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Leadership vs. Management

Leadership
Legitimacy
Impact

21 July, 2021

Trey Tacon, Senior Director of Engineering at TeamSnap, walks a fine line between his obligation to his company and the responsibilities that come with managing a diverse team of talent.

Problem

In our industry, historically, there was not a huge difference between a manager and a bonafide leader, especially in the very beginning. Managers and leaders were kind of one and the same. The further that you were able to advance up the career ladder, the larger your responsibilities became. Many managers were still doing a lot of IC work themselves, and that was very normal.

The pendulum of the industry swings between one person doing everything and the exact opposite scenario. This is why we now have this more modern model of business. You start out as an IC, and, after so many years, you choose whether to advance technically or to transition into management as a career.

I, personally, feel that this dichotomy represents a false choice. Even if the bulk of your technical work as a manager is carried out through mentoring, that still counts. Working on giving feedback is also a valuable skill to hone; both sides of the spectrum must be represented in your style of management, the technical end as well as the interpersonal aspect of the job.

Actions taken

When compared to the word ”leader”, “manager” almost becomes a dirty word. The reason for this is the line that we draw through their duties. A manager has my back as an IC up until a particular point, the point where they no longer have the company’s back. They kind of stop being a people leader at this point. They uphold the interests of the company above all else.

To an IC, a manager can often be seen as a spokesperson for the company, while a leader will be seen as somebody who is more of an ambassador for the team itself. It is important to learn how to strike a balance between these two extremes.

What is the best way to accomplish this? I always try to find ways of making every decision a win-win for both the company and my own team within it. For me, this comes down to my scope of responsibility as a manager.

As a leader of ICs, you’re still very much in the world of individual problems and goals; you’re going deep very frequently. As a manager, your sights need to be broader; you’re spreading your time across multiple areas that all need your attention. You need to be thinking more in terms of the big picture in order to succeed.

For me, it’s always been a fuzzy line. I disagree a lot with the split that the industry took, and, as a result, I never thought that I would ever end up on this side of the fence. I didn’t want to walk the path of management. Clearly, this has changed over the years.

Where the original model of the industry failed was in every single person’s desire to always be the one to solve the big problem. Everybody wanted to be the champion of the challenge. There is an aspect of leadership that involves retiring that bravado and getting out of the way so that the talent below you has a chance to shine. This was one valuable aspect of the role that I have learned as I have grown as a leader.

I always make sure that if my people are hungry for those challenges, they’re getting them. This will often spell the difference between a manager who is very successful and one who is not. A great leader puts all of these things into alignment. They are always looking for an opportunity to optimize.

Lessons learned

  • The defining characteristic of a great leader is their ability to earn the trust of the team. Their reports trust them to make difficult decisions, to have their back, and to be kind, not nice.
  • If you’re leading a team of individual contributors, your main objective is to give them what they need to go deep. There are many ways of unlocking potential; you can offer direct guidance or the assistance of a peer, you can recommend books or other resources, whatever they need in order to level up.
  • The trope is that, if you’re a manager, most of your time will be spent on spreadsheets. I have, unfortunately, found this to be largely true. In every position of leadership that I have been offered, I have always been very clear about how hands-on I am as a leader. This transparency has helped me set the right expectation, no matter where I go.

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