Leading the Team You Inherit

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Michael D. Watkins for Harvard Business Review and the HBR  Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Artwork: Jeff Perrott, RW76 (Semi-Automatic), 2011, oil and enamel on linen, private collection, Boston

* * *

David Benet had problems to solve when he came in to lead the highest-growth unit at a large medical devices company. Although sales had increased when two new products launched the previous year, the numbers still fell short of expectations, given all the evidence of unmet customer needs. The company’s future hinged on the success of both products—an instrument for inserting stents into blocked arteries and an electronic implant for stabilizing cardiac rhythm. So the long-term stakes were high, and the team wasn’t exactly humming. Stories about missed opportunities and hints of a toxic culture had drifted upward to senior management.

All those factors had prompted the decision to replace the unit’s executive vice president with someone from the outside, and David fit the bill. He had a record of stellar accomplishments at a rival company, where he had turned around one business unit and accelerated the growth of another. But in taking on this new role, he faced a common challenge: He didn’t get to handpick the people who would be working with him. Rather, he inherited his predecessor’s team—the team that had created the situation David was hired to fix.

Indeed, most newly appointed leaders have limited familiarity with their teams at the outset and can’t immediately swap in new people to help grow or transform the business. Sometimes they lack the necessary political power or resources to rapidly replace personnel, or the culture does not allow it. Often, existing team members are essential for running the business in the short term but not the right people to lead it into the future.

All this highlights the importance of figuring out how to work effectively with a team you have inherited. Fraught with trade-offs, the process is like repairing an airplane in midflight. You can’t just shut down the plane’s engines while you rebuild them—at least not without causing a crash. You need to maintain stability while moving ahead.

There are many frameworks to help leaders build new teams. One of the best known is “forming, storming, norming, and performing,” created by Bruce Tuckman in 1965. According to Tuckman’s model and more recent ones like it, teams go through predictable phases of development that, with the right interventions, can be accelerated. The problem is that these models assume leaders build their teams from scratch, carefully choosing members and setting direction from the very beginning.

The process means trade-offs. You need to maintain stability while moving ahead.

In my work helping leaders navigate major transitions, I have found that most people, like David, instead need a framework for taking over and transforming a team. That’s what this article provides. First, leaders must assess the human capital and group dynamics they have inherited, to get a clear picture of the current state. Next, they must reshape the team according to what’s needed—looking with fresh eyes at its membership, sense of purpose and direction, operating model, and behavioral patterns. Finally, they can accelerate team development and improve performance by identifying opportunities for early wins and making plans to secure them.

Assessing the Team

When you are leading a new team, you must quickly determine whether you have the right people doing the right things in the right ways to propel the organization forward. From day one you will have a lot of demands on your time and attention, and those will only grow, so efficient team assessment is key.

It’s important to be systematic, as well. Although most leaders inherit and size up many teams over their careers, few are deliberate about what they look for in people. Through experience they arrive at intuitive assessment criteria and methods—which are fine for familiar situations but otherwise problematic. Why? Because the characteristics of effective team members vary dramatically depending on the circumstances.

Michael D. Watkins is a cofounder of Genesis Advisers, a professor at IMD Business School, and the author of The First 90 Days and Master Your Next Move (Harvard Business Review Press).
Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.