Monday, September 5, 2011

Taking over an existing team

Many opportunities will arise in your management career to earn a supervisory role over an existing team.  You may get promoted, change companies, replace someone or just grow your team in a re-organization.  This is a tough time for a manager because the team is often largely unknown to you with their own processes, habits and team dynamics.  You must smoothly meld your way of doing business with theirs.  If you don’t take charge and demonstrate your leadership strength you won’t earn the respect of the team and provide value over they way they used to do things.  But if you institute change too quickly or incorrectly you’ll alienate your team, lose their respect and reduce their strength. If you are being promoted from an individual contributor you may have some understanding of the team already, but you now have to carefully manage your new supervisory responsibility.  The following tips will help you through the transition period and leave your team wondering how they ever managed without you.


Firstly find out as much as you can about the team you are taking over.   You’ll need all the information you can gather ahead of time to diagnosis the current state of things and get an idea of what to expect.  Hopefully you can begin this process before the change in reporting structure takes place.  Speak to the teams existing manager and get his or her opinion on some key points:  

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the team as whole?
  • What are the team’s current goals and responsibilities?
  • What are each person’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • What would you identify as the top 3 areas for improvement?
Remember not to take the existing manager’s word as fact, but as a piece of the puzzle which you’ll assemble on your own.

If there are new areas of technical or functional expertise you are inheriting: STUDY!  Read up on the business domain, tools, etc.  This will allow you to build some knowledge depth so you can establish more credibility at the beginning.  You won’t become an expert overnight, but you can really impress the team by talking the talk.

Recognize that you will be judged

In your first days or weeks as the new boss you will be studied carefully.  People will notice what you wear, what you say and how you say it.  Project confidence and always adhere to your moral code of treating everyone fairly and honestly.


Meet your employees immediately, even if you can’t have one-on-one meetings right away.  Be approachable and offer for them to come to with anything from the first day.   Even if the existing team is productive on their own and you have other priority issues to tend to, during the initial transition period it’s crucial that you are present and communicate with them.  Silence will just leave people to gossip and speculate. 

Introductory one-on-one meetings

This is the most important step in taking over an existing team:  Spending some private 1-1 time with each individual direct report (and often many indirects).   These meetings should happen as quickly as possible.  Even if you are not yet familiar enough with the project to have insightful opinions on strategy and goals, it’s still critical that the team members get an opportunity to begin establishing a personal relationship with you as the basis for building trust and credibility.  If some of your team members are remotely located this is still just as critical and someone needs to travel.  Employees will often be very anxious about a new manager and without face-time this is only amplified.

Here is a template I like to following to these initial meetings:
  1. Tell me about yourself.  Do you have any hobbies; what do you like to do for fun?
  2. How long have you been with the company and with this team?
  3. What things have you been working on recently?
  4. Tell me about your view on the teams goals?
  5. Tell me about your view on the teams challenges?
  6. Do you have any comments or suggestions on improvements to the team?
  7. Is there anything in particular you’d like to be working on?
  8. Let me tell you a little about my management style and philosophy.
  9. I’d like to schedule a recurring one-on-one meeting with you.
  10. Anything else you’d like to talk about?
Ask and listen

Whether you’re a new manager or a seasoned pro, you’ve got a lot to learn when taking over an existing team.  Don’t be afraid to admit it.  As a manager you need to show strength, but you’re still human and showing that to your employees will get you farther than attempting to show you know it all.  Ask your employees “What do you think?”  They’ve probably been in this team for a while have some well thought opinions.  You should genuinely listen to them. 

Start small

Don’t rush to place blame or change your initially perceived flaws of the team.  It’s often easy to blame the previous manager for any problems, or perhaps even to blame the team for driving out the previous manager.  When you enter a new team you will not have first-hand knowledge of past conditions that got the team to its current point and this information will not all come up easily at the beginning. Any team often has issues that were not easily exposed on the surface of things and would not come out in your introductory meetings.  The longer the history of the team, the more deep rooted issues based on the past could be present.  The point is that any team is a web of complex human interactions and when entering in from the outside you need to take a good amount of time to understand things before passing judgment and making quick fixes. Start small and earn your teams respect with some successful changes.

Set expectations

They say the biggest problem with communication is that too much is assumed.  When you take over an existing team you have your assumptions and they have theirs.  Make sure your team understands your initial expectation of them from the start.  You may be surprised that they don’t operate in a certain way that you are used to, or vice-versa.  If any conflict arises because something isn’t done in the manner you expect, the fault lies on you if you did not clearly set the expectation at the beginning. 

Re-establish focus

Sometimes existing teams lose sight of their real purpose, or they never had one.  They chug along doing their jobs without long term goals, or a solid foundation to base their decisions on.  This is akin to a manager operating without a management philosophy.  Once you’ve had sufficient time to acclimate you should re-establish the following:

  • Goals
  • Scope and boundaries with other teams
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Meeting policies and schedules

Remember transitioning to a new boss is a traumatic experience for the team.  The team members will hunger for leadership and confidence.  Even if you are scared about the transition, you need to “grab the bull by the horns” and show them you are the leader they long for.


  1. Right,Good to see these useful information here..Thank you very much for the insights and suggestions.
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  2. Great aggregation of content Emil (start with why is one of my motto now). When I failed to achieve my team goals, I realized that it’s because there was a lack of team member motivation, which then turned out to be a lack of clear expectations for each team member.
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