Inheriting an intact team: strategies for effective team leadership in the first 100 days

In previous articles we’ve looked at ‘leading intentionally’ – a leadership mindset that enables leaders to navigate ambiguity and to stay focused; we’ve also considered the challenges and opportunities presented when building a new team from scratch. In this article we’re focusing on inheriting a team – the most common scenario for leaders who move into a new role.

The first 100 days

leadership2The challenges of the first 100 days are well documented. Navigating a potentially new organization or new role, understanding its culture and finding your feet can make for a substantial challenge. One critical success factor is likely to be how adept you are at leading the team you inherit. Keys to success here will be understanding the wider context and understanding how your role and remit fits into that – then getting buy-in and follower-ship from what you hope will be a high performing team.

Knowing the set-up of your new role, including the team, will most likely have been covered in some detail before you made the move. Perhaps you met decision makers and a range of stakeholders as part of this process. As with any role change – it’s valuable to have answers at the outset to questions such as: how did the vacancy come about, and what was your predecessor’s track record? Making sure you’re ‘in the know’ with respect to who and what went before you is essential due diligence.

When moving roles within your existing organization, consider the following

1.  Fit for purpose? Audit the team you’re inheriting

Moving in to your new team – your first priority will be to audit what you have. What are the capabilities of your new team members? Most importantly and with reference to the wider context – do they have the ability to help you deliver the goals that you yourself are tasked with delivering?

In most scenarios you will arrive having already been given some existing data on team members. You’ll know the structure and who the key players are. However, in those early meetings, the onus will be on you to find the answers to questions such as:

  • Do team members have the right technical expertise?
  • How do they make decisions?
  • What do they think about the role they’re in (positive, negative, over-qualified, under challenged, etc)?
  • Are they motivated?

As well as studying individuals and discerning what makes them tick – the broader questions will likely be:

  • How do the team members fit together?
  • Are they invested in one another?
  • Where are the fault lines?

With respect to all of the above – the wider organizational context must inform how these questions are answered. It needs to be more than a subjective stab in the dark, or first opinion. Informed hypotheses need to be reached through the gathering and analysis of a range of datasets. Much of the data will consist of ‘hard’ tangible metrics – but much will also be intangible, especially when it comes to the issue of team dynamics and relationships. External expertise is often a valuable asset here, especially to understand what’s going on ‘beneath the surface’. Knowing what really makes an individual tick, how they make decisions and the nuances of a team’s internal structures are not always easy to discern.

The above may sound onerous – and it can be – but by the end of your first 100 days in role, you should have reached a stage where hypotheses can be arrived at and the wheels set in motion for change.

2.  Who to keep and who must go

Making decisions about who stays and who goes is oftentimes the hardest part of a leader’s role. But it is also the most critical. Too often we see examples of the archetypal ‘un-invested’ team member; this person has the capability to undermine the rest of the team, to drag others down and to act as a real blocker when it comes to realizing visions and making change happen. Potentially high performing teams can be seriously derailed by just one of these ‘types’. Accepting that and acting upon it is the role of leadership. It’s also important in this situation to remember and reiterate that such individuals may once have been high performing and delivering – they are not ‘bad people'; but organizations and their challenges change over time and their workforce must reflect this.

In a previous article we focused on the concept of ‘positive disruption’: interrupting the status quo and making root-and-branch changes where necessary, rather than simply baby-steps. We considered the challenges of doing this while focusing on why there is a business imperative to making change happen. The key consideration must always be the wider organizational context; decisions should never get made in a vacuum.

If, following an analysis of the gathered data and insights – it is clear that certain individuals need to go – this process should be done in conjunction with HR. As ever with a restructuring – clear messaging, transparency of process and constant alignment with the broader organizational ‘big picture’ are crucial.

3.  Retaining and engaging talent

When leaders change – it’s not uncommon for other team members to feel that the time may be right for a fresh start. A plan should be formed to hold on to the key talent that you do not want to lose. Now is a good time to begin working on incentivization initiatives that will encourage those you are keeping to stay bought-in and motivated.

As well as the incentivization piece, getting genuine buy-in from the team is critical. Leading from the front in a way that is inclusive is important here. Determine your non-negotiables prior to starting the new leader integration process.

4.  Developing a high performing team

We covered this in depth in a prior article – “The building blocks to successfully creating a new team”. Uncovering insights and getting team members to understand their own and others’ strengths and weaknesses is vital. Never make the assumption that team members ‘obviously’ know one another just because they have worked in the same team. Often-times – irrespective of how long they may have worked together – they will not have a meaningful understanding of, or relationship with, others in their team. An effective leader will recognize this and be able to channel deeper connections between constituent members.

5.  Gauging success

There are a number of ways to gauge your success with your team. Key questions to answer here are:

  • How open are team members with you?
  • How willing are team members to challenge and to disagree – both with you as the leader, and also with one another?
  • How much open conversation and honest dialogue is there, versus more measured and restrained interaction, between team members?

External expertise in the form of a neutral and objective third party – skilled in team development interventions – can be brought in to help facilitate a deeper level of trust as well as to benchmark and measure progress, if desired.

6.  At 100 days and beyond

At the 100 day mark you will have had the opportunity to immerse yourself into the culture and context of the role and its challenges, to audit the incumbent team, to restructure where necessary, to begin retention initiatives if appropriate – and hopefully, to have started getting buy-in from your team.

Constantly scanning both the hard data as well as the intangibles will help you to stay connected to how your team is performing – and importantly – how team members are working with one another. A genuinely high performing team will have outputs that are significantly larger than the sum of its constituent parts.

Andra Brooks is a US based leadership consultant who has significant experience in the fields of team development and senior executive coaching. Clients she has consulted to in this respect include: Mattel, Baird, Metrohealth, CHEP, Lilly, Wells Fargo and JP MorganChase, among others.