How to hand over management in a growing organization and build new leads
Over the past year we changed our product team from a mainly outsourced to a strong inhouse team. The reason for that was a shift in focus to a more product-led organization and therefore building up inhouse competences. We more than tripled our head count and it was time to introduce a few new team leads. In the following post I’ll share how such a management handover looked like for us in a concrete case.
First of all: Why team leads at all? When growing, especially when growing fast you will reach a point in which the team simply gets too big for one manager — in our case me. For us the sweet spot is at 5–7 team members per manager, Bezos introduced another infamous rule of even smaller teams, where 2 pizzas should be enough to feed a team (depending on the engineers’ stomach size probably 2–4).
This not only brings redundancy (not everything dependent on the technical co-founder) and more specialization to the team structure (backend, frontend, mobile, etc.) but the moment team leads are able to hire/develop their own team leads, an organization can really grow exponentially.
Starting with a goal
Back to our case: At Papershift the backend team was led by me for quite a long time and this year a new engineer joined who would eventually take over. We sat down and discussed.
We started with a simple question for a goal: When would this transition be a success? While you could always say “all the things need to be perfect” we narrowed it down and said, the backend team is already strong in development but needs management, so the goal became making the new lead the best manager of the team not the best developer.
For us this meant leading our daily meetings, leading our weekly meetings, coordinating tasks, answering questions, making sure our Notion documentation stays in sync with what we do, having bi-weekly one-on-ones with team members, working on the development of the team (each individually but also the team as a whole) and a few other things specific to our team. Also it was important for us that this goal had a clear due date so we never talked about some obscure date in the future.
Next, we thought about difficulties and hurdles, so our thought experiment was: What needs to happen so this whole thing becomes a massive disaster? At the same time we tried to find solutions to ensure these scenarios would not become true.
The first of those scenarios was that the team would not trust the new lead. In order to prevent that we said it is absolutely necessary that the new lead builds strong relationships to each and everybody. Also trust is a fragile thing — especially in the beginning — so the idea was to rather listen than being overly active and decisive. We clearly prefer an “I’m not sure, will check and decide later” over any random action.
Another possibility of failure would be me not being able to let go, interfering and micro managing. After me leading this team for such a long time this clearly was a valid concern. We agreed that each our expectations must be clearly communicated from the beginning, that I do need to give trust in the beginning, accepting that someone else will do things differently and that we give each other feedback on a very regular basis.
The last concern we came up with was the team having 2 leads over a specific time not knowing who’s in charge. We agreed we wanted to do the transition rather quickly with the potential downside of becoming a bit bumpy rather than having a never ending period of unclear responsibilities. Also there should always be exactly one of us responsible for one thing at a time. So instead of both being responsible for some time, the new lead became fully responsible for task A in week 1, fully responsible for process B in week 2 and so on. Additionally we agreed that there should never be any shortcuts for team members: When someone would have a question they would always have to go to the new lead first instead of approaching me directly. This way we were hoping to fill all knowledge gaps step by step.
Based on this mind game we came up with the following concrete steps we then executed: First the new lead would take over the daily standup meetings. Next he would take over the weekly team meeting and lastly the bi-weekly one-on-ones which we would do concurrently for some time untill I would fade those out on my side.
It was more a coincidence but in one of the first few weeks of this whole process I was on vacation and the new lead ran the week on his own. We later went into a quick retrospective to see what went well and what didn’t.
Communication is King
During the whole process of such a transition nothing is more important than communication. The new lead and I set up a daily standup, we didn’t want to wait a week or even longer to give feedback, answer questions and see where we were compared to what we planned.
In each step the team was proactively informed about what was going to happen. Moreover, from the beginning they were involved in setting this whole transition period up with us. This basically started including them in the hiring process and finding the right candidate. In the end it is team effort to make those things a success.