The Team Leader Role – How to Set it Up to Work

Prefer to watch on video than read?  Click here – 5 mins with captions.

The Team Leader role.  Called lots of things – sometimes ‘Team Leader’, older-school names are ‘Supervisor’ and ‘Leading Hand’, modern names are ‘Coordinator’.

Then we have the Manager role.  Sometimes called that, often now called ‘Team Leader’ because management has  apparently become evil, and in the US this role can be called ‘Supervisor’. 

And before you get started on ‘hierarchy is bad’, remember that most of us work in hierarchies, and it remains the optimal structure in many situations.

If it’s run well.  Which is what this is about.

Lets Define

So let’s get defining.  Regardless of what you call them…

The Managerial role is the one that is accountable for the work of the team.  The one that the organisation will say ‘why isn’t the team producing what it’s paid to?”

The Team Leader role is the one that is accountable for the work occurring that day.  Or that week.  As in, while the work is actually occurring.   And what’s that work?  The work of the team, as was ultimately decided by the managerial role.

You don’t always need a Team Leader role.  It’s not automatic.  But they can be very useful when eyes on the ground can add a lot of value to those doing the work.

So….classic situation – sport.  The coach has a managerial role.  They are accountable for the team’s performance over the season.  Perhaps multiple seasons.  The captain is in the Team Leader role, as their job is to make sure the coach’s plans are put into place on the field.

What’s an easy way to tell?  If a player was going to be cut from the team at the end of the season…who’s judgement would they want that to be?  The Coach or the Captain?

Accountability means Authority

Notice the word ‘accountable’ above.  Whenever you see that, your mind needs to then go to the balancing authorities.  It’s just fair.  In the same way the Managerial role and the Team Leader role have different accountabilities, they naturally have different authorities.

(By the way, the points in this article come from Dr. Elliott Jaques, a guru on making hierarchies humane, productive and value-creating enterprises).

For the Manager to be fairly held accountable for the work of the team, we use the acronym VARI for their authorities, which means they get to:

  • Veto someone coming into the team (on a fair basis, which is only if they can’t do the work)
  • Assign / Allocate / Agree the work that will achieve the goals
  • Review the work to see if it’s up to scratch and reward according to the way things work
  • Initiate removing someone from the team. 

Note…the last one is only initiate.  As in, start the process.  Not the final decision, and according to due process.

(The nifty acronym of VARI to describe these authorities comes from PeopleFit, I think)

Team Leader Authorities

What about the Team Leader?  Well, it’s the same but different.

If you take VARI, it looks like this:

A – as in assign, allocate, agree work – they can do this…within the shift and within the guidelines or plans of the team

V, R and I – they can recommend or give their advice….but not make the final decision.

This is not as weird as it looks – everyone instinctively knows that when the shift supervisor in the supermarket says it’s time for you to open your checkout…they are allowed to ask you to do that.  And if you don’t…the store manager will have a conversation with you.

And….the smart Manager will ask their Team Leader’s advice on matters of recruitment, performance and whether someone is fitting in and doing the work well enough.  (while also making sure they can see for themselves…this is not abdication).

The point of these letters and the accountability / authority stuff is to bring to the surface the way the structure actually runs.  If people know what’s going on, they will be more secure.  Which leads to better work.

1,000 Words

One more thing…pictures are worth a 1,000 words, or for something actually researched – recall of pictures is six times higher than recall of words.  This means that the images about structure make more of a difference than whatever you say.

And what’s the most common image of structure?  The org chart.

Here’s how it’s often drawn when Team Leaders are in play:

See what that creates?  The Team Leader is barrier between the workers and the Manager.  The boss.  But they aren’t!

In this structure there are two levels of work, shown by the purple line.  It goes from making sure work is delivered at the pace and quality required to stepping way back to look at how is the work going overall, seeing if the work of the quarter or the year is on track, asking if there is anything fundamentally not right.

But..the structure itself shows three levels – the workers, the Team Leaders and the Manager.  When we have more reporting levels than work levels…we have compression.  Which means frustration.  Which wastes money…and human spirit.

So here’s how to do it:

Notice how everyone is now connected to the Managerial role, who is the one who is accountable for them, and therefore ultimately has authority regarding them.  Also notice that the Team Leader role sits slightly higher than the frontline workers – this is because seeing the work over a whole shift or a week is a longer timespan than the tasks of a given day.  So it sits higher.  But…still in the same level of work.

If you like, you can draw some different colour lines to show which Team Leaders take accountability for which groups….which the previous diagram did more simply…but at the cost of causing structural confusion.

Bringing it Home

Whatever you are calling them, think about your current roles, both Managerial and Team Leader, and ask the people in them to write down what they see themselves as accountable for.  Ask the same of your frontline staff too.  Then put it all together and use the ideas in this article to make it make sense for everyone.

Your people can handle it – in fact, it’s probably obvious to them. 

A bit of clarity goes a long way.

Now, over to you.

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