Career Path

How to Manage a Team You Inherited

Leading direct reports that you didn’t handpick can be complicated. Here’s how to wade through those waters. 

Here’s an all-too-common scenario these days: days, if not weeks, into a new job or new role as a manager, and you’re already realizing many of your direct reports are, at best, low performers. You quickly realize the situation is creating an unproductive and demoralizing work environment. What are you to do?

If you manage people, at some point in your career you’re almost guaranteed to inherit a team that you didn’t assemble, and one that will more likely than not be fearful of change. That’s because whenever we’re asked to do something different, we go back to the primal reactions of fighting or fleeing. Indeed, a survey by one online leadership firm found 68% of leaders observe high rates of employee resistance to change—which ultimately can hurt a company’s performance.

Too often, new managers barge into places and put their own agenda front and center. 

“As a new leader, you need to go in with positive intent and assume people want to be successful in their roles,” says Katie Lemaire, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Boston office. “What success looked like for your predecessor might look different from what you envision.” Here’s how to build productive and respectful relationships with your team.

Get to know your people.

Too often, new managers barge into places and put their own agenda front and center. While having an agenda is crucial (more on that later), you first must get to know your direct reports in a way that goes beyond their titles. “Take the time to understand their aspirations and what they’re good at,” Lemaire says. “Don’t make assumptions, and give them an opportunity to share what’s important.”

Aside from conducting one-on-one conversations, it’s also important to observe body language when your team interacts with each other. Look for things that contradict your assumptions or shed light on a new way of thinking. “The number one piece of advice I’d give to a manager who’s inheriting a team is to give people the benefit of the doubt,” says Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. “How they performed under the previous leader might not give you a true read of their potential.”

Develop your own agenda.

Once you understand your own people—and have a handle on your boss’s remit—it’s time to prioritize your work. Take the first month or so to make strategic calls and set the team’s operating principles, but hold off making personnel decisions while you watch and learn, says Ron Ashkenas, an emeritus partner at Schaffer Consulting and coauthor of The Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook.

As you set your agenda, it’s paramount to communicate your actions. “If you’ve been asked to turn around a department or are eliminating positions, you need to be judicious,” Lemaire says. “Providing clarity and explaining the rules of the game is one of the most important things a leader needs to do.” One way to do this is to call meetings to share your insights and encourage the team to challenge your perceptions. This will help your team feel heard, and also allow you to learn as much as you can about their thought processes and dynamics. 

Even if you aren’t sure, just start.

One of the most common refrains career pros hear from seasoned managers is that they took too long to move into action, waiting until they had an entire strategy in place. To fight this, Ashkenas says, it’s crucial to drop perfectionist expectations and understand that you will—and should—learn as you go. “The managers who fail are the ones who think they know it all,” he says.

This applies to handling personnel, too. While you don’t want to be firing people two weeks in (unless it’s extremely necessary), leaders often hesitate to move people out, and later regret it. “You want to be respectful—maybe they’ll turn around—but most people know pretty quickly when someone’s not going to work out,” Lemaire says.

Remember that you serve the team.

New leaders are eager to prove themselves, and understandably so. But if you rethink your role, it can ultimately help you get the results you want. “There’s a subtle difference between making people feel like what they’ve done before was wrong and making them feel like you are all going to envision the new era and build toward it together,” Davey says.

One of the best ways to reframe your thinking is to view yourself as serving the team. Acknowledge the anxiety that your new direct reports and team are feeling. During big changes, people have all kinds of questions: they might be worried about job security or feeling burned that they didn’t get the manager role that you’re now in. Having the emotional intelligence to understand those perspectives can help your team view you as the leader you want to be perceived as—and get the work results you want.

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