So You’re the New Boss

Thinking about applying for a manager of an existing team? There are some unique challenges of taking over as a leader of an existing team. How do you gain credibility with the team? What do you do about a bad or low performing culture of an existing team? What if you were once a peer and now you are the manager?

These are all very real challenges of a new leader of an existing team. At the same time, you have to build your own relationships with peers and your new boss. It’s not an easy task to undertake. Let’s look at each of the above-mentioned challenges one by one.

Gaining credibility (and ultimately respect) of your new team:

When I was a sales rep, the company I worked for was growing and hired a new senior leader that would take over management of all the sales people. This person had a lot of operational management credentials, but had never been in outside sales – however, he was able to win me over. How did he do it? First off, he came in and did a lot of listening. He didn’t run in and change everything day one. He heard everyone’s “issues” and made sure he understood everyone’s perspective. He then understood his goals and communicated those clearly and transparently to everyone. There was no guessing as to what he was hired to accomplish. He was clear and direct. You knew where he stood. How he would react wasn’t a mystery.

How can you apply this to your new team?

  1. Don’t rush in and change everything. Listen and understand that you hear from one person is that person’s perspective. Blend that with the perspectives of other people in the team to get the “center”. Then spend some time observing to verify or refute any conclusions you have made.
  2. Clearly communicate your experience without bragging or over-embellishing your accomplishments (people see right through that and it will backfire on you). People want to understand what you bring to the table. Ladies – if you are working in a male dominated industry; stress experience, education, and certifications and/or technical skills to overcome any biases.
  3. Make sure you share your vision for the future and connect it with how it will help your team. This should align with what you have been hired to accomplish (growth, profit improvement, operational excellence, etc.). Be specific on how the team’s performance to expectations will be evaluated so everyone is on the same page.

Don’t rush in and change everything

If you were hired to improve the performance of an existing team – how to you quickly turn it around?

I was once hired to turn around a seriously under-performing sales team. The company had basically replaced all management in that office over the prior 6 months and I was the last placement to get this office profitable again. My first meeting with my new team was lackluster; the group seemed disengaged, beat down, and generally just there because they didn’t have anything better to do. One afternoon, one of the sales people on the team had a project de-funded by a customer. He came up to me and said “I don’t know what you are going to do to make the office budget – sorry.” I looked at him and said “What do you mean – what I am going to do? That is your quota and expectation. What are you going to do to make up for that?” The shocked look on his face told me everything – no one had held him accountable to his expectations. So I was silent and waited for him to answer. Finally, he started telling me some business he could pursue that might make up for the shortfall. I smiled and said, “Sounds like you have a solid start. Let’s do lunch next week and we can review your progress.”

So how do you apply this to your new role?

  1. Set expectations early and clearly
  2. Understand you get the behavior you tolerate and allow. When someone operates in a way that won’t build a high performing team or doesn’t align with your vision that is the time to say something.
  3. Assume the first conclusions are only partially right. Typically the politically savvy people will engage you first and more thoroughly in order to influence your first impressions.
  4. Observe behaviors between team members. Do they build or tear down trusting relationships? A team cannot perform where there is infighting and backstabbing. Actively coach new behaviors or remove those that are the worst offenders and hire people with the right behaviors/attitudes.
  5. Reprimand privately and celebrate successes publicly. A leader that calls someone out in front of the group to prove a point is a jerk. No one wants to go the extra mile for a jerk and in order for your team to be high-performing they need to want to go the extra mile for you, the team, or the company. The only time I would recommend saying something in a public is if the entire group has a perception or opinion that is wrong (like it’s OK to be unethical); then you have to nip those behaviors or norms quickly and visibly by re-communicating your expectations or by guiding the group to a new perspective.
  6. Re-communicate the new vision at all available opportunities. Typically disengaged teams have had leaders that have made promises and they haven’t been kept. Keep the dream alive and make it real; talk like it’s already happening. Point out small positive changes and communicate the positive outcomes of those changes.

Be realistic – while small changes can have an immediate affect on hope (which is what you want to create); actually getting the group to a high performing team and changing culture is a very slow process. It could easily take 12-18 months unless you just replace all your people (which is costly and robs you of tribal knowledge that will help you make decisions). For every 2 steps forward you may have a step and a half back. Expect it, work through them and keep pushing the team to the goal.

I’m happy to report that it took me about 15 months to turn that team around. It involved terminating one person, hiring 4 people, subsequently firing one of them. It took setting ridiculously fun goals (like pick 3 customers that you never thought we could win); and then us achieving them together. Also that sales rep – he not only hit his quota, he went to the sales trip for the top producers in the company; he killed it!

Good Luck!

-Stephanie Simmons ACC; Career Coach