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The Manager's Guide to Leading a New Team

The Manager Guide to Leading a New Team

February 24, 2022
Lead Teams
Jesse Parrish

Tell me I am not the only one who has experienced this. After recently earning a promotion, I was stepping into my new role as team leader. It was an opportunity to advance my career, increase my influence within the organization, and validation for a job well done! Finally, I had the voice and authority to make some of the changes I thought needed to be made.

We were going to increase our effectiveness, improve our efficiency, and create a rocking awesome team culture! I was locked in on the line in my job description, “build a high-performance team culture” and I had the plan to make it a reality.

Well, hindsight is 20:20. I had fallen into a trap that many new team leaders make. I assumed:

  • I knew what I needed to know about leading an effective team (my previous role was in leadership training and development)
  • I had a brilliant perspective on what needed to change 
  • The team would see my plan clearly and rally behind it quickly

Fast forward 6 months into the new role and I was frustrated, my team was confused, and our culture and team dynamics were strained. I was living proof of the Center for Creative Leadership’s study on new team leaders concluded:

  • 20% of first-time managers are doing a poor job according to their subordinates.
  • 26% of first-time managers felt they were not ready to lead others to begin with.
  • Almost 60% said they never received any training when they transitioned into their first leadership role.
The Manager's Guide to Leading a New Team

The Opportunity for New Managers

I was coming to realize, if given a do-over, I would have approached my first months as a team leader very differently. What helped me be successful in my individual contributor role was not the same skill that would help me lead a team.

In the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) article, 3 Challenges New Managers Face, Ellen Foley, executive consultant at AchieveForum, says, “One minute they are the star performer, bursting with confidence in their role. The next, they are expected to coach, engage, have difficult conversations and motivate — often against a backdrop of constant change and pressure.”

For new team leaders, those first few months can be a time of great excitement and anticipation that quickly turns to frustration. It doesn’t have to be that way! With a little bit of intentionality, some practical skill training, and purposeful leadership, new team leaders can carry the momentum and excitement to their teams. Below is a guide to help you think through preparing for team leadership and three key outcomes for new team leaders that will set them and their teams up for long-term success.

 “If you don’t take time upfront to figure out how to get the team working well, problems are always going to come up,” says Mary Shapiro, who teaches organizational behavior at Simmons College and is the author of the HBR Guide to Leading Teams.

Start with the Necessary Pre-work

Before transitioning to the team leader role, you can prepare in the following ways: 

Assume that a large portion of your work in the first 90 days is to help the team manage change well.

Specifically, helping them manage the change of leadership. While it is an exciting transition for you, it is also a transition for your team. However, for the team, it is a transition that creates uncertainty, change, and instability. It means a prior leader has left, and the team was restructured or newly formed. This can often evoke anxiety for a team rather than excitement. 

Understand your role as the “leader” of the team.

Team leader is a specific role that serves a specific function on the team. It is a role with unique authority, influence, and perspective. Do the work ahead of time to understand the difference. Attend a leadership training course, meet with other team leaders, and ask intentional questions to keep growing in your new role.

Determine the core characteristics or qualities of a successful team culture.

There may be a thousand answers to this. What is important is that you identify, for yourself as a team leader, what is important to you in team culture. For example, one of my successful team culture statements is, “We conflict well and don’t do drama.” This meant, once I became a team leader I was focused on helping the team address conflict well and not tolerating harmful gossip, backstabbing, personal attacks, or negative narratives of teammates.

The Manager's Guide to Leading a New Team

3 Outcomes for the First 90 Days of Leading a New Team

1. Build a Foundation for Successful Working Relationships 

We manage tasks and lead people. Leadership is a relational skill. In order to lead effectively, we have to build strong, healthy working relationships with the team. If we do not start there, then tension, frustration, and confusion will be compounded down the road. Establish a strong foundation as a leader with the following actions:

a. Establish regular 1:1 meetings with each team member. By the end of the first 30 days, hold regularly scheduled 1:1 check-ins with each team member. Check-ins are an opportunity to know, understand and support your team. Here are a few questions to ask in the first 90 days to help you know them:

  • What is motivating for you / What goals do you have that this job helps you accomplish or achieve?
  • What is a time of life or project you’ve worked on that made you feel the most “alive?” 
  • What are your strengths and are you able to use them in your current role?

b. Schedule a team retreat. It is important to build relationships 1:1 with direct reports and foster relationships amongst team members. Time together outside the office can help kickstart a positive, cohesive team. The purposes of this initial retreat can reflect these outcomes:

  • An agenda that is light on tactical “business” and provides activities that promote fun together. 
  • Time to learn and grow together around a common idea that creates a shared language. 

c. Share your story. It is important to know and be known by your team. As openly as you feel comfortable modeling, share your story. What you are passionate about, your strengths and weaknesses, hopes for the future of the team, leadership journey up to now, etc.

2. Gain Perspective on the Current Reality and Future Direction 

Remember, as a new team leader, YOU are what is new. If you are stepping into an established team, you bring a new perspective and unknown quality to the team. If it is a completely new team, they are looking to you to set the tone, norms, and values of the team. In order to effectively lead the team, you have to understand the current reality. 

a. Identify the current culture and team values. There is a difference between aspirational values on a wall poster or website and actual values. Observe and explore these areas to get a sense of current cultural values:

  • Team meetings. Are team meetings effective? Does open dialogue with healthy conflict occur in them? Or are meetings dry, boring, quiet, and the bane of people’s workday?
  • Celebration and encouragement. People celebrate what they value. What are wins the team acknowledges or challenges ahead they rally towards? Do people have each other’s back or is it very individualistic? 

b. Understand the team dynamics, workflow, politics, and communication pathways. How does work get done on the team? 

  • Who has influence on the team? Who do people look to for influence and direction? Any cliches or antigens on the team? Does everyone speak and offer their thoughts and opinions or do some dominate the conversations? 

c. Learn the business, the customers, product/service, and its significance. You do not have to be a subject matter expert on the product/service etc. Your expertise is to lead those that are. However, a working knowledge helps give you credibility as a leader, the ability to understand what challenges your team faces, and perspective on how to lead, where to lead, and who to lead.

The Manager's Guide to Leading a New Team

3. Set the Tone

“People form opinions pretty quickly, and these opinions tend to be sticky,” says Michael Watkins, the cofounder of Genesis Advisers and author of The First 90 Days. 

Will you be a stabilizer or change agent? Will you be for the team’s success or for “improving results, production, efficiency!” Within the first week, your new team will have an opinion of you as a leader. What will it be? 

a. Clarify and over-communicate your approach and current goals. Here is where the pre-work comes in. Your approach to the first 90 days will be different if a primary goal is to help the team transition to your leadership rather than you trying to “be a leader” and implement change for the team. State, clarify, and consistently over-communicate (in every 1:1 and team meeting) your 90-day priorities as a new team leader. 

  • What can they expect from you as a leader? One helpful resource may be this 90-day guide by Michael Watkins.
  • What are the work/goals of the team and individuals in these 90 days? If you are stepping into an established team, reaffirm the current work and goals of the team. Try not to make any drastic changes in the first 60-90 days unless necessary.  

b. Communicate and model what is important. You set the tone for the culture of the team. If you identify an important and necessary cultural value, verbalize it, share it with the team, live it out, and begin expressing when you see it modeled and when you do not. 

  • What are 2-3 cultural norms you think will help the team transition well (the core characteristics of a successful team pre-work)?
  • Communicate and over-communicate: “We will win by _____.” 

c. Create your team road map (results, talent, skills, community). Your experience in the first 90 days will help you build a perspective on the future growth and current needs of the team. Building a map similar to what is outlined below can help you identify key areas of focus for your team going forward. 

  • Use the Lead Teams model from Mark Miller and WinShape Teams to identify and map a cohesive team based on the perspective gained in your first 90 days.
  • Results: What is the team purpose, goals, and key metrics that will align and focus the team?
  • Talent: What roles does the team need to be successful? What is the character, chemistry, competencies, and calling of each role need to be?
  • Skills: What individual and teaming skills are needed in order to work effectively? What are the development priorities of the team?
  • Community: What are key cultural characteristics you want the team to embody? How will you facilitate and build trusting relationships amongst the team?

Learn from my mistakes! The excitement of a new role comes with many new and unforeseen challenges. With intentionality and preparation, we can see that excitement and momentum carried through to the team. A strong foundation and clear leadership perspective can pave the way for improved team performance and cohesion.

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*A note to new team leaders past the 90-day mark. If you are feeling frustrated or discouraged as a new leader, take heart! You can use these steps to re-establish and realign the team. It will take a bit more time and effort since some team norms have already been established. However, a reboot and refresh are possible if you are willing to work through it with your team!

The Manager's Guide to Leading a New Team

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