THE BLOG

The Challenge of Coming From the Outside to Take Over an Existing Team

07/21/2014 05:54 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2014

In my last post I shared "Management Challenge #1" from my forthcoming book, The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, September 2014), the challenge of moving from peer to leader. In this post I look at the flip side challenge, "Management Challenge #2", the challenge of coming from the outside to take over an existing team.

When you are the "new" manager taking over leadership of an existing team, you are coming in to a whole scene with its own back-story. You are a new character, the "outsider." Your new direct-reports, on the other hand, are the insiders. They very likely have plenty of baggage with each other already. As the outsider, you've got to figure out who's who on the team. You have a lot of new relationships to build:

--First, identify available individuals who can help you accelerate your learning--internal experts, other managers, or colleagues, and of course your boss. Set up time with every individual you can and start every conversation with this open ended question: "If you were in my shoes right now, what are the things you would want to know?" Your best line in these conversations is going to be something like: "Will you please tell me more about that?" Take lots of notes.

--Second, get as much structured one-on-one time with your (maybe new) boss as possible. Try to get time every day if you can. Discuss what you are learning of the big picture, the work of your team, the broad performance standards, and companywide processes. Ask open-ended questions about what's what and who's who. But this is also the time to start asking very specific questions about your new tasks, responsibilities and projects. In that agenda, don't forget, your number one new responsibility is managing people: Make sure you explain to your new boss exactly how you intend to manage your direct-reports (ie, by building regular structured one-on-ones in which you spell out expectations, provide direction and feedback, and track performance). And make sure you have your boss's support for this highly engaged approach.

--Third, it's important to have a series of introductory team meetings at the outset. Start with a series of brainstorming sessions around three questions:

1. What should change about how our team operates?
2. What should not change?
3. If you were suddenly the team manager, what would your first, second and third priorities be?

Wrap up these brainstorming sessions by making clear to the entire team that you will henceforth hold team meetings when they make sense but that your primary management technique will be building a regular structured one-on-one dialogue with every single direct-report.

--Fourth, start scheduling your initial one-on-ones with each and every one of your new direct-reports. As you dig in to your regular schedule of one-on-ones in earnest, your first mission with every direct report will be to get up-to-speed on the fundamentals of his job. Ask: What are your current projects, tasks and responsibilities? What are your longer, intermediate and short-term goals? High-points? Pain points? What do you want? What do you need? Meet much more often with every person at first. With this systematic approach, you will get up-to-speed in a matter of weeks, your conversations will become more knowledgeable and your ability to give direction increasingly acute.