists 😦 all 4 of us have moved onto new things, some through career growth/changes and others to new opportunities that better suited their interests – and this is something I would challenge you to try embrace more – change – it happens, so don’t try to stop it. Work with it.

Header photo credit: Jeremy Bishop