How to identify and address CTO smells: People Management

Thanks to our new CTO Smells Series, you’re able to spot the process-related problems. So, now you can start paying attention to those relating to communication and people management.

Not every leader starts out as a great leader, and if your ascent was more accident rather than design in the beginning then it’s possible to take bad behaviours with you or pick up new ones without the right guidance and development. With this is mind, we’ve identified seven common mistakes leaders make when it comes to managing downwards and why these need to be tackled promptly to ensure a thriving team:

1. Not setting expectations — People aren’t mind readers and although you may expect most to be team players, it’s hard for juniors to work together when they don’t know what is expected of them both in terms of individual and shared performance.

Solution: Shoulder some responsibility for people’s output and clearly outline delineated goals for your team to work towards. Doing so will help eliminate doubts around what they’re doing and how well they’re doing it, which leads to increased engagement and therefore higher levels of productivity.

2. Not creating structure — Although autonomy is often a good thing, it works best when permitted within a framework. Even the most brilliant developers and engineers require direction. Without which, un-monitored tangents happen.

Solution: Without being overly hierarchical, specify the function of each team, sub-team and individual. Make it clear who is accountable to whom and who is responsible for decision-making at what level, and when and how those decisions will be communicated.

3. Failing to recognise needs — People are just that: people. They’re not work horses and there will be times when their work or commitment to the job is below par. Often, there are good reasons behind this, but more often, there are incorrect assumptions by managers that a drop in performance is down to laziness or disinterest. Reductionist attitudes can lead to missing warning flags and not realising when your team member might need additional support.

Solution: Make it your business to know what makes your team tick and get to know them as individuals. While this may take time in the beginning, creating an open, two-way dialogue will help you identify their motivators, behaviour patterns and crucially you’ll know what a normal day looks like them for them. That way you’ll be quicker to notice when things aren’t right and be able to take steps to prevent burnout or, offer assistance if someone is suffering from depression or other issues.

4. Becoming too attached — When you’re (fully or partly) responsible for scaling a company and building a team, it’s easy to cross the line from ‘boss’ to ‘friend’ when you’re working closely and riding the highs and lows of startup life together. Workplace relationships are important and feelings and emotions will factor in, but this can become a problem when it affects a manager’s ability to interact with a person without bias: whether it’s undue consideration for promotion, or becoming blind to faults and are unable to constructively criticise or even fire someone if/when the situation requires it. Attachment can also create tensions within a team where other junior employees observe such favouritism.

Solution: First, draw the boundaries early and ensure you remain the authority and a beacon of respect (as opposed to fear). This doesn’t mean you can’t attend after work drinks for example, but it does mean excusing yourself earlier than others and maintaining a distance. Secondly, employ formal procedures for feedback, promotion or disciplinary action that are transparent to the entire team and will ensure that your direct reports feel like they are being treated equally.

5. Unable to delegate — Delegation can be difficult in a number of circumstances: a) When you’ve been entirely responsible for a product since its inception, b) when you’re pushed for time and need help completing certain things but it’s the exact time you don’t have time to ask for it, or c) possess the (mistaken) belief that no-one will be able to do something as well as you can. Delegation however, is important for building your team’s confidence, developing their skills and improving efficiency.

Solution: You must learn to let go. Then, when you’re ready to, plan to delegate in advance: work out what needs to get done and who in your team is most suitable for each task by looking at their strengths. Accept that there will be times when you need to teach someone how to do something, but not only will they learn for future projects, they’ll be able to pass that knowledge on to others.

6. Micromanaging — Supervision of your team is obviously a good thing, but it can tip over into too much; drip-feeding information to maintain constant contact, asking for feedback at every incremental stage or telling someone how to do their job a certain way. Micromanaging sometimes comes from a good place — a manager who wants to help or improve efficiency — but mostly, it has the complete opposite effect: eroding trust, confidence and morale, stifling creativity and preventing discovery of new ways to problem-solve.

Solution: Relinquish some control and as we’ve said before master the art of delegation! Try taking a step back for a period of time and watch as the proof appears in the pudding. If it doesn’t, rather than revert to old habits, look at other ways of restoring trust by talking to, getting feedback from and supporting your team to get things done in a way that works for everyone.

7. Not giving feedback — Most people care about what others think of them and your subordinates are no exception. If people don’t receive adequate feedback on their performance, they don’t know what they’re doing right and what, if anything, is going wrong. It can lead to second-guessing and as humans are programmed to catastrophise, doing so can detrimentally affect people’s self-esteem and create the belief that they’re failing.

Solution: Increase communication: schedule 1:1s, team meetings and interdepartmental get-togethers to share what’s working and what’s not. Giving feedback is an art and you need to choose the right time and place before praising, correcting or criticising. And it goes without saying that all three types must be constructive!

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