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How to successfully become the leader of an existing team

I’m not much of a sports fan, but since the current situation has had me indoors for some time, I occasionally watch a match or the industry’s news. Over the past week, two of the teams I was rooting for (one feminine handball and one masculine soccer) have had their coaches replaced due to unsatisfying results. And it’s by no means the end of the season, so whoever will step in will have to pick up things where they are and figure how to improve performance while playing. That’s a tough position to be in, especially if you are an outsider – and this is regardless of how qualified you are or what extensive experience recommends you for the part.

The same situation happens quite often in organizations, especially in challenging times when a new type of leadership becomes necessary. The key to having a smooth transition and improved results within a reasonable time frame is in the way the new leader prepares and communicates.

Do your homework thoroughly

(even though you’ll probably have little time).

If you are in the position of being asked to take over a leadership role for a team – congratulations! It means you have the talent and the experience required to fill such a challenging post.

While you must have some idea of how the team is doing and know what the issues were with the former leadership, it’s best not to rely solely on the information you got in the recruitment process. It’s not that HR or senior decision-makers purposely wanted to hide something from you, but often data gets lost or interpreted differently, so it’s best to gather your own once you know what your role will be.

Some of the items you should investigate are:

  • The organizational culture, its values, communication style, mission statement, and objectives;
  • What the mission of your new team is, what they have to do and where all of it fits within the organization;
  • The way the company operates – its processes and procedures, the level of technology it uses, how it feels about innovation and change;
  • The workplace performance standards and their means of measurement.

Read more: 5 Tips for organizational leaders on how to communicate effectively about change

Don’t shy away from team meetings

There is nothing more gossip- (and subsequently) paranoia-generating than getting an e-mail about a significant change, such as having somebody new and unknown in charge. People will wonder who the new boss is and, more importantly, why they were chosen to fill that position.

Employees generally tend to think of the worst – while I was working in a large, multi-national telecommunications company, whenever something like this happened, the assumption was always that “they brought that person in because they want to break the company into smaller pieces and sell it.” A decade or so later, that company is still in one piece, but the worry and the fretting were genuine, and you want to avoid that if circumstances dictate that you are that new leader.

Even if the current context dictates that these meetings need to be virtual, they are still (if not more) important. Once you get through a self-presentation and talk a little about your leadership style, it’s best to give over the mic to the team members. If there are very many, you might consider breaking them into rooms to come up with the answers to a few relevant questions:

  • What are the most challenging objectives the team has?
  • What are the strong points of the team?
  • What changes are necessary for results to improve?
  • What are the top three things that need to be addressed?
  • What is a reasonable timeline for seeing improved results?

The responses you’ll get to these questions should be at the base of any strategy you develop for your new team. It’s important to pay extra attention to aspects you will need to talk about in individual meetings.

Read more: On designing a great L&D communication plan

One-to-one talks are essential

Knowing your team means knowing every member as an individual. Your focus should not be on either low or top performers. As time-consuming as it may be, it’s highly recommended to talk to each employee individually and become familiar with the specific roles within the team, the projects, objectives, and, of course, the challenges in the way of reaching those objectives.

Active listening is paramount at this point but, just as with taking over the role itself, you should do a little research before each individual encounter to see:

  • What projects the employee has worked on in the past and what the qualitative results were.
  • The general job description, the main procedures, and products the person works with every day.
  • Feedback of other team members or employees that work with that person.

These are meant to give you an idea of what to expect and prepare some discussion points. It’s essential, however, to listen to the other person, show empathy, and lead the conversation from there.

Read more: How to go about skill development for remote leaders

Closing thoughts

Becoming a leader of an existing team can be difficult, but it’s also a challenge that constitutes a valuable learning moment. If you go into it with an open mind and do your best to know your new team and communicate with them properly and honestly, there will only be positive results in sight.

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