What is a Lead?

Yesterday I wrote about the difference in titles, roles and grades:

- The title is on your business card and allows you to introduce yourself to the outside world

- The role is the position you hold on a given project and tells others what to expect from you

- The grade indicates your skill level and determines your pay grade

I have been asked where the Leads fit: is it a title, a role or a grade? Does it matter to the outside world that you are a Lead Programmer rather than a Programmer? Does being a Lead changes the responsibilities you have on a project? Does it determine pay?

The truth is that leading a discipline will require very different skillsets depending on the project and the team. Every time a company puts together a new team to start work on a new project, they should reconsider who the Leads are for each discipline. Being a Lead is a role, it determines what others will expect from them - it does not influence pay. And like a role in a film, 'casting' may be needed to see who fits best.

This isn't new: when a plaintiff has a team of lawyers to defend them, one of them is Lead Counsel. This isn't automatically the most senior, the most successful or the oldest lawyer, but the one with the most experience relevant to that particular case. And when they prepare their next case they won't be Lead Counsel anymore because someone else is a better fit. There is no pride associated with being a Lead: it's just a role, not a representation of your worth.

This solves a variety of problems:

- If Lead is a title then when you have two equally capable team members who want to be a Lead, you'll have to promote one and the other one will likely become disengaged and will leave. So you just lost a valuable member of the team. That can't be the best solution.

- If your Lead's specialist area isn't a strong component of the project, the team will be led by someone who isn't an expert. The Lead may seek out advice and opinion from those who are more familiar with the problem, but how often have you seen this happen?

- By rotating the Lead role, you give everyone a chance to show you how they perform. You might identify those who should be given a higher grade or those who would benefit your organisation in a different way.

- It helps create stronger teams because it has a flattening effect on the team structure: Leads don't feel like they have been promoted, because they haven't, and they are more likely to behave in a fair, consistent and inclusive manner because eventually someone else will be leading them.

- Something else you'll see is Leads learning from one another: reusing techniques they have seen work well and avoiding techniques they have witnessed not working. After a few projects your Leads will have developed a set of strong, reliable working practices.

- Soon you will end up with a small pool of potential Leads to choose from rather than have to go with just the one. You'll have more choice

- Because becoming a Lead isn't a promotion, only those who are really interested in the role will come forward, eliminating candidates who aren't motived by the desire to lead.

(Note: there are other ways to handle this problem, such as creating two promotional routes: a technical route and a management route. More about this in tomorrow's post.)

The Leads are the cornerstones of the project: they make decisions that will affect performance, quality, and future developments; they determine the culture on the team not just in their discipline but also in other departments; they are in a position to influence what tools, techniques and working practices are used. You want to make sure you have the right person - so why not shift people around to make sure you always have the best person for the role?







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