Joining a new team as a leader

There have been many situations when I have joined a team which has lost its leader. Here are some of the things that have worked for me:

  1. 1-1s with each team member: This is extremely useful first step that I have used in many teams with good amount of success. One of the goals I have in these meetings and which I let them know is my desire to understand how I can help them. When someone has lost a leader he or she was working closely with, there are bound to be concerns and apprehensions which are best addressed if you let them talk about them and then ask them how they expect you to help. I have had great many people tell me exactly how to go about being a good lead in the team, which makes my work easier! If you have not tried it, try it whenever you can; you will be surprised by the results.
  2. Use Team meetings to set the tone: I use my initial team meeting to explain what kind of person and leader I am. Specifically I focus on my leadership and operational style, mention a few names from my previous teams in the company I have worked with (should they need reference checks, which they should), and finally summarize what I have heard from them in my 1-1 meetings and how it is going to influence my working style going forward.
  3. Suspend Judgment: One of the CEOs in my previous company used to use this phrase when we were merging with another equal-sized company. It is very easy to be judgmental about people or situations, it is human nature. It is actually a strength when you can judge people or situations given small exposure (attending a team meeting, having 1-1, etc). However, when you are new to the situation or to the people, judgment may come too early and based on your pre-conceived notions which can lead you astray and make the situation and relationships worse and difficult to fix. So controlling the urge to jump to conclusions because someone didn’t come across well in a 1-1, or someone talks extremely well in a meeting, is a great thing to do in initial months when you join the team. There have been numerous situations where this advice has helped me. I have given myself enough time to observe things, before starting to form judgment. My motto is: “Suspend Judgment, Only Observe“. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell is a great book on similar topic.
  4. Being able to apologize: In the beginning in any team, you will not know so many things about the team, even when you think you do. I have faced similar situations and the best way I have found to handle such situations is to apologize my way in and out. If you are explicit about the fact that you know very little about the work there and are willing to learn, people forgive you and help you learn, rather than when you come with great credentials and behave as if you know everything. I have been able to use my own ideas and styles in these new teams, but only when I have earned the trust by learning the current situation on the ground, with the help of team members
  5. Identify influencers and opinion-makers: Every team (and every company) has a few individuals who are key influencers and opinion makers for the team. These may be the oldest employees, or smartest, or easiest to talk to, but all of them have one important skill: they set the tone of the group. If they feel you are not doing a good job, entire team will feel the same way soon, and vice-versa. Whenever I join a new team, I now try to identify such individuals and work with them extra hard. This does not mean I ignore others, this just means I try to go with the ground reality that influencers matter, and try hard to make sure they understand me and my goals. This has worked very well. And it is not difficult to identify such individuals: they are the most vocal in meetings (both with good and bad words!), they are seen talking to most people in the team, and their names come up most in casual conversations with the team.
  6. Create personal relationship with the team members: When I talk about this to some of my manager friends in US, they seem puzzled and uncomfortable about this advice, and I agree that it is hard to do. However, I have tried to do this in all the new teams I have joined, whether it is in India, US or China, and it has yielded dividends immediately. This boils down to the trust question: you will be trusted more if others know you personally too, and not only professionally. Of course, knowing personally does not mean going out on lunches and dinners, and beer parties in bars all the time; for me, it has been more about getting some time to know the individuals personally, talk to them about those personal aspects (this part depends on culture, in US you may restrict yourself to discussing about housing and weather till you get to know them more, in Asia, it seems fine to explicitly ask about family and stuff and people feel happy when you do). Any discussion outside work topics seem to help in this aspect, so does empathizing with the team about their pain points in the work-related topics (you need not wear your manager’s hat all the time, you can play a peer/mentor/friend role).
  7. Being honest, transparent and trustworthy: Of course, this is what everyone tries to do, and should try to do. My experience is that if you can establish trust, others will hold you to high enough bar that other two will come automatically (or you will lose trust!). So focusing on trust has been my primary goal, and many of the above approaches actually helped me in building the trust with individuals as well as with the team.

Similar things actually help when you join as a team member too, though achieving some of the things are harder when you are not the leader (for ex, setting the tone). I will talk about some exceptions and some different things one needs to do when they join a new team as a member. Stay tuned!

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