CXO

Pick the right team member to trust as your lieutenant

Every manager needs a right-hand report who can advance team goals and lead by example. But these lieutenants can also become divisive forces who undermine your authority. Here are a few pointers on building positive relationships with your informal team leader.


This article originally appeared on Builder.com’s sister site TechRepublic.com.

Every manager should have a trusted lieutenant, a key leader who acts as your sounding board and helps you communicate goals to other team members. Sometimes this lieutenant has a title that includes phrases such as “senior” or “coordinator;” sometimes he or she is simply a seasoned professional who can give you a fresh perspective on the occasional tough call you need to make.

Nothing is more valuable to a manager than a healthy relationship with a trusted lieutenant. Nothing is more damaging to a team’s dynamic than a mismanaged relationship with such a pivotal team member.

If you’ve been managing for a while, you’ve seen manager/lieutenant relationships that originally seemed solid degenerate into pretty big messes. Once these key dynamics begin to go south, they are incredibly difficult to repair, so you have to play your cards smart from the outset.

Here are a few tactics that I’ve had pretty good luck with over the years as I’ve tried to cultivate solid working relationships with my own lieutenants.

Play favorites for the right reasons. The biggest mistake many managers make in picking their lieutenants is gravitating towards friends, often coworkers with whom they’ve moved up in the company ranks. This can work, but more often than not I’ve seen it play out as a recipe for disaster. Other team members, particularly junior developers and admins, will invariably view such relationships as a simple case of boys’ club politics—and unfortunately, they’re often right. The best lieutenant candidates come from backgrounds quite distinctive from your own. They can truly bring new perspectives and ideas to the team’s dynamic at a high level. Think hothead Kirk and logical Spock here. Diversity is an essential component of any team’s life, and it’s often best reflected in the informal leadership arrangement you share with your lieutenant.

Fight with your lieutenant. Well, not the knockdown, drag-out kind. But if you haven’t had a fairly vigorous disagreement with your key report for a couple of months, you’ve got a problem. Either you’re not getting your money’s worth in terms of new ideas or perspectives, or—even worse—your lieutenant does have issues with the way the team is running, but doesn’t feel comfortable coming to you with concerns. Married couples don’t agree on everything; you can’t expect to be perfectly in synch with your right-hand report all the time, either. The worst collapses of manager/lieutenant relationships I’ve seen have boiled down to lieutenants feeling that their ideas aren’t being fairly considered, even if they haven’t bothered to tell the manager about them. Don’t confuse silence with agreement.

Make sure your lieutenant pays for the privilege. I love titles that include “senior” or “coordinator,” because they force you to give your lieutenant some responsibilities that shore up his or her informal leadership role. Make key reports track a schedule or review some code deliverables as part of their ongoing responsibilities. It gives your lieutenants a chance to build or reinforce credibility with other team members, as well as a kind of laboratory where they can try out new ideas. And, it takes some hassles off your plate.

Give your lieutenant room to make decisions. Never forget that, if you’ve picked your lieutenant wisely, you’re working with someone who wants to be a leader and make decisions without being constantly second-guessed. Pick some area of the team’s function—status reports, bug queue maintenance, low-level business driver updates—and let your lieutenant drive. I’ve found that a weekly or bi-weekly update session where I just ask, “How’s it going?” is more than enough to keep me in touch with my lieutenants’ progress in such areas. I’ve also almost always been pleased with the decisions they’ve made.

Make sure your lieutenant knows where the fences are. I said I’m almost always pleased with my lieutenants’ decisions; everybody makes mistakes. When you do find it necessary to adjust a decision your informal team leader has made, just make sure you do it behind a closed door and explain the whole context of your action. Don’t be apologetic for exerting your authority if you really need to. You’ll usually find that your lieutenant’s misstep is due to his or her naturally limited perspective on the broader issues facing the team. Most importantly, let your lieutenant communicate the change in plan to other team members after you’ve explained your reasons for making the switch. The team’s trust in an informal leadership role is more delicate than you think; be careful not to undermine it, even unintentionally.

Don't ask your lieutenant to send messages that you haven't already sent yourself. This one really boils down to clearly defining your leadership role, and how your lieutenant’s role supports—not contradicts—it. If you think it’s smart for your lieutenant to speak to another team member privately about a quality or team dynamic issue, just be sure to mention the issue in a broader context at a team meeting or in your weekly team-update mail. At all costs, you want to avoid the trap of team members thinking that they are getting mixed signals from their boss and their boss’s favorite employee.

Let your lieutenant lead in public. In team meetings, I sometimes leave to get a soda or a cup of coffee while my lieutenant takes over a status report or gripe session segment of the meeting. It’s subtle, but it’s a way to demonstrate your confidence in this key team member to act as your proxy when you’re not around. I also try to send my lieutenant to functional meetings with other teams or business units. Visible expressions of trust like this speak more loudly than any lip service you can give to what a great job your top staffer is doing.

Don't be overly critical of other team members in discussions with your lieutenant. This is one of those temptations that grows as you become more comfortable with your key team leader. It’s fine to ask your lieutenant to help out other team members in areas where they need a little support, or even to be a positive influence in team morale issues. But never go so far as to mention issues that you would consider addressing in formal performance review processes. Err on the side of caution here; don’t forget that when push comes to shove, your lieutenant is an employee, too, and employees instinctively get nervous when they sense that a manager is going to come down on another employee. Gripe about problem staffers to your peers in management or, if things get to too thick, to HR.

Of course, these little pointers don’t cover all the soft skills you’ll need to employ to maintain good relationships with your lieutenants. Maybe the best advice I can give you is simply to be very circumspect as you build these essential support resources for yourself. In the absence of formal job responsibilities, your dealings with lieutenants will ultimately boil down to trust, and that’s always tricky.

About Ken Hardin

Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...

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