Joining an Established Team as Manager

See also: Groups Strengths and Weaknesses

Much has been written about building teams, but what about joining an established team as its manager? This is a very different issue, requiring a different range of skills and expertise. Depending on the team, and its level of cohesion, the new manager may find it hard to fit in and struggle to build relationships.

There may also be issues about the challenges of replacing a previous manager, especially if they were either very good, or possibly left under a cloud. There are also different challenges depending on whether the team is high-performing, or under-performing and demoralised. This page discusses some of those challenges.

Scenarios for Joining an Established Team as Manager

There are three possible scenarios to consider when joining an established team as its manager, and the challenges are very different:

  • The team is high-performing and highly motivated. It is likely that the previous team manager was effective, and has gone on to great(er) things. They have left behind a happy team, who are likely to be confident in any new manager, simply because their previous experience was good.

  • The team is doing just fine. The previous manager was reasonably good, and the team performs adequately, although could be better. They may have some concerns about change, and how your arrival will affect them, but they are generally happy and reasonably confident about their work.

  • The team is really struggling. Team members may be unmotivated, or not sure about their role. They may have had no manager for some time, or a very bad manager.

The Manager’s Role

In the first scenario, your role as manager is basically to do as little as possible to upset the current state of play. You therefore need to work out what is happening in the team: that is, to understand precisely what each person does day-to-day, and how best you can support and facilitate that. You also need to work out what else you need to do—that is, specifically what is expected of you.

You can do this by talking to each person in the team, to find out what has previously gone well and badly for them, and how the relationships work within the team. Talking to your manager will also help you to understand your role. You can build trust by asking people for their opinions and views, hence demonstrating that you value their responses.

Your biggest issue here is likely to be living up to your predecessor, especially if they were very good at their job. However, it is key to remember that you are you. You have your own skills and expertise, and will do the job differently. Do not try to change anything too fast, and you will earn the right to make those changes.

In the second scenario, your role as manager is to gently improve the current performance, but without rocking the boat too much. You therefore need to understand each person’s role within the team and their day-to-day responsibilities. You also need to encourage people to think about how their own and the team’s performance could be improved. By talking to each member of the team and to your own manager, you may be able to identify whether the performance needs improving across the board, or only in one or two people—or if it is a systematic issue that some team members are simply managing better than others.

Again, you can build trust by asking for advice and views—and showing that you value the expertise and experience of your team members.

In both these scenarios, you have time.

You can spend time finding out what people do, and how, because there are no performance issues—or at least, no major performance issues—that could get you into trouble further down the line.

It is implicit that the key skill for any manager joining an established team of these types is to be able to absorb information—about your own job, expectations and other people’s work—and to build strong, trusting relationships with people.

The Third Scenario

However, the third scenario is very different. Here, time is not on your side, because you have to both learn what is going on and start to build up the team again.

In this scenario, your key role is to build up your team members in confidence and ability. This process this has to start immediately, before their motivation and self-confidence get any worse.

You may have serious issues about poor performance to manage. However, your first step should probably be to see if you can improve this through developing trust and building relationships.

Demotivation can be a serious problem for performance, so creating a motivational environment is important. Talk to each team member and learn more about what they do and what they would like to do differently. You may well find that they are not even sure what they should be doing—and if so, you may have to seek enlightenment from your manager, or start to carve out a new role for that person, with their cooperation. You may find that they are unhappy about the expectations of other people about their role or activities. If so, you will need to investigate whether those can be changed, or if the role is fixed. Avoid making any promises about change until you have investigated. However, make clear that you will investigate—and then feed back the results of your investigation.

Open and honest communication is key in this type of team, plus an emphasis that you are open to their ideas about new ways of working, or even new pieces of work.

A final word

It may not always be easy to join an established team as its manager.

However, in many ways it is easier than joining a new team, because you can learn what the team does ‘on the job’. Remember that working with the members of your new team will be considerably easier than working against them—and focus on building trust and relationships.