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5 ways to make an inherited team your own

September 6, 2013

By Sarah Le Roy

I’ve been working with a client who was recently appointed the CEO of a large, successful multinational company. His succession was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, it had been a bit of a horse race up until the final few months when his divisional results delivered extraordinary success. Duly elevated, he called me and said, “I know what to do to run the business. And I know how to lead my team. But how do I manage the five guys (and yes, sigh, they were all men) who didn’t get the chair I am sitting in?”

After years of being a well thought of, well-liked peer, he became the leader of an assertive, highly intelligent, driven group of people–any one of whom might easily have taken his new role with relish. He was also in the enviable position of taking control of a successful, well-run organization where the board basically said: “Here’s the ball. We trust you. Don’t mess it up.”

So, what does the new CEO need to do? Many newly appointed leaders have to overcome problems of culture, results, or execution, but none of these issues existed. In fact, the big issue was about managing change and transition in a very big way. His inherited team has all the natural rivalries that existed when he and his fellow leaders were competing for the CEO slot. He also inherited norms of communication, behavior, and general good-natured one-upmanship that happen in a team environment, but he needed to step out of that framework and create a new one suited to his style of leadership. His style, incidentally, was diametrically opposed to that of the previous CEO.

We had many conversations about how to make an inherited team your own. It boils down to five things:

    • Start fresh – This simply means start with breaking bread together, even if it involves flying people in from other parts of the world. Get the whole team together and spend time offsite. Look at what needs to be done in the future and perhaps, play a few rounds of golf. Bonding with your team over a period of a few days will make a huge difference in the long term, and most importantly, will set a positive tone for the future.
    • Create your own team – This means look hard at the players you have and how you relate to them. Know the needs of the organization and who is in the wings waiting to step up. Have candid dialogues about what you want and need in terms of support, results, and perspective, etc. It is okay to transition those people who can’t or won’t get on board, but this is not permission to jettison those people who are the voice of dissent. You need them! Blockers are the concern here.
    • Be open – Seriously, ask good questions. Listen more than you talk. Get under the hood of what your team is thinking and what they are worried about. Don’t forget to ask what they are excited about and what their expectations are of you as a leader. Be prepared to hear things that won’t make you feel good, and don’t be emotional. Constructive candor is your friend.
    • Understand the fear of others – People will be afraid. Whether they are following the “who moved my cheese” line of thinking, or if they just don’t like change of any sort, there will be people at all levels who will not get on your bus. Enroll your team to implement the changes you feel are necessary. Present a constructive, positive, unified front.
    • Don’t let a fear of “screwing it up” stop you! – You have to own your own leadership journey. That means you have to believe what you see and believe in yourself. Listen to your people and make your own best judgments about what needs to happen. You will assuredly fail some of the time. Innovation doesn’t come without errors – I think the chocolate chip cookie was invented that way and it’s had a pretty successful run. Don’t let the way you have always done things rigidly enforce what you do in your new role. Each advancement up to the pointy end of the pyramid leads to different opportunities and different challenges. Maintain your sense of humility and your sense of perspective.

Have you inherited a team recently? What has surprised and inspired you? How are you dealing with leading people who were once your peers?


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