Leadership

Taking Charge of an Existing Team

By Sarah AlexanderMarch 23, 2017

Taking the lead of an existing team can be a daunting task for managers, experienced or new. If you’re replacing a poor leader, you can inherit negative emotions and operational issues. On the flip side, if you’re filling the shoes of a popular manager, it might seem that the odds are stacked against you to become the team’s next great leader.

Many managers skip over the basics of team building in a rush to start achieving goals immediately when they step into a new team. But your actions in the first few weeks and months can have a major impact on whether your team ultimately delivers results. Organizational behavior professor Mary Shapiro notes, “If you don’t take time upfront to figure out how to get the team working well, problems are always going to come up.”

Here are four ways to ensure you set up yourself for success as the new manager of a team.

Get to know the team as a whole and as individuals

When taking leadership of a new team, information is your friend. So first things first: listen. Be a sponge. Understand who’s who on the team. Who can help you accelerate your learning? Who is showing resistance to your leadership? Do individuals have particular strengths that can be an asset to the team?

Don’t be scared to ask questions like, “If you were in my shoes right now, what are the things you would want to know?” In these introductory conversations, the best thing you can say is, “will you please tell me more about that?” These conversations can be held in one-on-one meetings, during a team retreat, or over the course of a series of team meetings.

This process is particularly important if you’re an outsider coming in to take leadership of a team. Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s President and CEO recalls, “When I came to Nissan, I engaged in what I call ‘active listening’ with as many people as I could. I listened carefully, even to the opinions that totally contradicted my own beliefs, to make sure that when I made my decisions, I hadn’t missed anything.”

Taking time to connect with each person on your team will help you gain the team’s respect and support as opposed creating adversaries early on.

Show what you stand for & explain how you want the team to work

It is important to come into your role with an open mind. But once you’ve taken the time to learn about your new direct reports and absorb the dynamics of the team, begin to take advantage of interactions with team members as opportunities to share your values.

What is behind each of your decisions? What priorities are jumping out to you? How do you intend to evaluate the team’s performance, individually and collectively?

At this point, it is time to explain in detail how you want the team to work. Make norms clear for everyone. As Shapiro says, “Team members will want to know how you define success.” Communicating your vision and values will show your team that you’re committed to creating a culture transparency. Follow up these conversations by also modeling these norms yourself, people will notice and follow.

Set or clarify goals to (re-) establish Focus

One of your most important tasks as a team leader is to set ambitious but achievable goals with your team’s input. Once you are ready to bring about informed changes, you must clearly communicate those goals to the team.

Your direct reports will be looking for clear confident leadership. One way to execute this step with a balance of friendliness and assertiveness is to share your motivations behind each of the changes as well as the positive impact you expect the changes to have on the team, the business, and other stakeholders.

Don’t be too worried about being perceived as the bad guy as you present these. While it is of course critical to be empathetic to the anxiety your team might be experiencing going from one leader to another, it is a mistake to allow that empathy to translate into weak leadership.

Keep your door open

As Shapiro notes, “It’s always better to start with more structure, more touch points, more check-ins at the beginning.” Over-communicating in the early days is preferable to the alternative.

Along these lines, it is very effective to schedule one-on-ones with each of your direct reports to remain up-to-speed on the fundamentals of their job and understand their ongoing responsibilities; short- and long-term goals; high points; and pain points. If you are replacing a superstar manager, are people in mourning for that leader? How are they feeling in this new chapter of the team? Knowing that you are acknowledging their feelings will go a long way.

Depending on your team members’ styles, you can complement these one-on-ones with email updates, team check-in meetings, or shared progress reports. Michael Watkins, the co-founder of Genesis Advisers and author of The First 90 Days, observes, “I’ve never encountered a situation where a team member says, ‘Gosh, I wish the boss would stop communicating with me. I’m so sick of hearing from her.’ You just never hear that.”

Long story short, go slow to go fast. While it might seem counterintuitive on the surface, you will achieve far better long-term results if you spend the time upfront understanding, appreciating, and responding to team members’ needs and concerns before making changes.

Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander

Author & Contributor

About the Author

Sarah is an elite triathlete and independent strategy consultant with an MBA from Chicago Booth. She is passionate about empowering others to achieve excellence.

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