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What is the difference between a Specialist, Team Lead, and Manager?

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hello my job title isMore times than I care to consider, I find that in IT there is a problem in understanding the difference between the roles of Specialist, Team Lead and Manager.  Many times this is a “title” problem – a problem with what title to give to a particular role.  But using these terms incorrectly can, as I have experienced, lead to labour relations problems, and more visits to the CCMA than necessary.

So, in this blog post I would like to explain the difference between an IT Specialist, or Technical Lead, a Team Lead, and a Manager.  My hope is that you will use these criteria that I’m going to provide to you when considering the job titles for your different roles.

Specialists, Team Leads and Managers have different sets of responsibilities and therefore different sets of Competencies.  The difference between Specialists, Team Leads and Managers are outlined below in order to demonstrate the different Competencies needed, and also to show how a Team Lead is different in terms of responsibilities and Competencies to a Manager.  Because of these differences, Team Leads are included in the “Management” career path of the Dual Career Path, but Specialists are included in the Technical career path.  Specialists, therefore, cannot have direct reports as this would require that they learn additional Competencies, which are the competencies included in the Team Lead role.

Technical Specialist / Technical Lead

A Technical Specialist or Technical Lead is a “thought-leader” in a specific area or domain.  They:

  • Have extensive knowledge or ability based on research, experience, or occupation and in a particular field of IT,
  • Are recognised as a Professional in the field based on prolonged or intense experience through practice and education in a particular field,
  • Widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by peers or the public in a specific well-distinguished domain,
  • Can be called in for advice on their respective subject, but, between them, they do not always agree on the particulars of a field of study.

Team Lead

A team lead has full technical responsibility for the work undertaken and completed by the team.  The Team Lead is also responsible for all normal Specialist responsibilities within the team and may be supported by other Specialists.  A Team Lead DOES NOT have Managerial responsibilities but DOES have the following responsibilities:

  • Allocation of work within the team,
  • Quality of work delivered,
  • Performance of team.


Managers are responsible for directing the resources in their sphere of accountability to achieve strategic business goals.  Managers are responsible for:

  • Strategic Planning – Developing business goals, designing strategies and organising resources to achieve the goals
  • Decision-Making – Making decisions within the limits allowed for the level (grade)
  • Information Sharing – Share relevant information
  • Financial Stewardship – Budgets and financial activities in the business area
  • Internal Control – The design, execution, and effectiveness of a system of internal controls in their departments and budget units that provide reasonable assurance those operations are effective and efficient; assets are safeguarded; financial information is reliable; and laws, regulations, policies and procedures are complied with
  • Compliance – ensure compliance with laws, regulations, policies, and procedures that apply to their departments and budget units
  • People Management – they:
    • help team create and maintain shared team values,
    • delegate responsibilities to Team Leaders/Superiors,
    • monitor individual and team performance to ensure goal achievement and take action when required, provide regular and constructive feedback,
    • develop staff,
    • respond appropriately to diversity within the team.

From this it becomes apparent that, if a role is given an incorrect title for the responsibilities that the role carries, for instance, a Team Lead is incorrectly titled “manager”, the incumbent could rightly expect to have a wider spectrum of responsibilities that the organisation may or may not be ready to give to that position at the time.

To avoid unnecessary labour relations problems, we at TalentAlign can help with your naming conventions and defining the correct responsibilities for your different roles.  Give us a call and give labour relations issues a brush off – in this area at least.