What Team Managers Do

Ben Parkison
Ben Parkison
January 25, 2023
What Team Managers Do

In the past year, I have spoken to hundreds of people about what they think when they hear "team manager" and the role that team managers play. The feedback has been fascinating.

A surprising thing for me was hearing two very distinct perspectives.

If people have been team managers, had effective team managers, or even if they just have a mature perspective on how you build a resilient organization, they just know. They've seen or been team managers in action, and been a part of the hard work to make a team more than the sum of its parts, everyday. These people know the role is a complex mix of quantifiable, 'hard' planning and action combined with the 'soft' skills that consider that we are, after all, still human beings trying to figure out how to work together. Those who know this understand team managers are critical nexus points at a company that are holding the place together and creating the conditions for its success (or failure), every day.

However, occasionally the fact that team managers have such an important role - that there is an entire body of work that is the team manager's unique purview - is something I have to break down. It is always a bit surprising to me, especially if they have some kind of senior role in their company. I often find myself saying "You pay team managers for 8+ hours a day to do work. What do you imagine that work is?"

There are a few things these people tend to think about. First, is HR-related tasks. Someone has to be checking in every few months and working in whatever HR tech their company has decided to use to track goals, OKRs, etc! When someone says "resource manager" this is often what they mean. There's really no team - you're just responsible for corralling a set of individual contributors. But when it comes to team management this is a false choice, and in reality is a recipe for misalignment, disengagement, and inefficiency.

The other common response is that they are work managers. In this world your team managers are like project managers with teeth, responsible for driving and tracking work, statusing, and sweeping in to enforce productivity when needed. Again, there is no team here, just a process - this is management via spreadsheet. From this perspective, then, of course, you see duplication and bureaucracy everywhere.

Both of these perspectives are limited and flawed, and when I see leaders who think about team management like this I tend to steer clear of them. Team managers are not legal or HR specialists, responsible for maintaining the right relationship between the employee and the company, and containing themselves to only the most structured, compliant aspect of a single person's path at the company. Team managers are not project managers, limited to defining, assigning, and tracking tasks.

There is no shortage of words from myself and my team about what the critical work of a team manager actually is, so today I'll refer to an oldie but a goodie: Google's Project Oxygen. In its earliest days, Project Oxygen started with the assumption that team managers were indeed a layer of bureaucracy, and with the right organizational tuning could effectively be replaced with HR and program management. Google could finally be a company “built by engineers, for engineers.” They got rid of their team managers, and built a flat organization.

It lasted two months.

Employees experienced a void of direction, guidance, coaching, collaboration, mentoring, decision making, and leadership that made work impossible. It wasn't just that "soft skills" were missing. Without team managers the organization ultimately faltered at its most fundamental tasks.

At scale, team managers make or break companies - it’s as simple as that.

Project Oxygen morphed into a data-driven, multi-year project to identify what makes a good team manager (and Google quickly reinstated their own team managers). 

These results are no surprise to those of us who have done the work: Daily team and individual coaching based on the scenario, person, and specific task at hand. Establishing the right conditions for team empowerment and autonomy. Setting and running the norms that makes sure the team is thinking, not just doing, and that different perspectives and ideas have space. Creating a tangible vision and strategy at the team’s own level. Seeing and driving collaboration, information sharing, or resolution of discrepancies across the organization. Lending subject expertise where appropriate. Driving clear decision making, and taking responsibility as a team. And yes, also career development in partnership with HR and work oversight in partnership with your project managers.

At scale, team managers make or break companies - it’s as simple as that. The work that managers do is complex, spans many dimensions, and requires skills ranging from the most process-oriented to the most empathetic. It is its own category of work - team operations - and the sooner a company’s leadership understands that team management is a unique and complete set of skills, different from HR and different from project management, that must be cultivated and supported, the closer they get to building a resilient, productive, successful organization.

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