Who’s the (new) boss?

Taking over an existing team as a manager at a company can be a daunting task. Here’s how to get over the hurdles and lead your team to success.

When Margot Sunter arrived at the office of Ginsberg Gluzman Fage & Levitz LLP in Ottawa as the chief operating officer, she says she felt apprehension — and not just on her part, but also on the part of her new employees. The position had been newly created and the office administrator, who previously had some of the same responsibilities Sunter was taking over, was well liked and about to retire. “As much as the partners tried to prepare the team for my arrival, they weren’t quite ready for it. [People wondered] why was I there? What changes were coming?”

Sunter certainly isn’t alone: with so much corporate restructuring taking place today, it’s not uncommon for a senior manager to step into a new job and inherit a team of unfamiliar employees. It’s no easy gig. In a survey conducted by researchers at Harvard University, 87% of the 143 senior HR professionals who responded either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Transitions into significant new roles are the most challenging times in the professional lives of managers.”

Cleaning house and bringing in a new team isn’t typically an option, at least at first, which means it’s up to the new manager to learn how to bridge the gap. The good news is that with the right attitude and approach, it is possible to get the team members on your side, help them reach their goals and, ultimately, lead the company to greater success.

LISTEN, WATCH AND LEARN

The first few weeks of leading a new team are especially critical: the Harvard survey showed that 70% of respondents agreed that “success or failure during the transition period is a strong predictor of overall success or failure in the job.” This is the period when you’ll need to figure out what exactly your employees are supposed to be doing and how the team fits into the larger picture. You’ll also want to be aware of the emotional temperature of the team during those first weeks. Typically, at least a few employees will be wary of new management and may show resistance to change, so take it easy; a common mistake made by managers entering a new company is assuming they know exactly what needs to be done and how they’re going to do it. Vancouver-based workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman points out that the title of manager doesn’t automatically get you respect. “You are there to earn employees’ respect, and that’s done by listening.”

Rather than kicking things off by implementing new strategies, assume that the team is already doing well. (Addressing employees in a manner that implies they’re not performing well will breed hostility and drive down morale, and the idea here is to gain trust.) “You may have received job descriptions and organizational charts from HR, but you don’t really know how these people do their jobs,” says Newman. “Be curious; consider yourself an anthropologist.” To learn the lay of the land, you’ll want to talk to clients — as well as your employees’ peers and other managers — to find out how the team is working.

When it comes to assessing and getting to know your team, the best approach is to be direct and transparent. Organize a meeting where the team can get to know you better through an open question-and-answer session. “Give them the lowdown on who you are, where you’ve come from, what your background is and what your goals are for the team,” says Ann Frost, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School in London, Ont. At that point, you’ll start to understand the dynamics of the group: who stands out as a leader and who seems to be struggling, for example. From there, schedule one-on-one meetings with team members to find out what improvements they would like to see and what resources they need, etc. Adopt an open-door policy and don’t let communication fall by the wayside — keep the team regularly updated on progress and future goals.

HELP YOUR TEAM HELP YOU

Once you’ve made your assessment, you can slowly get to work on rebuilding or creating structures and policies. As you go, you might find that some folks just aren’t delivering or are simply refusing to go along with procedure. In that case, it might be time for a new approach. “Sit back and think about it. If they are resisting your ideas, there must be a reason for it,” says Newman. Figure out what these employees need to function better. Do they need more direct feedback or more regular team meetings? Have a conversation about what it is they require to help them succeed.

If you ultimately make the decision to let someone go, do not put it off. And if more than one cut needs to happen, do them all at once. “You can’t have the rest of the team worrying about who will be safe,” says Frost. “Morale and productivity drop through the floor and it affects everybody’s trust in the team leader.”

Bringing new employees on board can also be tricky. Managers need to be careful not to favour newcomers over original team members and should make a solid e ort to integrate the team through after-work social activities and meetings where people can get to know each other and start feeling comfortable working together.

CELEBRATE SUCCESSES TOGETHER

Look for ways to recognize and reward small wins on the team. Newman points out that research shows employees do best when they receive six to 12 positive remarks for every negative comment. That doesn’t mean just piling on the praise in an annual performance review. “When something goes well, give credit where credit is due,” recommends Sunter. “Find ways to demonstrate that you have their back. Celebrate their work with your superiors — that really lets them know you’re there for them.”

This could mean sending an email to an employee (making sure to copy your boss) to thank him or her for going above and beyond, or taking the time during a team meeting to recognize someone’s recent success on a project.

Once you start showing genuine gratitude to the team, critiques won’t sound as sharp. In fact, they likely won’t even register as negative.

One last tip Newman offers to managers inheriting teams: take care of yourself. “When you’re starting out, it can be pretty nuts,” she says. “Find ways to create space for workers to have their own recovery time — establishing a policy where emails are only to be sent within certain hours, for example — so you can have it too.”

Sunter worked hard to get to know her team members and celebrate their successes, but it took time before she felt she had started to gain their trust. “It’s a tough job,” she says. “One thing that’s true is if you don’t do it well, you will not be successful. You need your team and you need it to be on your side.”

About the Author

Lora Grady


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