From Teammate to Team Lead – A Balancing Act


Many managers are initially hired into their roles. This article is not about them. Instead, it focuses on managers who have transitioned into management roles from being individual contributors (ICs).

Going from a teammate to a team lead is an exciting opportunity, but it doesn’t come without its challenges – particularly in maintaining relationships while establishing authority with former peers.

I personally experienced this shift when I became a full-time design team lead, temporarily stepping away from hands-on projects to develop my leadership skills. However, the longer I stayed away from hands-on work, the more disconnected I felt from my team’s day-to-day experiences.

Realizing how much you can grow as a manager with the support of your team is the first step to a successful transition.

Not an IC, not yet a manager

I worked alongside my teammates for years: from projects to bonding over shared struggles in our crying corner. But as soon as I got promoted, I noticed a shift in dynamics.

Before becoming a manager, a teammate and I would have informal discussions, oftentimes over a couple of beers, brainstorming about the radical changes we would need to make on a project to succeed. We had big ideas.

Once I became their manager and we had our first official one-on-one meeting, that exact same person and I sat across from each other, trying to converse between awkward pauses.

My teammate didn’t change; neither did I. Only my title changed, but that appeared to have changed everything.

It was frustrating. We couldn’t simply resume where we left off. We had to rebuild our relationship under different circumstances. It took time, but continuous candid conversations helped us regain the ability to make an impact and implement the changes we previously discussed.

Don’t rush to solutions – hear them out

When I used to be an individual contributor, I would listen to my colleagues as they explained with frustration how they wished their team lead would just listen and understand them without immediately suggesting actions. As designers, we have an instinct for problem-solving, but that’s not always the best course of action.

For example, a team member reached out to me recently about scheduling challenges. They were visibly stressed, and there wasn’t much we could do at the moment. We removed a couple of meetings and implemented effective calendar blocking to create time for hands-on work. I was attempting to come up with a temporary solution and was then going to explore a long-term plan. However, I communicated the second part poorly, leading my colleague to perceive my actions as dismissive.

This is where the concept of solutionizing comes into play. As defined in the Urban Dictionary, solutionizing is “the act of coming up with a solution to a problem, or a perceived problem, when all one wants is an empathetic ear.” Moreover, it can often be perceived as patronizing. In reality, they will eventually figure it out, but sometimes they just need someone to listen and validate their concerns.

Sometimes, people just need to vent and express themselves. As a manager, accept that sometimes it is more than enough to simply provide a listening ear. You don’t need to fix the problem, at least not immediately. On the contrary, jumping to solutions might end up being counter-productive.

The simple act of listening not only builds empathy and trust between your team member and yourself but also takes the pressure off you as the manager.

Try shifting gears

Becoming a manager right before a global pandemic and a destructive local earthquake wasn’t a fun onboarding experience, and there was no handbook on how to deal with this kind of situation. The team was scared on so many levels and needed a lot of emotional support during these unprecedented events. They confided in me when they faced personal struggles. Partly because it impacted their work. Partly because, well, we’re only human.

With such a cloud of uncertainty hanging above everyone’s heads, how could one focus on tasks like ensuring proper flow documentation? It was a tough time to manage people.

For example, when delivering feedback, I had to be extremely cautious and consider a multitude of external factors. I found a way to address this by engaging in meta-conversations. This meant having conversations about these specific types of conversations. Instead of constantly being overwhelmed by external issues, we tried to reframe our discussions and focus on things within our control.

Stay on track with your team

Sometimes, we forget what it is like for individual contributors on the frontline, ensuring clients receive value and facing the pressure of meeting deadlines day in and out. Once we’re removed from a certain position, the job looks so much simpler. There were moments when I shook my head with frustration and couldn’t comprehend how certain oversights could have occurred or why things were taking longer than expected. The typical complaints from a manager’s perspective.

Reality hit me when I returned to the craft. It wasn’t just a lack of knowledge about the latest Figma updates. I had lost touch with the challenges they faced in their work.

You’ll be eager to help them with hands-on work, but you need to let go of the details and focus on the bigger picture. Establish a framework where both of you can untangle your work processes, promote critical thinking, and allow them to try solving problems.

Guiding your team members in client management can have a more significant long-term impact than guiding their every move. Trust them to handle the nitty-gritty, just as they trust you to lead the way.

Steer in the right direction

Transitioning from a teammate to a team lead can be a challenging journey, but with the right mindset and approach, you can navigate it successfully.

Anticipating potential power struggles or hurt feelings is crucial as you take on extra responsibilities. It helps to be upfront about your mistakes and be honest with the people you manage. Most likely, they will appreciate the honesty and be more open to providing genuine feedback when they see that it makes a difference.

Bumps in the road are inevitable. You’re still figuring things out, and there’s no shame in that. Get comfortable in the driver’s seat, but remember that the journey is always more fun in good company.