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Agile & Product Management

Product Owner Leadership: How to Lead Software Teams Without Direct Authority

Software developers and software development teams value their autonomy. While people in management or authoritative positions may share this value, they still need teams to perform and be able to drive projects towards their intended outcomes. In large, matrixed organizations, this has led to the creation of a new kind of leadership role: the team lead. In software teams, commonly recognized as the Product Owner or Product Manager.

Product folks working in a team lead capacity may not have direct authority or oversight over individuals’ careers. They can’t offer promotions or pay raises, but they are responsible for ensuring that everyone is working together to meet their targets. It can be a tricky position to be in. After all, you have to positively influence and motivate team members, and often work alongside them, but you have the added responsibility of ensuring that the work is being done on time and to a certain standard.

How can team leaders, product owners, and product managers guide their fellow team members without having direct authority or being able to offer the usual incentives? In a nutshell: empathy will get you everywhere.

Get on your team’s level: Follow the Player-Coach Model

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs: these innovators weren’t just known as “the boss”, they were also tried and true tinkerers themselves. Happiest when they were in the trenches alongside their fellow designers and engineers. Being a team lead versus a manager may actually offer you a distinct advantage, as you’re expected not to abandon your own work and, instead, must work alongside your teammates to get the job done.

Showing your team that you’re taking on a share of the work—as opposed to simply overseeing or supervising their contributions—allows you to build greater rapport with your teammates. This “in the trenches” attitude is often referred to as the Player-Coach model of management.

According to Mark Murphy, a senior contributor for Forbes, “Studying examples of successful Player-Coaches is helpful in understanding how much you should engage with employees, tapping into their great ideas, getting them emotionally attached to the work and inspiring them to produce great stuff.”

Understand what motivates (and de-motivates) team members

The key to influencing without authority is to understand that a team leader is primarily a morale leader. Software projects can often be long, windy and unpredictable (which is why we love realistic agile!), so it’s the team leader’s job to help everyone weather the storms. Before you dive into working together, take some time to learn more about team members and how they prefer to work—both individually and as a unit.

This is especially important in the remote work era, where team members are often geographically distributed and may be dealing with other challenges on the home front. You’ll want to find out how often the team can come together for meetings or maybe identify a set of core, overlapping hours when team members can co-work, whether it’s to brainstorm new ideas or to iron out roadblocks together.

Another great conversation starter is to ask team members about their past experiences:

  • What were some positive experiences that they’ve had that they would like to repeat?
  • What are some negative experiences they’ve had that they wish to avoid?

Everyone comes to their work with their own history and preconceived notions of how things will go. It’s best to level-set around these expectations with your team from the beginning. If you happen to be joining a project mid-way, that’s OK too. Don’t wait until a project post-mortem to learn about critical factors affecting people’s work. In fact, it’s more than likely that the team will welcome taking the time to do a candid audit, plus it gives you a lot of valuable context to work with moving forward.

Be a vocal advocate for your team

It’s a good idea to be transparent with your team about your role and responsibilities, including where there are limits to your authority. Let them know what you can help with and what’s at stake for you (and them) if the team doesn’t succeed. It’s also important to be crystal clear about where the buck stops (for example: you’re not able to give pay raises, but you can provide a recommendation to the person’s manager if it’s warranted.)

Just because you may not have the authority to influence things like promotions and pay raises, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole host of other things that you can advocate for as the team lead. You’re the one who’ll have a closer connection to higher ups, so you can be a positive conduit who speaks for the team’s needs.

Here are a few things that team leaders who don’t have direct authority can advocate for:

  • Additional time off: If the team’s been sprinting towards their goal and starting to feel slow or burned out, you can ask managers for some extra time off to give the team a break.
  • Rewarding the team for a job well done: Expensing meals is a simple way to show the team that you’re caring for them. Ask managers if you can buy the team lunch, whether it’s during an especially tough week or as a reward for their hard work.
  • Support learning and development: Software developers value continuous learning and, fortunately, there are lots of ways to support that endeavor. You can invite a speaker that the team admires for a Q&A session, drum up additional funds for folks to take online classes, or even connect folks with people from your personal network.

Taking on the role of a team lead, product owner, or product manager is a great way to crack into the management track. But even if your sights aren’t set on landing an authoritative role, remember that leaders play a valuable part in the team’s overall success. Adopt an, “all for one and one for all,” attitude, and you’ll be off to the races.

Check out our Focused Teams eBook for more tips on empowering and aligning your team to achieve your goals. Or, check out Zenhub’s 2022 State of Disruptive Software Teams for more on how to build a productive and innovative team.


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