Manager or Lead?


In the past few months, I’ve been teaching a variety of project management and hiring workshops. And (surprisingly to me), we’ve had discussions about whether someone is a manager or a lead.

Some organizations have an aversion to calling people “managers.” Instead, they call them “leads.” One organization called their project managers “people lead.”

Here’s my definition. A manager, whether a functional manager or a project manager, has these responsibilities:

  • Providing feedback to people regarding their deliverables
  • Providing coaching
  • Performing career development
  • Monitors the team as a system

The person who watches out for the care and feeding of the architecture is a technical lead. Leads do not monitor the team as a system; they only monitor the product as a system. If that person also performs management functions, that person is a manager.

I’m not sure why some people are loathe to use the word manager for the people who perform management roles. I think they are attempting to involve leadership and motivation in their use of the word “lead.” But what I see is confusion. The leads didn’t know they were supposed to do some task, something that would have been clear if they’d been called managers or project managers.

There’s no Right Answer to this dilemma. As long as you think about the title you have (or are about to bestow), you’ll do the right thing. Just remember, if you want a manager, call the role a management role.

3 Replies to “Manager or Lead?”

  1. At my last company, the leads did everything that you describe as manager responsibilities. The one thing that made them leads rather than managers was that they interface directly to HR for the people on their teams. They were not involved with salary decisions and did not have final sign-off on reviews, although they did provide varying levels of input on the reviews.

  2. This is our “entry” level management job. The person is responsible for task management for a feature team. They build the work plan, monitor performance to the plan, assign tasks, and ensure our process is followed.
    They are not responsible for adminsitrative issues, personnel management, etc.
    We do this to provide a testing ground for technical staff who want to see what management is about. It let’s them experience what’s it like to coordinate the activities of a team, depend on the performance of others, etc. If they find they don’t like it, it’s easy to step back into an individual contribuator job. If they like it, we start training them to take a full manager job.

  3. Two points:
    #1 – the name doesn’t matter. what matters is your set of responsibilities. If you understand your responsibilities, it doesn’t matter what you are called.
    #2 – the name does matter. you should be able to say “I’m a lead” or “I’m a manager” – and the person you are talking to should understand your responsibilities. You don’t want to have to keep reiterating your responsibilities to everyone you talk to.
    Add those two things together, and you can see that the really important thing isn’t that we have a ‘correct’ definition of ‘lead’ and ‘manager’. The important thing is that everyone talking to each other *agrees* on the *same* definition of the words. When two communicating people have the same understanding of the words, then the words are useful and effective.

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