How to lead a new team to success

Miles had just been promoted to his first position at the director level after two short years of working for a large manufacturer in a complicated, heavily regulated industry. What surprised him most about the culture of the company is how project oriented the firm had become during his tenure as a manager. Common practice was to assign a project team to study the details to the nth degree. Miles felt the phenomenon of analysis-paralysis was slowing down decision making, and he was not alone in this opinion. His boss had chosen Miles for the new role in part because he was decisive and able to weigh options quickly. Those capabilities had borne fruit over the last year, allowing the company to capitalize on opportunities while its competitors were still evaluating the options.

Miles was certain that the power of his position would allow him to influence future decisions, but he was concerned about the team (and process) he’d inherited. He questioned whether they’d be able to operate with the agility that Miles felt the organization sorely needed.

“This team has been accustomed to working for a leader with the reputation of being risk averse. She never made a decision without consulting with many other people and seeking consensus on her direction. While I appreciate prudence, I don’t typically lead that way. How am I going to develop a team to be successful that’s been led so differently by someone else?” Miles asked me.

His question was not an uncommon one, especially from a client who hadn’t hand-picked their team. At the core of the solution, was how he would come to know each member of the team and evaluate their capabilities, without judging them based on his predecessor’s leadership style.

“It’s a natural instinct for a team to seek to adapt to what is expected of them,” I shared. “See where they are before you decide they can’t meet your standards,” I cautioned Miles.

We decided to map out a plan for his first 90 days in the new position. Miles and I agreed on some fundamental principles he would need to apply to his interactions with the team so he could accurately assess the strengths of the group and avoid hasty or poorly considered decisions that might impact the team’s success.

1. Listen before leading

Rather than dictate how you want the department to function, spend time with each of your direct reports in their own workspace listening and learning. What consumes their time and attention? How does this contribute to the organization’s objectives? What institutional wisdom and history have they gained since assuming their role? Approach listening with an intention to understand, not to judge.

2. Share

Help your direct reports learn about who you are and where you’ve come from. Share what you hope to achieve, learn or advance. Structure easy ways for individuals on the team to interact with you and obtain your support when they need it. Follow up with behaviors that match the person you’ve promised to be. Consistency is the first step to building leadership trust.

3. Seek insight

Discover more about your people than what is contained on their resume or in their personnel file. What values are most important to them? What do those values look like when they’re in action? Is each person experiencing alignment of their values, their purpose and passions in their current role? How do they want to use all three to accomplish professional and personal goals? Engage in the deeper conversations that help further strengthen understanding and trust.

4. Evaluate and align

Examine the talent on your team with an unbiased lens. Based on your own observation, and with the input of team member discussions, determine who is well positioned in their role and who is not. Uncover whom are you in danger of losing that you’d prefer to retain. Then identify what they need from you to remain engaged. Realign people and roles when you have the data to make intelligent changes.

5. Review

Programs and projects that began before you assumed your position should be reviewed with an open mind. Assume that there were problems they were intended to solve, or opportunities they were designed to leverage. What are those problems or opportunities? Are they still relevant today? If so, confirm that the right people are leading these initiatives. Identify who else could add value to developing solutions if their voice was being heard.

6. Query, acknowledge, celebrate

Teams often know the most about what’s working well and what isn’t. Ask for their insight on projects, processes and past decisions. What would they change to make the department more successful? Which part of that can you/they control or influence? Most importantly, identify where the team really excels, and both acknowledge and celebrate success. People will go the extra mile when they feel their hard work is appreciated by leadership.

7. Look outward

In addition to your team, don’t forget to seek insight from external stakeholders like customers, suppliers and partners with whom the team interfaces to accomplish goals. Confirm their expectations and requirements are being met by the current operating model. Work collaboratively to identify areas of needed improvement and make them part of the decision process before implementing changes to team structure or function.

Implementing these seven principles will not only help you catalyze a strong start in your new role, it will inspire your team to deliver their best.

This article was first published in Smartbrief, October 2022.

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