TLC (Team Leadership & Collaboration) is a framework I initially developed for the structure of the Barrel design team. Since codifying it for the team, I’ve found that its application stretches beyond design and can act as a foundation for the structure of any team. My hope in sharing it here is to provide a starting point for any managers currently in the process of building a new team or restructuring an existing one.
When I joined Barrel as a freelance designer, the design team hierarchy was flat except for two recently promoted Senior Designers and the Summer Internship program. After becoming full-time, my role began shifting from purely executing the work to overseeing other designers on projects. Soon, I was meeting with designers to discuss their growth and future within the team.
Looking back at this transition, it felt natural. I had initially attended college to teach art but quickly changed course after falling in love with graphic design. At Barrel, I rediscovered my desire to teach but appreciated the opportunity to continue honing my craft simultaneously.
I am fortunate to work with co-founders Peter and Sei-Wook, who, early on, saw my interest in the management side of design and supported me in pursuing it. Before I realized that my responsibilities were uncommon in a typical Designer role, Peter approached me about updating my title. Since there was no predetermined path, we discussed which title felt most appropriate. With each step forward, I took note of how my role had evolved. These notes helped define the structure I would later put in place for the design team.
Defining the Vision
As I became more involved in hiring and formally mentoring other designers, my focus shifted from the work to the team. I wanted to build a team that thrived as a unit, not as individuals. Where collaboration was about more than working alongside each other but meant that every employee understood their role and its value to the larger group.
I knew that employee retention was critical. In other words, it was important for people to stick around. It became my mission to create an environment for this to happen.
I thought about what areas of employee retention were in my control. I concluded that, if it were up to me, no one should ever quit because of the following scenarios:
The expectations of their current role were unclear.
Their next role was ill-defined.
They were underqualified for their project assignments and often failed as a result.
They were overqualified for their project assignments and were left feeling bored.
Sure, people might leave for other reasons, but it felt unproductive to concern myself with an endless list of potential scenarios that I likely could not control.
So, what could I provide the team to move closer to this vision? There were three key opportunities:
Project assignments at every level that were challenging, offer leadership opportunity, and as a result, inspire growth. A straightforward activity for a senior might be the challenge an intern needs to progress.
Support and mentorship for each employee to grow in their career. No one should be left wondering if their performance is up to par, when they can expect to move into a new role, or whether or not their project is heading in the right direction. We have all been there; it is no fun.
Clear hierarchy within the team. Employees are more inspired when they can see where their career is going, especially in moments of stress and uncertainty.
I began exploring these opportunities through writing, brainstorms, sketches, countless Google sheets, and ultimately, experimentation. I wasted no time putting ideas to the test through activities ranging from hiring to onboarding to promotions to staffing.
The journey has not been perfect. There have been tense discussions, project failures, and employees who did not work out. I have learned a lot along the way, and as a manager, I am grateful for the team we have built in the process.
Creating a Blueprint
The design team is now at a point where there are contributors at many levels: intern, junior, mid-level, senior, director. Each employee started in more junior levels and have subsequently been promoted to more senior roles. Last year, we expanded the responsibility of the Design Director, Christine. As a result, I felt it was necessary to revisit the team structure and more clearly document how all the pieces worked together.
To be sure we were considering all implications, I revisited my notes from the years prior and started mapping out the current team structure. Up until recently, there had been no up-to-date documentation capturing our evolution as a team. My objective was to make sense of where we were to look more strategically at where we were going.
The outcome of this exercise is a framework called Team Leadership & Collaboration (TLC).
Team Leadership & Collaboration (TLC)
Teams are like a grandfather clock that's been around for decades. When they work well, their function seems effortless and their design simple. On the inside, there's a A high-functioning team has as much to do with its manager as it has to do with its members. Its the coach's job to create an environment where leadership is practiced every day and collaboration is critical to achieving great outcomes.
Leadership means that every member knows where they fit in, what success looks like, how to be effective, and ultimately, has the autonomy to own their position. That said, leadership is nothing without collaboration.
Collaboration means that every member knows they're able to achieve more together than they could ever achieve on their own. They understand where they fit in so they play to each other's strengths and support each other in their weaknesses.
Leadership and collaboration are at the backbone of a team who takes accountability, learns from setbacks, and never stops creating vision. The goal of the TLC framework is to build a system that helps make this a reality. The framework includes four components:
Growth Trajectory Map
Reporting & Support Structure
Best Fit Activities Diagram
Team Staffing Models
Let's take a look at each.
1) Growth Trajectory Map
The Growth Trajectory Map establishes a pathway for every role within a team.
With the Growth Trajectory Map in place, there is no question how an employee can move up within the organization. There may even be multiple paths based on skill set or focus, as shown below.
This example gives employees options and sets them up to do what they do best vs. sending them down an uncomfortable path, ultimately risking their departure (e.g the cautionary tale of a passionate maker turned manager).
Managers can learn where employees are likely to succeed by observation or by simply asking them where they see themselves going. It's a simple question that goes a long way. All in all, when a manager has alignment on an employee's career path, they can provide the right support and guide them to be their best.
Role/title definition: When defining roles within a team, the Growth Trajectory is a great place to start. Shift focus from all of the possible titles and think more about how employees currently contribute to the team. Where could they use support on straightforward tasks? If you could wave a magic wand, what activities do you wish they were able to lead? Use answers to these questions as an initial guide for carving out the roles above and below the current team. If it is a team of 1 or 2, ask the same questions about those employees.
Phases: If there is a cross-over in how roles contribute to the team, managers can break them into groups based on similarities (shown in both examples above). These groups can represent broader phases of an employee’s growth within the team.
Timeline: For some organizations, there may be expectations of how long an employee should spend in a given role. If these details are important to note, include them beside each role or grouping.
2) Best Fit Activities Diagram
The Best Fit Activities Diagram outlines the most valuable activities for an employee to work on at every level.
One avoidable, all too common reason for employee churn is a string of wrong assignments. The Best Fit Activities Diagram builds a blueprint to help avoid the same fate by establishing clear activities for each role. This helps establish:
Expectations for each role. When an employee is in X role, what do they need to be competent in doing? With this in place, managers can set expectations for the employee and measure their performance.
Which activities will be challenging for an employee and which activities will not. When push comes to shove, a more senior employee will jump in to help a junior. That said, this should not be the norm. The junior will become discouraged, and eventually, the senior becomes disengaged. Meanwhile, the employer has been paying a senior employee to do junior work.
Project assignments that are the right fit. By creating the Best Fit Activities Diagram, managers can see where their employees will be most productive. Managers are not blindly assigning them to projects that feel less complicated and hoping it works out. Instead, managers can assign their employees to projects with purpose and confidence. They may even break a project down into multiple tasks and delegate among the team. If managers want to challenge an employee with tasks outside their role, the Best Fit Activities Diagram helps align with them on expectations before they get started.
Role definition. For each role, summarize its purpose within the team in one or two sentences. These descriptions are a helpful guide in brainstorming and assigning tasks during the creation of the diagram.
Start with activities, end with roles. Start by brainstorming all activities that take place within the team, regardless of who typically does them. The goal is to get everything out on paper before assigning them to the roles. With a large pool of activities to choose from, it will be easier to see the big picture and determine where activities should live on the diagram.
Overlapping activities. It is not unusual for two roles to have a few activities in common. However, if this is the default, it defeats the purpose of making the diagram. If it feels like a given activity could fall into two roles, think about whose time would be most valuable doing it. If that yields no results, the activity at hand may be too broad. Try splitting it in half or breaking it down further.
3) Reporting & Support Structure
This structure is similar to a traditional org chart. The nuance is specifying mentors not only highlighting manager <> direct reports relationships.
How do we distinguish between management and mentorship? Management encompasses anyone with direct reports. At a high level, managers will have on-going conversations with their direct reports about their performance and career. Mentorship focuses on employees with relevant experience (typically in mid-level and senior roles) who can guide junior employees on projects. Mentors are not formally discussing performance or career growth. Instead, they provide support on the skills required for the job.
With a Reporting & Support Structure clearly outlined, managers can identify and tackle potential problem areas. There are a couple of common examples to look out for:
Too many direct reports. As a team begins to grow, there is often a lack of hierarchy, resulting in the manager taking on more direct reports than they can handle. Unfortunately, the presence of this challenge is why it gets surfaced. By mapping out the Reporting & Support Structure, it is easy to identify this upfront and workshop potential solutions. Solutions may include hiring a new manager or planning for the promotion of a senior employee.
Junior employees without support. A classic example of this is interns. Interns are often brought into an organization to help with production-oriented tasks that are not a good fit for a senior employee. (More on this next.) If a formal internship program isn't in place, interns can be left working in a silo, and soon, small tasks become big tasks. The Report & Support Structure highlights these blind spots before they become an issue and allows us to be proactive in ensuring everyone has the support they need.
Freelancers. When mapping out the Reporting & Support Structure, consider adding freelancers, especially longer-term contracts. While freelancers are not full-time, they work closely with the full-time team and are expected to perform at the same level. Like any other employee, it is essential to set them up for success and give them the feedback needed to thrive. To do this, managers must define how they fit within the team: If they were full-time, what would their title be? Who would they report to?
Small teams. This exercise may feel unnecessary for a team with few employees, but it can be valuable when shifting focus to the future. Start by outlining what the team looks like today, then reference the roles outlined in the Growth Trajectory Map. How will future roles live within the structure of the existing team? Who will report to who? How will new hires be set up for success? Use the Reporting & Support Structure to answer these questions and establish how to move the team forward.
Mentors. Every organization looks at management and mentorship a little differently. If the manager is working closely with their employees on projects, they may not need an additional mentor. To decide who does, I look for this match: Who am I priming for management, and who could use the hands-on support? The employees I'm priming for future management responsibilities are often senior employees who may someday take on direct reports. The mentorship experience can make for a smoother transition into management by shifting an employee's focus from their work to guiding others to be successful. The employees I often see who need added support are more junior employees. They have potential but are still learning the ropes (technical skills, industry concepts, etc). While their manager will support them in their career development (future roles, goal-setting, etc), a mentor can work with them on projects to further build out foundational skills.
4) Team Staffing Models
Team Staffing Models outline how employees on a team should collaborate on different projects, regardless of their title. For each model, there are four primary roles that an employee can play:
Consulting: Extra support to providing insights when needed on overall strategy, process, and deliverables.
Direction: Overseeing the direction of a project. Providing guidance and feedback to ensure work is adhering to the client’s objectives. Typically no execution work when in this role.
Lead: Driving execution for all deliverables. Typically leading presentations with the client. Contributes to all project conversations but can also take direction and run with it autonomously.
Support: Able to assist with deliverables mostly driven by Lead. Tasks are often more straightforward with clear action items and guidelines.
At a high-level, the purpose of establishing Team Staffing Models is to ensure all employees are working on the right projects with the right support. These models help put components 1 through 3 into action. There are a few key objectives:
To create leadership opportunities at every level. An employee cannot go from working on production-oriented tasks to leading strategic meetings without taking the proper steps. Managers can use these models to create opportunities and the structure necessary for employees at every level to take the Lead role and even Direction.
To design a system for support. When business is thriving, managers may feel pressure to keep everything moving and hastily assign a junior employee to a complicated project. With Team Staffing Models already defined, managers can take a step back and assess their staffing options. Any exceptions can be made intentionally with alignment from the team.
To avoid top or bottom-heavy projects. Top-heavy refers to staffing when there are predominantly senior resources working together on a project. These types of projects may go well but often at the expense of other projects. Senior roles can work on more projects than mid-level or junior because they are mainly overseeing work. Oversight typically takes less time per project than execution. Top-heavy projects often lower team productivity. If we assume that a senior employee can dedicate 30 hours/week to billable work and each project requires six hours, they can work on five projects at a given time. Even one top-heavy project will mean one less project per senior involved, leaving less time for oversight and mentoring. Bottom-heavy projects leverage mainly junior resources. The challenge with bottom-heavy projects is simple. Junior employees have no support, and while some may succeed, many will fail. The project will suffer as a result.
Think in phases. Staffing can often change throughout larger projects. When creating Team Staffing Models, consider the phases (or sprints) that make up a project. Each model should reflect a different staffing combination informed by project phases.
Best case, not the worst case. Envision the way that staffing should be, not the way it has been on recent projects. Instead, focus on how staffing has contributed to the success of projects and employees in the past. Apply those learnings to the creation of these models.
Implementing the Framework
Since completing this framework for the design team, we have shared the core concepts with our other discipline leads. Toward the end of last year, I had the opportunity to assist our development team in establishing and implementing the framework. I learned a great deal through this process and factored many of those learnings into the framework outlined above. Perhaps the most important insight was the order of implementation. I initially developed the framework to reflect much of what was already in place among the design team. Using it to establish these concepts for a team was a new experience.
For a successful implementation, I recommend completing each component in the order outlined in this post and the diagram below.
The Growth Trajectory Map defines the current and future roles within a team, helping shape each employee’s career path. To ensure each employee has the guidance needed to be successful, the manager can then determine a clear hierarchy using the Reporting & Support Structure. This structure informs what activities will be the best use of each employee's time, mapped out in Best Fit Activities Diagram. All three components come together in the Team Staffing Models. With a strong foundation for roles and responsibilities in place, the manager can shift focus to effective team collaboration by building out the variety of ways that employees can work together on projects.
If you are in the process of growing your team, use this framework to find a balance between where you are today and where you would like to go in the future. While it may feel like your team requires immediate change, take the time to work through each component at a comfortable pace. Before officially rolling it out, be sure to share it with your employees for feedback. If there are senior leaders within your team, invite them in for their input early. Without buy-in from your team, it can be challenging to implement the framework effectively.
Regardless of where you are with your team, I hope you find this framework is a valuable tool in building a strong foundation for the future, or at a minimum, guiding you to think productively about team structure. Feel free to contact me with any questions, thoughts, or to share your experience with the framework.
Interested in a TLC template? I'm planning to create templates for each of the framework's components. Sign up here and you'll be the first to receive them when they're ready.