One captain or co-captains? Why?

Hello!

One of the questions that I have personally been asking myself is “what is the proper way to lead a robotics team?” Particularly, what does the leadership look like at the top?

I am very much in the camp of having just a single captain, followed by a vice captain. The captain’s job is to manage the vision and momentum of the team and to support their subteam leadership. The vice captain serves to learn as much as they can, weigh in on all decisions, and serve as the captain should the captain be absent. At the end of the day though, it is the captain’s responsibility to make decisions. I personally do not like the concept of co-captains, because I believe that all information should funnel to a singular point. That way, less information gets dropped in the cracks. With co-captains, my thinking is that if they ever disagree or have a different viewpoint on something, there will be tension or in-fighting which there simply isn’t time for in an FRC season. On top of that, I think that in a pair of any two people, one of them will end up commanding more respect than the other, which only adds to there being a power imbalance. At the point where you have a power imbalance, why not just have a captain and a vice captain?

What are your thoughts? What has your team done in the past, how has it worked, and do you agree with the system? How would you change it?

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For the past few years, we have had two. They’re already driven students with a lot on their plates. Two people makes sharing that load easier.

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We have two but one from mechanical and one from coding. The vice president handles PR and fundraising.

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I have only ever experienced teams run with a more “co-captain” style that forms a larger leadership entity at the top. Decisions are made by a mix of the team Captain/Chairman/President and Vice Presidents/Co-captains, as well as a mix of mentors (4159 prefers just the head mentor, while 299 takes lead mentors from technical, non-technical, financial, and administrative departments). It’s been fairly effective, and keeps the process down to a singular entity that the information stems from while preventing the issues that come from having a singular “shotcaller” in charge - which I’ve heard has negative impacts on those who may feel that their division is not well-represented or that their voices are not being heard.

What I think is more effective in this spin on “co-captaining” is that every member of the top leadership knows their role and can function both independently when it comes to departmental projects or issues, yet work together to fulfill the needs of the team as a whole. In giving them both individual and collaborative responsibility, we see more leaders able to temporarily fill the shoes of another, whereas a Co-Captain who is only called in in case the Captain is absent does not necessarily have the same knowledge or experience to fully replace the Captain in these instances.

And sometimes, the Captain shouldn’t even be the one to do it all. Here’s the description of the President’s duties on 4159:

President:
Leads Board and weekly meetings.
Leads Team debriefs.
Jumps in to replace vacant positions.
Actively helps Vice Presidents and Heads achieve goals.
Posts General Meeting agenda ahead of time.
Keeps track of team debriefs and goals.

What do you notice? This all falls heavily in line with your philosophy of “managing the vision and momentum of the team and to support their subteam leadership.” They’re the go-to when it comes to organizing the team’s goals and helping individual groups become successful so that the team can become successful as well. But not once does it say that the President should be calling all the shots. Keeping the decisions up to informed leadership speaking on behalf of their subteams treads on a lot fewer toes, yet also finds a good synthesis behind any decision - ideally enough to keep all of your members feeling listened to and respected.

That is something that I did not have a chance to touch on in the OP. In my currently preferred model, I didn’t mean to insinuate that the captain made all of the decisions period. I 100% agree that the subteam leads (or whatever your team may call them) should be voicing their course of action as the knowledgeable party. As the current captain myself, I am well well aware that I should not be making decisions on things like what type of chassis to use or how we should be programming. I simply don’t have the knowledge that the given subteam lead has.

On 423 we had one captain. We were a small team so we didn’t really have the manpower for more than that. The captain directed everything, kept track of other team members, managed the paperwork, planned outreach events, and played a large role in designing and manufacturing the robot, among many other jobs. Really, it was more work than should be placed on any single person, let alone a student.

On 5987, we have two co-captains: a technical captain and a community captain. The technical captain is in charge of everything that has to do with the robot: the mechanical, programming, electrical, and CAD subteams; all of the tools and machines; design and production of the robot; etc. The community captain is in charge of the “social” aspects of the team: outreach events, social media, chairman’s and awards, etc. They share some jobs too, like running whole-team meetings, coordinating with teachers and school administration, and answering 40 students’ basic questions*. †

IMO this division of labor works nicely, much better than having one person try to do everything. The two domains don’t overlap much, so disagreements are kept to a minimum. And each captain has half the work, meaning more time spent on the details, and less gray hairs all around. I also think that splitting up the captain position helps discourage anyone from developing a god complex, as no student is ever in charge of the entire team**.

Obviously, every team is different, and you need to experiment to find out what’s best for your team.

  • e.g. 40x “Do we need to wear team shirts tomorrow?” or “What time is tomorrow’s meeting?” or “I’m running 10 minutes late.” or “I can’t come today.”
    ** Not that I’ve every seen this actually happen on either of my teams, but I certainly know people who would develop a god complex if given that opportunity and power.

† Edit: I should also note that each captain has a vice-captain (literally translates to lieutenant) who is the student who will have that captain’s role next year. They have another job on the team (generally leading one of the subteams that captain is in charge of), but they also help with basic captain-type jobs and learn how to be a good captain for next year.

Depends on your team size. We have 63 kids, so we have split into subteams (Fabrication, Prototype, Electrical, Programming, Design, PR, and Controls) which have 1 subteam lead and, if big enough, an assistant lead. Then, we have two overall captains that overlook everything.

However, back in the day (like 10 years ago), we had around 7 students. We had no subteams and I’m pretty sure if we even had a captian, there was only 1. This was about as efficient (one of our best robots, our 2007 robot, was built with only 7 students and probably one captain while another one of our best robots, 2017, was built with 50 students and 2 captains) as today, although we probably used to require more out of our students than today, where today we can do extracurriculars in addition to robotics.

Having one or two (or even three or more) all work equally well usually, as long as it’s the right amount considering team size.

Our experience on Team 100 is that it really always becomes apparent who the leadership team is and who the captain is. We don’t bother too much with titles - there is the leadership team, which is usually half a dozen or so students (on a 20-ish student team). Typically there’s one captain (but occasionally 2) who stand out above the rest of leadership - they organize meetings, are at meetings regularly, are committed and involved with pretty much everything, and are also trusted by the other students as a leader. You can generally keep the structure pretty loose and just see how things land in my experience.

Team 8 is trying the two-captain approach this year (one technical, one outreach). While it does split the workload, there are some instances where the captains won’t agree (membership requirements for example). Some entity is required to “tiebreak”, whether it be the coach or the rest of the leadership team. Sometimes, this does force consideration of perspectives that wouldn’t otherwise be considered. Communication between the captains is also key, so that they are both on the same page about everything.

Personally, having been a singular team captain I would probably prefer that approach. I’d rather work with and delegate to several subteam leads under me. A single captain also means that person has clear visibility into everything happening on the team. Additionally there’s a sense of hierarchy so team members know exactly who to approach about problems, and one captain doesn’t start to overshadow the other.

My junior year of high school is the year we implemented a strict leadership structure, and we went with a president and vice-president. We also had sub-group leaders, so we could implement a hierarchy. The idea was to have all questions funneled through the team leads first, then the team leads could raise questions to the president/vice president, and then, if need be, the pres/vp should be the only ones asking the head coaches… We did this because the coaches were getting bombarded with fifty students asking questions that could’ve been answered by subgroup leaders (ie. what time is the meeting Saturday?)

The way it worked out for us was my junior and senior year the drive coach and president were the same person. This wasn’t on purpose, but it always made a lot of sense.

In the end, I think it’s about whatever works best for your team. When I was president, I worked with my VP a lot anyways to ensure everything was getting done.

Other have given great advice on the rest of your post, so I’ll focus on these two points. For us, there are few decisions that both Captains (Engineering and Business) need to make together. For those that they do we rely on what has developed as our standard decision making procedure, consensus building. Captains and mentors will discuss the issue and try to form a consensus, usually with the mentors deferring to the students when possible. Our culture is such that even if we don’t have agreement on an issue we can usually agree to go with a compromise and revisit the issue later if we need to change. That culture takes time to build, but it mostly came from people in power (mentors and previous captains) being publicly willing to try things that they don’t 100% support, for the good of the team.

Co-captains, I’d never go with a singular captain. Depending on how active a team is, the workload can just be too much for one individual, even with significant delegating to the rest of the leadership team. Additionally, the saying “It’s lonely at the top” is true - a singular captain has no equals they can talk to, get feedback and reassurance from. So there’s an immense amount of pressure to be perfect (expectations, real or imagined, from the mentors they “report” to and from the students they are supposed to lead) with no real release valve available.

Also, if you have a single captain, what happens when they are unavailable? Out of town visiting a college, or on a family vacation? Does the team just not meet? Having 2 captains makes it easy to get around this, as it’s likely one will be available to lead the team and keep things moving forward.

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We usually have around 75-80 students on the team, so it becomes logical to have co-captains. We have one overseeing the build/engineering team and one overseeing the business side. Furthermore, we have a student and parent “steering committee,” comprised of group leads. On business, the group leads are: awards, management, finance, outreach, and inreach, and on build, those group leads are: design, development, strategy, machining, and software. That encompasses the reach of our team fairly well, we’ve found.

We run a single president, two VPs and then a board of subteam leaders and we’ve been getting better with it each year.

One risk that we initially handled poorly when going to a greater number of titled leaders is allowing leaders doing a poor job and/or setting bad behavior and culture standards to stay in their positions. This is toxic for the team, and you really should rip that bandaid off sooner rather than later by replacing them.

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We usually have one captain (team size typically 25 students). However, when there was no one student with all the necessary qualities (2014 IIRC), we had co-captains with complementary skill sets who worked together well. Even with one captain, we have a designated lieutenant who stays on top of things and can take over when/if the captain is away.

Got to ask more about the structure here: The person who is in charge of mechanical and the person who is in charge of coding are both automatically the Presidents and the person who handles PR and fundraising is the Vice President? Or is it coincidence that the people in these roles are also leading those positions?

If it is the former I take exception that the person who handles fund development and is the face of your “company” is the Vice President. While somebody who handles a more granular segment such as mechanical and coding are roles that warrant being a president.

To be more specific all the presidents work together to make decisions for the team. We decided to have a coding and mechanical president because it allows for better information at the top level regarding the two sub-teams. We also have a mechanical and coding chief who execute what the presidents decide and bring up issues that arise if they cannot solve them. Therefore, the fundraising and PR management is delegated to the vice president so that the co-presidents can focus much more on mechanical and coding. The vice president though just sets up a schedule and due dates for fundraising. We then have something like a fundraising chief who makes sure these are met. In the end, all the presidents are intertwined and are informed of each part of the team but it is divided as shown above. This also occurs because of how we elect board members. One from fundraising/PR to become vice, two from coding and mechanical, two chiefs, two presidents.

I would worry about the message you might be sending to team members about the value of the business side of your team. We, at least, live and die by the success of our business and marketing groups and hold them in pretty high esteem.
Are Mechanical and Programming the only engineering groups you have? I wondering about a student who chooses to focus on electrical, are they barred from the Presidencies?

I would echo these concerns. Additionally, from the general description it sounds like you have an unnecessary level of management in your team structure. You have a president/VP that make decisions, and then a chief that executes on them… why are those duties separated? If the chief disagrees with the decision, are they going to really give their best effort in trying to implement it? It’s important at every level of a team to promote ownership and buy-in - You want them to want to pursue whatever they are working on, to be energized by it and want it to succeed. That happens when they feel like they are a part of the decision, feel like their opinions are heard, and feel ownership over their part of the project. The more people are insulated from the decisions that are made (which can happen when you have a deeper organizational structure), the less they are going to buy-in to those decisions and the less ownership they are going to feel.

For my team, our co-captains can be any student. It requires experience on the team and demonstrated leadership ability… but the role of co-captain isn’t to actually make any design or business decisions. That’s the role of the leads for those groups. To give you an idea, here are snippets of role responsibilities from my team’s leadership handbook (Which should be published on our website sometime this fall):

Captain

  • Manage team communications
  • Help sub-team/crew leads make, execute, and review their plans
  • Help create schedules
  • Prepare and run Fall Retreat
  • Prepare and run Banquet

Mechanical Lead

  • Work with the strategy team to ensure the team’s chosen strategy is achievable within the constraints of the build season
  • Work effectively with other leads on the design team and listen to the rest of the team to design a successful robot
  • Ensure that the mechanical sub-team works cohesively to construct the robot on time
  • Communicate mechanical happenings during the build season to mentors, captains, design team, and the rest of the team
  • Divy up the work effectively between the rest of the mechanical team
  • At competitions, ensure that the Robettes needed for robot fixes are in the pits, ready to work when needed

Looking at those two descriptions, the Captain position only really has decisions when it comes to the Fall Retreat and the end of the year Banquet. Everything else is facilitating and helping the other leads. The Mechanical lead description shows a lot more decision making, with both strategy and design (since those two are closely related through our build season time constraint). After that, they do a lot of facilitation with their group. The leads don’t actually do all of the design - they do the big picture design decisions, but then the groups within the sub-team are able to make decisions on exactly how their mechanism is going to look, with the lead facilitating the discussion between the groups and making sure all of the decisions are going to work together.

I have asked the newly elected team leaders to find one or two other team members who they can prepare to take over their position in future years. These would not be formal positions. The idea is to form small leadership teams to let new(er) team members try out the position by serving as the right-hand woman for a particular leader. It should also make life easier for the leaders by setting up one or two team members they can rely on for help or to take their place temporarily. It would be expected that the leaders be responsible for providing the formal and on the job training for their prospective successors. While this structure does not mean that there are co-leaders, it does not exclude the possibility if future successors want to colaborate for their position.

The team I have just started mentoring usually has around 20~24 girls with 6~8 dedicated core members. A bunch of Seniors have just graduated and about 7~8 team members have returned this September, mostly as Juniors. Being a relatively small team, having continuity in leadership seems to have been a bit of a problem in the past. I am hoping that this leadership structure will make the leadership more stable with the leaders chosen based on demonstrated merit. It should also provide a way of passing on the acquired institutional knowledge.

This concept of having leaders prepare their own successors is borrowed from the practice at some large corporations such as GE.