Eight Traps to Avoid When You Take Over a Team

Posted by Michael Watkins

Leaders taking new roles often inherit teams that they must assess, reshape, align, and accelerate. Frequently, leaders stumble when it comes to building their teams. The result may be a significant delay in achieving key objectives, or outright derailment. These are some of the characteristic traps into which new leaders fall when taking over teams:


1. Criticizing the previous leadership

There is nothing to be gained by criticizing the people who led the organization before you arrived. This doesn’t mean that you need to condone poor past performance, nor does it mean that you can’t highlight problems. Of course you need to evaluate the impact of previous leadership, but rather than point out others’ mistakes, concentrate on assessing current behavior and results and on making the changes necessary to support improved performance.


2. Keeping the existing team too long

Unless you are in a start-up, you do not get to build a team from scratch; you inherit a team and must mold it into what you need to achieve your priorities. Occasionally, leaders make major changes in their teams too quickly, but it is more common for them to keep people who aren’t performing longer than is wise. Whether because they’re afflicted with hubris (“These people have not performed well in the past because they lacked a leader like me”) or because they shy away from tough personnel calls, leaders end up with less-than-outstanding teams. This means they and the other strong performers must shoulder more of the load.


3. Not balancing stability and change

Building a team you’ve inherited is like repairing an airplane in mid-flight. You will not reach your destination if you ignore the necessary repairs, but you do not want to try to change too much too fast and crash the plane. The key is to find the right balance between stability and change. First and foremost, focus only on truly high-priority personnel changes early on.


4. Not working on organizational alignment and team development in parallel

A ship’s captain cannot make the right choices about his crew without knowing the destination, the route, and the ship. Likewise, you can’t build your team in isolation from changes in strategic direction, structure, processes, and skill bases. Otherwise, you could end up with the right people in the wrong jobs. Your efforts to assess the organization and achieve alignment should go on in parallel with assessment of the team and necessary personnel changes.


5. Not holding on to the good people

One experienced manager shared hard-won lessons about the dangers of losing good people. “When you shake the tree,” she said, “good people can fall out, too.” Her point is that uncertainty about who will and will not be on the team can lead your best people to move elsewhere. Although there are constraints on what you can say about who will stay and who will go, you should look for ways to signal to the top performers that you recognize their capabilities. A little reassurance goes a long way.


6. Undertaking team building before the core is in place

It is tempting to launch team-building activities right away, but this approach poses a danger; it strengthens bonds in a group, some of whose members may be leaving. So avoid explicit team-building activities until the team you want is largely in place. This does not mean, of course, that you should avoid meeting as a group. Just keep the focus on the business.


7. Making implementation-dependent decisions too early

When successful implementation of key initiatives requires buy-in from your team, you should judiciously defer making decisions until the core members are in place. Of course there will be decisions you cannot afford to delay, but it can be counterproductive to make decisions that commit new people to courses of action they had no part in defining. Carefully weigh the benefits of moving quickly on major initiatives against the lost opportunity of gaining buy-in from the people you will bring on board later.


8. Trying to do it all yourself

Finally, keep in mind that restructuring a team is fraught with potential complications. Do not try to undertake this on your own. Find out who can best advise you and help you chart a strategy. The support of a good HR person or executive coach is indispensable to any effort to restructure a team.


To learn more, read Michael Watkins Harvard Business Review article "Leading the Team You Inherit."

Follow Michael Watkins on Twitter.


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