Management Challenge #2: When Coming from the Outside to Take Over Leadership of an Existing Team

Excerpt from “The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems” (Jossey-Bass, the Wiley imprint in San Francisco, September 2014).

As the outsider, you have to figure out who’s who on the team. Meanwhile, you’re going to be hot on the trail of figuring out what’s what. If you are new to the entire organization, you have an extra layer of orientation and learning to do. In any event, you need to learn the nuts and bolts of your new job and then start learning the nuts and bolts of the job of every one of your direct reports. If you are also a new employee, you need to be welcomed, introduced, onboarded, oriented, and brought up to speed.

While your new employer likely offers a new hire orientation program, it is often sparse and inadequate, especially to get up to speed in a leadership role. Start looking for resources from which you can start teaching yourself:

  • The organization’s big picture: Its vision, mission, values, and culture
  • Where your team fits in the organization: The work of the team
  • Broad performance standards, workplace expectations
  • Company systems, practices, procedures

As you are doing all this learning, never forget, your first and foremost responsibility will be managing your new direct reports.

Everyone on your team is still going to be wondering: “Who are you?” “What are your plans?” “How will you manage?” And “What will it all mean for me?” You are the new boss, after all. You’ll have to have a team meeting. You’ll have to make a speech. Your new employees are bound to have lots of questions. You might have to devote a whole Q&A session to how your management style is going to work. It’s a good idea to end that first team meeting by scheduling your first one-on-one with each direct-report.

Your new employees are likely to have as many answers as they have questions and strong opinions about what should change and what should stay the same. Because you are the outsider, new to everyone, it’s important to have a series of team meetings in the early stages of your new regime. You need a forum where you can say the same things to everybody in the same way at the same time, in which everybody can speak on the record in front of each other, hear each other, and respond spontaneously. You need the light of public disclosure and discussion, at least for a little while. Depending on the group dynamics, more or less information may come out in a team meeting format. My advice to new managers in this situation is to stage a series of brainstorming sessions around three questions:

  1. What should change about how our team operates?
  2. What should not change?
  3. If you were suddenly the team manager, what would your first, second, and third priorities be?

The ground rules are simple: Everybody is required to participate. Comments must be about work performance only, not about personal traits and characteristics of any individual. I recommend sitting in a circle if the group is not too big. That way, you can go around the circle (clockwise or counterclockwise) for each question, getting everyone to respond to the first; then everyone responds to the second; and then the third. Depending on the size of the group and the amount of baggage people are carrying, this can take hours. You might want to split it into three separate sessions.

As a new manager, you will be amazed at how much you learn from this process. You will gather key data from your new team about what they think is working and what they think is not working. At the same time, you’ll learn so much about each of them and their working relationships from their responses to these questions. Take notes in these sessions, with special note of any point from one of your new employees that you’d like to follow up on in a one-on-one discussion. These follow-up discussions will reinforce to your new direct reports that you are listening and taking their input seriously. As well, you will make it clear that you are paying attention to details and documenting every step of the way.

Beware of letting these “brainstorming” sessions take on their own life and go on unabated. After you’ve taken in everybody’s input, in short order, you want to make sure you never lose the spirit or habit of constantly learning from everybody’s input. But once the discussions start going round and round over the same ground, that’s your cue to make some decisions and pivot the group discussion to make it very clear: “Here’s what’s staying the same. Here’s what’s changing. The following will be our top three priorities for the foreseeable future.” About the same time you are ready to make that pivot, that’s also a good time to shift the balance of workplace communication sharply AWAY from the team meeting format and start concentrating on your one-on-ones.

As you start your substantive one-on-ones in earnest, your first mission with every direct report will be to get up to speed on the fundamentals of his job. Ask, what are his or her current projects, tasks, and responsibilities? For each:

  • Review examples of past work product and work in progress.
  • Review background materials, standard operating procedures, instructions, manuals, checklists, or other job aids. And answers to frequently asked questions.
  • Talk to key people inside and outside the team with whom the employee works regularly.
  • Look for opportunities to shadow the employee and watch him or her do the work

Meet much more often with every person at first. With this systematic approach, you will get up to speed in a matter of weeks and be in a position to provide at least some guidance and support. Over time, your conversations will become more knowledgeable and your ability to give direction increasingly acute. You will be amazed at how quickly you can get yourself up to full operating capacity as a manager in this way.

Stay tuned next month for the online article on another of the 27 challenges managers face.

Excerpt from “The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems” released by Jossey-Bass, the Wiley imprint in San Francisco (September 2014; $23.95). For more information, visit

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); and “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at

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