Inheriting a team

Teams are made up of people and people are only human. The prospects of having a new boss and the changes he or she might bring can provoke apprehension in the most confident of groups, and there is likely to be some awkwardness at first.

The advantage an existing team has is that they already know each other and the organisation, whether or not they are happy with it. They already exist as a unit. It is your responsibility to set the ground on which you can all come together and begin to bond.

Building trust

Hang close with your new team for at least a day or two when you first arrive, and try to spend at least one day a week with them thereafter. Work hard to learn all the names, and what everybody does. Start to understand the daily, weekly and monthly routines and the annual calendar they work to. Find out from them internal processes like expenses and invoices that you will need to get familiar with, and ask them how the appraisal and reward systems work, even if you are due to be briefed on this from elsewhere. The objective is less about learning the process than about having something to talk about within their comfort zone. Working through familiar things together is a good way of increasing the overall comfort factor.

Praise obvious good work and leadership, but otherwise keep your mouth shut for a while and let them tell you all about the organisation and how it works from their perspective.

Watch how they operate as a team, and figure out their norms, mores and totems. Is there any alchemy going on? Are they a happy team? Who leads? Who is popular? Who do the team marginalise in subtle ways? Is there any magic here, or is there something obviously missing?

Hold weekly one-to-one sessions in a relaxed way with each person, over coffee somewhere quiet, but, ideally, not in a closed office which can feel as though you’ve set up an interrogation. During subsequent one-to-ones go through any existing objectives the team members have, letting them lead the discussion. If there are no objectives, use job descriptions as a framework to discuss what they are doing and to what targets. Don’t rush to change: listen, listen and listen some more.

Try to be authentic – let them see it if you’re a bit shy or don’t know something. The more capable you seem, the less people may feel they can open up to you. If you are significantly different to any other manager they have ever had before, you may even inadvertently set yourself up as the tough bitch or bastard boss.

A key to team trust is time spent, and there is no substitute for this investment. Unless emergency action is plainly called for – for instance, if there is bullying, chronic non-attendance or disruptive behaviour – just let your team get used to you for the first month while you focus on getting up to speed with your boss, the organisation and the task ahead.