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  • Susan Snedaker

You Don't Always Get to Choose

Leading the Team You Inherit is a great article from the June 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review and worth reading when you get a moment. The author, Michael Watkins, points out some fundamental truths about the world we work in. Among them, we more often have to manage teams we inherit than teams we get to hand-pick and build from scratch. Of course, even hand-picked teams can have challenges, but Watkins is focusing on teams you inherit.

In my career, I have had the opportunity to do both - build a team from scratch and manage teams I've inherited - so I was particularly interested in Watkins' recommendations. Below is a mashup of Watkins' ideas and a few of my own thrown in.

1. Assess the people you have on the team. You can't work on improving a team until you know who you have. I've seen 'leaders' come in and start changing things from Day 1 only to end up with a different sort of mess on their hands. If you start rearranging the team without knowing what you are working with, you'll waste precious time and leadership 'capital' and fail to make improvements.

2. Read the team dynamics. Every team is composed of the people on it and the dynamics among them. You'll need to spend a bit of time observing the team dynamics. Though it's true that the observed is changed by the observer, you nonetheless will gather relevant information that you'll need to improve the team down the road.

3. Reshape the team by changing things up. Once you know who's on your team and what the dynamics are, you're ready to perform a gap analysis. What do you need to create your optimal team? Does your team have the skills? The temperament? The tools? The environment? The energy? The excitement? The commitment? See if you can re-purpose or re-tool existing staff to work in different ways or on different tasks/projects. See if there are hidden or latent talents that could be better utilized. Find out what people like doing and what they're good at doing and try to slot them into their area of strengths rather than allow them to thrash around in their area of weakness.

4. If necessary, try something basic. Sometimes the easiest way to change a dysfunctional team dynamic is to change the seating arrangement. Move people to different desks, rearrange the space if possible. Co-locate teams that you need to collaborate more closely. Create quieter work spaces for people who need to be heads down to think through problems and solutions. There's no one right answer, but changing some basics that you likely do have control over may help shift dynamics so you can more easily work with your inherited team.

5. Find some early wins for the team. Nothing gels a team faster than achieving objectives together. Find opportunities early in your tenure with your new team to accomplish something new.

[Based on Michael D. Watkins' "Leading the Team Your Inherit",]

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