Two questions you need to answer as a manager when taking over a team
When you take on a new management role, what should your highest priority be?
- Asserting your authority as the new leader
- Retaining as much of the existing staff as possible
- Demonstrating your technical competence and superior knowledge
- Creating a welcoming, inclusive culture within the team
- Laying out your expectations for each team member’s performance using KPIs
- Doing a complete audit and overhaul of the team and how the work is done
- Playing it by ear and seeing how it goes
It’s a trick question because it has no universally right answer.
It is true, however, that when you take on management of a new team, you begin to create the future of that team from your very first words and actions.
You can either do that with self-awareness and intention, or you can leave it to chance. Either way, the future is being created whether you drive the process or the process drives you.
The two questions you need to answer
Every team has its own unique blend of strengths and dysfunctions, so when you step into managing that team—whether through promotion or external hire—you need to be able to answer these two questions very quickly:
- What is the unique mix of strengths and dysfunctions you’ve just inherited?
- What is your vision for how this team should function in six months*?
* six months is an arbitrary number; there is no universally correct amount of time
The first requires external awareness—a correct understanding of how others interact and will respond to you. You need to be a good listener and keen observer, and you need to get accurate information to work with.
The second requires internal awareness—how you actually show up. Every team becomes a reflection of its leader, for good or for bad. You need to align your vision with your strengths; otherwise, you’ll always be fighting against yourself.
Both these questions are important because there are many variables at work in this new situation. Some you obviously can’t control. Others you’ll have full mastery over.
The majority, however, you will influence—for better or worse, whether you intend to or not.
In the worst case, you will accidentally negatively influence a whole host of variables you don’t even know about because you didn’t understand the environment, or you didn’t understand yourself… or both.
How you show up in the new role
Your team will learn to work with you, or they will learn to work around you.
They will make that decision on their own, based on their experience of how you show up. If they don’t trust you due to inauthenticity or duplicity or inconsistency (or whatever reason), they will always keep a safe distance from you, and you will always feel like they’re unmanageable.
So, how do you make sure you’re showing up in the way you need to? In the way you want to?
I recommend starting with two exercises that will begin you on the road to self-awareness.
First, get familiar with your core values. I have my own values exercise I use with clients, but there are dozens of great ones you can find on the internet. The key is to be profoundly honest with yourself about what truly matters to you. I talk a lot about values on this blog and with my clients because our intrinsic values provide the compass we use to navigate our lives and relationships.
Second, do a strengths assessment. I don’t care whether you choose StrengthsFinder, VIA Strengths, Enneagram, Positive Intelligence, Myers-Briggs, or one of the many other assessment tools out there. I like different ones depending on the context. (In the context of this blog post, I’d lean toward StrengthsFinder.)
Together (and, ideally, working with a professional coach who can help you talk through it all in an objective, detached way), these will provide you tools you need to approach that question about who you are, and how you want your new team to function in the future.
Getting the truth about your new team
You can come into a new situation with everything all planned out—the cleanest work plan, the tidiest org chart, the most effective meeting schedule—and it can all fall apart if you haven’t properly understood the environment you’ve gotten into.
If you’re lucky, someone has given you some advance scouting about the team. You may have met them during interviews, or you may even have worked with them.
Regardless, management is not a role-playing game, and your team is not made up of non-player characters.
Management is not a role-playing game, and your team members are not non-player characters.
That is, you need to allow for the inevitability that everyone in your new team will respond to you with their own values, biases, armors, fears, and hopes.
Some will come with deference to authority. Some will have worked for abusive micro-managers in the past. Some will dump every personal problem they’ve ever had on you. Some will try to manipulate you to get a leg up on their coworkers. And some will come to you with truth, honesty, transparency, and vulnerability.
Building trust with each of these people is the hard work of being a leader. And the way to build trust is very context-sensitive.
Remember that trick question at the beginning of this post?
When you first step into the role, you’ll find that some teams crave an authority figure to be the new sheriff in town. Some teams need an empathetic listener. Some need a technical expert. Some need a communicator who can represent them properly to management.
And some teams need an individualizer to understand what each different person truly needs from you in order to trust you.
This is why you must be an expert listener and keen observer in those early days. How you find and interact with the people who give you information (true, false, or gossip) will be a big part of whether you build trust or not.
Even harder is being able to recognize your own biases and separate yourself from them as you observe and evaluate this team.
Being intentional about how you show up
So now that you’ve observed the team and you’ve figured out who you are, how do you take that input and be intentional about molding your team into the vision you’ve imagined?
Which levers do you pull, and which dials do you turn, to take these inputs and turn them into your desired outputs?
Of course there’s no universal formula. That’s why managing people takes effort, attention, and time.
That said, you can create a map for yourself that will help you make decisions that are in alignment with your values, exploit your strengths, and fit with the nature of the team you’ve inherited.
I like to imagine a series of sliding scales between two opposing approaches. I’ve outlined several possible ones below; not everyone will agree with my choices, and you should give thought to the ones that would work best for you.
- Confidence versus humility
- Authority versus empowerment
- Visionary versus reactionary
- Authenticity versus conformity
- Flexibility versus rigidity
- Adaptability versus predictability
- People-first versus outcomes-first
- Your Idea Here
What your team needs from you on day one might not match where you want to be when the transition is behind you and you’ve got your team running smoothly.
If that’s the case, you might make two maps at the outset. The one where you want to get to, and the one that reflects the type of leader your team needs today. The difference between them will show you your risk areas and where you may have to do some heavy lifting in order to bring the team’s “need” map into alignment with your “vision” map.
If you feel it’s the right thing for you and your new team, you might even engage them in this exercise.
You’re taking over a team… help is available
Taking over a team requires a lot of work to do well. If you don’t do that work, then you’re putting your success as a manager in the hands of fate… and in the hands of other people who have their own agendas.
Whether you’re new to management or you’ve been leading teams for 30 years like I have, being able to talk through the complexities of it with someone impartial is critical. It could be a mentor, a trusted friend, or a professional leadership coach.
It’s important to understand that as the leader, your actions and inactions ultimately set the tone for the team and drive the team’s outputs… whether you intend to or not.
Your team will get very good at working with you or working around you. You don’t want to be fighting against yourself six months down the road, or wondering why your beautifully laid out plans all fell apart.
Instead, take proactive steps to understand yourself, define your vision, and truly understand the team you’re taking over.
And if you want someone to talk with about it all, set up some time with me. I’d love to help.