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How to Build an A-Team from Day One

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Almost every manager begins his or her tenure with the goal of building a top-notch leadership team. Yet as time passes and managers move on to new assignments, they often look back and regret that they didn't develop their team faster and more aggressively. What's behind this seeming contradiction -- and what can managers do to establish an A-team as quickly as possible?

Let's start by looking at a few of the dynamics facing a new manager, some of which are described by Michael Watkins in his book The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels. One factor is that most new managers inherit an existing team and, in fairness, want to give incumbents the benefit of the doubt that they are right for the job. At the same time, most new managers realize that they need to learn about their new business or function, and that much of that learning will come from the existing team. So right from the start, the manager is in an awkward position -- evaluating the team members while also dependent on them for internal knowledge and expertise. To make it even more complicated, team members, realizing that they are being assessed, may skew their behavior to reflect what they think the new manager is looking for, so that first impressions may be inaccurate. Given these dynamics, many managers are hesitant to move too quickly, wanting to gather more data before making any dramatic changes.

Another delaying factor is that many new managers don't want to risk "breaking" a successful organization, especially when they are not completely knowledgeable about their new business or function, their customers' expectations, and the capabilities of the extended team as a whole. Unless they are coming in to an urgent turnaround situation or have a specific mandate for improvement, most managers will therefore wait before making significant changes. This hesitancy is reinforced by the fact that most managers don't like to confront inadequate performance anyway -- which means that it's always easier to let developmental discussions slide.

Based on these dynamics, many managers may not focus on upgrading their leadership team until it's too late -- when it becomes clear that they cannot achieve their goals with the existing crew.

So what can you as a manager do to overcome this natural hesitancy about building an A-team early on? Let me suggest two simple steps:

First you can conduct an "assimilation" session with your team within a week or two of your appointment. This is a process that was pioneered at GE (and is still standard procedure there) and is now used by many premier organizations. The aim is to quickly clarify expectations between you and your team, and get some of the uncomfortable and difficult dynamics out on the table. The session itself works like this: With the help of a facilitator (and without the manager present) team members share first impressions of their new manager, along with their hopes, concerns, fears, and questions. The facilitator organizes these into themes, which are then presented to the manager without attribution to any single person. The manager then engages in a dialogue with the team about the issues; and also shares his or her first impressions, expectations, hopes, and concerns. A session like this can help you quickly get past some of the awkward dynamics described earlier and allow you and the team to assess each other much more openly.

To make the early assessment and development even more effective, the second thing you can do is to challenge each of your managers early on with a short-term stretch assignment. Give them thirty or sixty days to get something important done that pushes them outside their comfort zone. Not only will this help you to make a difference with the business in your first few months, it also will give you invaluable data about the capabilities of your team. Who is able to step up? How easily do they collaborate with each other? What are their attitudes about taking on tough challenges? In what areas does each person need some help -- or are their team members who probably aren't right for the job?

If building an A-team is one of the critical ingredients for success in a new assignment, why not get started on it right away?