If you’re responsible for guiding a team of people towards an end goal, you’re a team leader. While this role is similar to that of a project manager, team leaders also bring an element of mentorship and coaching to their team. In this article, we take a look at a team leader’s core responsibilities, plus 10 things you can do to become a master team leader.
There may be no “i” in team, but every great team has a team leader. Team leaders are responsible for everything from day-to-day operations to ensuring that their team members are best supported to achieve their goals.
Depending on your company structure, it can be a bit unclear what a team leader’s responsibilities are and how this role is different from a project manager. In this article, we cover what a team leader is—and isn’t—and take a look at 10 tips to help you become a great team leader.
A team leader is responsible for guiding a team of people during a particular initiative or towards a specific goal. Team leaders aren’t necessarily team managers—these roles are often separate from people management roles. The team leader is specifically responsible for creating a collaborative work environment and determining the direction of a particular project or program.
A team leader provides guidance and instruction to a working group about a project or portfolio of projects. They are in charge of delegating work, overseeing progress towards goals, and coaching team members as needed. Team leads often serve as de-facto mentors for the team, even if they don’t have a manager title.
“Team leader” isn’t usually a job description. As a result, team leaders can have all sorts of roles, from management titles to individual contributor positions. Team leaders sometimes also have project manager or program manager roles, which clearly indicate that they’re in charge of organizing work even if they aren’t directly managing any team members.
A team leader is responsible for a specific body of work, like a project, program, or portfolio of programs.
A team leader’s main responsibilities include:
Connecting work to context
Managing project progress
Reporting progress to stakeholders
Coaching to improve team member skill sets
Motivating team members to accomplish their goals
Nurturing team member strengths and identifying areas for improvement
Representing and advocating for team needs
Oftentimes, a team leader’s skills overlap with project management skills. This is normal—on a lot of teams, the team leader and project manager are one and the same.
The best way to think about the difference is to focus on the person’s goals. A team leader’s goal is to motivate and encourage their team members so they can get good work done. A project manager is often more focused on deliverables and tasks that need to be accomplished.Read: Everything you need to know to become a project manager
Regardless of the type of project you’re leading, a good team leader is able to confidently manage and communicate with their team. Here are 10 skills you need to get started:
One of the most valuable things you can do as a team lead is to answer the question: Why does this work matter?
Every project supports a team or company goal—but oftentimes, goals are disconnected from daily work. When team members don’t understand what goals their work supports, they’re less motivated to get good work done.
Good team leaders provide context, so team members understand why their work matters and how their work fits into the larger company vision. With that context, team members can more effectively prioritize tasks and ensure they get their highest-impact work done at the right time.Watch: A leader’s guide to change
Once your team understands what goals they’re supporting, they also need a clear way to visualize how they’re going to get there. As the team leader, think of yourself as the captain of the ship: you’re responsible for orienting the crew towards your destination and figuring out exactly how you’re going to get there.
There are three main elements to ensure work moves forward in an effective way:
Clarify metrics. Team members can’t know if they’re on the right track if they don’t have a clear sense of what they’re working towards. So before you get started, set SMART goals to define how you’ll measure success and create measurable goals.
Track progress. It isn’t enough to know where you’re going—you also need to know where you are in relation to your goal. Make sure your team members have a clear way to visualize the project timeline and see who’s doing what by when.
Communicate updates. As the team lead, it’s also your responsibility to monitor progress and share updates with the project team and any relevant stakeholders. The best way to do this is with project status reports, which give your team a clear sense of whether your project is on track, at risk, or off track.
Like any leadership position, team leads need excellent communication skills. This includes communicating with team members about work, updating project stakeholders about progress, and coordinating with any cross-functional partners on behalf of the project team’s needs. Notably, communication includes both verbal and nonverbal communication. In fact, a lot of communication comes through body language and facial expressions.
Important elements of communication include:
1:1 or face-to-face communication
Effective listening, like active listening
Interpersonal skills like communication take time to develop. Don’t worry if communication isn’t your strong suit now. If you’re getting started learning how to build good rapport, start with a communication plan. A communication plan is a blueprint of what should be communicated where, like what happens asynchronously in your project management tool and what is shared during your weekly team meetings.Read: Why it’s time to prioritize your emotional intelligence
Team leaders are often project managers, but even if you aren’t a project manager, you’re still responsible for organizing your team’s work. As a team leader, you’re guiding your team towards an end objective or goal—and organization is a key element of getting there.
Think of organizing information like creating a single source of truth. Your team needs to be able to count on you and trust that you have the information they need.
The best way to set up a great organizational system for your entire team is to use a work management tool like Asana. Asana helps you track work, manage projects, and share progress towards your goals. When everyone understands exactly who’s doing what by when, they’re empowered to get their best work done.
The best team leaders know that they can’t do everything by themselves. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s a key facet of team leadership as well. Delegating is a key part of coaching and mentoring. Not only does delegating unblock your work—it also gives team members opportunities to try new skill sets.
To delegate effectively, you must first understand each team member’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests. That way, you know what you should send their way, and what new skills they’re most interested in learning. Keep in mind that the team members you delegate work to may do things differently than you would have—part of delegating is learning to let go and give your team members the reins.
If you have trouble delegating work, try creating an Eisenhower Matrix. Or when in doubt, follow this easy four step process:
Identify work that can be delegated.
Clarify urgency and importance so team members can prioritize work.
Provide any required training.
Trust, but verify.
No project goes off without a hitch. That’s why team leaders must be good problem solvers who can think on their feet. To do this, practice using context to prioritize your most important work and identify which problems need to be solved first in order to make the best decision for your team.
If you’re new to problem solving, try answering the following questions:
How is the team going to approach the work?
What’s most important?
What do they have to focus on?
How will this decision impact the team?
Team leaders are master time managers—they have a great sense of how to prioritize work. In order to develop your time management skills, try implementing some time management strategies and tools to get the most out of your day. You can also encourage your team members to do the same and shop around for a time management strategy that works best for them.
If you’re not sure where to begin, try:
The GTD method, which focuses on cataloguing information in an external tool so you can use your brainpower for high-impact work.
Time blocking, which focuses on grouping similar tasks to work on all at once and scheduling those time blocks in your calendar.
The Pomodoro Technique, which establishes a set of sprints and breaks to help you maximize your productivity and focus.
The Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, which helps you get 80% of your work done with 20% of effort.
The eat the frog method, which states that in order to get your best work done, you should tackle your biggest task (your frog) at the very beginning of the day.
As a team leader, you’re ultimately responsible for helping your team accomplish their goals. Part of this is making sure work is progressing on track and no one is getting close to burnout. During team meetings and 1:1s, ask your team members how they’re feeling about their workload and if there’s anything they need to deprioritize, defer, or delegate.
As the team leader, you should have a sense of what your team members have on their plates. But this isn’t something you can always keep in your head, especially as your team grows. Instead, try using a workload management tool to keep track of what each team member is working on. This is especially important if your team members are working across projects, and have work that you don’t necessarily know about. If everything is in one place, you can quickly see what’s on their plate and prevent overwork.
Team leaders aren’t just the organizational masterminds behind a group of people—you’re also responsible for encouraging and motivating your team. In order to be an effective leader, spend time on team building and make sure everyone feels like a part of the team.
Team building starts with ensuring everyone understands the team goals so you can move together towards the final deliverable, but it doesn’t end there. To build an effective team:
Check in on a weekly or daily basis, depending on how long the project runs for.
Evaluate team performance and cheer your team members on.
Spend some time on team building games.
Try icebreaker questions to get to know your team better.
A big part of a team leader’s role is to provide coaching, training, and mentoring where applicable. Your team members may be new to this type of initiative, or they may have questions about how to complete a particular task. If you know how to solve their problem, you can provide coaching as needed—if not, direct them to the best person to answer their question.
Even if you're an individual contributor instead of a people manager, as a team leader you’re responsible for supporting and encouraging your project team members. Invest in your leadership skills and build your emotional intelligence so you can support your team members when they need it.
You can’t do your work effectively if you don’t have a clear way to communicate and share information with your team members. To increase visibility across your team, try project management tools. Give team members the clarity they need to stay in sync, collaborate effectively, and get their best work done.Watch: A leader’s guide to change