Taking over as the leader of an existing team can be daunting. The team’s response to your new processes or style can make you feel a little like the evil stepmother who’s stepped into their formerly happy lives. Your team was once someone else’s team. They’ve developed habits in response to the preferences of the previous leader. Adjusting those habits is going to be challenging, but there are things you can do to make the transition easier on all of you.
In spite of (or perhaps because of) your efforts to get off to a good start, you risk making a few common mistakes. Here are three that I see frequently:
- Trying to be a friend rather than a leader. While I urge you to be aware of and empathetic to the whiplash your team might be experiencing in going from one leader to another, it’s a mistake to allow that empathy to translate into weak leadership. Investing too much energy in befriending the team confuses the power relationships and ultimately increases the likelihood of a backlash when you begin to exert your control. Most teams are looking for clear, confident leadership. Be friendly and understanding but don’t wait too long to share your vision and to set your standards.
- Expressing frustration with the quality of team. The team you inherit is the product of its previous leader: what team members pay attention to and what they’re good at is a reflection of what that leader expected of them. If your expectations are different, you need to help your team make that shift. Getting angry or frustrated, or being condescending will only create resistance and reduce their motivation to change. And if you introduce your own hires to the team and make the mistake of favoring them while treating long-standing team members as damaged goods, that demotivation will just turn to despair.
- Attempting to force trust and candor too quickly. Many new team leaders want to create a frank and transparent culture from the start. While that’s a noble objective, exposing contentious issues too soon can be destabilizing. Until team members have had time to build their confidence and see how you handle uncomfortable topics, too much candor will do more harm than good. That’s because you are naively and inadvertently exposing people along with issues. Some of those people will lash out in self-defense and others will take their grievances underground. To avoid that bad behavior, let trust build by discussing increasingly sensitive topics and showing that you’ll address them calmly and constructively.
These are only three of the common mistakes I see new team leaders make. But they give you the idea that in the tricky business of taking over an existing team, balance, empathy, and patience go a long way.
While you’re being patient, there are a few things you can do to create a strong connection and get your team off to a good start. I recommend using three 2-hour meetings to address the following topics:
- Share your story and your owner’s manual. One of the things I always do when I start to work with a new team member is to share what I call my “owner’s manual.” Just as your dishwasher has a manual to tell you where to place the bowls so the insides get clean, there are ways of working that allow team members to get the best of you, and other ways that will cause a major malfunction. For example, do you want informal daily check-ins on the progress of a project or would you prefer a scheduled weekly update? Do you want your team to come to you at the first sign of a problem or would you prefer that they do the investigation and come with a proposed solution? Team members will appreciate you sharing your backstory and helping them understand the evolution of your preferences and idiosyncrasies. It’s also a nice way of creating a personal connection. Once you’ve shared your story, ask team members to share theirs. If you have the luxury, this is a great exercise to do over dinner.
- Define the purpose of the team. Although it sounds obvious, being explicit about what you all need to accomplish together is one of the most effective things you can do with a new team. Start by discussing the external environment and the trends that are affecting your organization. Boil them down to the biggest opportunities and threats and then identify the unique value of your team in that context. From that starting point, define the parts of that mandate that you can only accomplish together — they should form the core of your time together. Then, set your meetings to accommodate the different aspects of your mandate. Use quick weekly or daily huddles for the tactical or urgent issues so they don’t bog down your other meetings. Use bi-weekly or monthly two-hour meetings to have the whole team weigh in on important operational items. Reserve longer meetings each quarter to anticipate and address strategic issues. That way, your meeting structure will keep you focused on the value your organization needs you to add.
- Articulate the tensions that should exist and how to manage them. Once you’ve created a connection among the people on the team and rallied them together with a clear purpose and mandate, the last step in getting your new team off on the right foot is to create the ground rules for how you will operate. Of all the topics for ground rules, the most critical is that you understand the tensions that will exist on the team and set the standards for how you will deal with them. To do this, refer back to your mandate and ask people to encapsulate their role in achieving the mandate. Highlight where these roles will be in tension with one another (e.g., the operations leader will be pushing for stability and consistency while the product leader will be looking for novel solutions to take to the market). This will give the team a language to describe the conflicts that will emerge. Then come up with your rules for how you’ll handle these moments to ensure the conflict is constructive.
It’s a delicate business taking over a team with existing relationships and established processes. Tread carefully and make sure you’re balancing your empathy for team members with your drive to increase effectiveness. Don’t rush. Instead, use a series of extended conversations about the individual members, the mandate of the team, and the rules of the road to start to build and bolster trust. And when you make a mistake, own up to it — it’s the best way to become a leader the team can rally behind.
Liane Davey is the vice president of team solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital. Her new book is You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. She is also a co-author of Leadership Solutions: The Pathway to Bridge the Leadership Gap. Follow her on Twitter at @LianeDavey.