Ah, the excitement of starting a new job! After months of applications, and many rounds of interviews, the offer to build, lead, and grow a new team finally comes through. You are excited to be moving upward in your career, or maybe just on to a new challenge where all of your best talents and experiences can be put to use every day.

During your first few days on the job you spend plenty of time learning. Learning about the business of your new employers, meeting lots of new people, and diving into how things get done currently in your new department. And that’s when you start to learn about how things were before…

Scenario A: The “what was” problem

At some point within your first 2 weeks, you start to hear the stories of how things were before you got there. Some of these stories will be positive, even funny, about how great things are due to a team that meshes really well. You will hear about happy clients, award-winning work, and the hard road it took to get there. Some of these stories will be less positive. Stories about a team that was not motivated, not collaborative, and not responsive to the needs of internal clients. You might even hear about how high of a turnover there has been in the department. All of these things, both good and bad, happened because of your predecessor.

Scenario B: You’ve got big shoes to fill

Let’s just say your predecessor was the kind of leader who just killed it. He did a great job keeping the team engaged, the work interesting, and the clients happy. As the new (replacement) leader coming on board, you have big shoes to fill. Chances are your predecessor was not only good at his job, but he was well-liked to boot (pun intended).

In this case you’re coming into a group that – while perhaps excited to see you – might be a bit leery of what you’re going to bring to the table. After all, how can things really get any better for this team when It’s already pretty great. In other words, once the new-guy shine wears off on week 4, everyone will be looking at you like “so, what can you offer us that the old guy we loved so much didn’t already do?”

Scenario C: You’ve walked into a minefield

On the other hand, let’s say things were not so great when your predecessor left. Maybe that’s the reason they are no longer here in the first place. The team could be any one – or more – of the following: unhappy, unmotivated, uninspired, unruly, uncreative, insubordinate, disorganized, and/or overworked. And the clients? They don’t like working with your department because of all these reasons I just listed.

The team might still be excited to have you come onboard, but because of the change you represent they might be a bit leery of what you’re going to bring to the table. After all, how can things really get any better for this team? They just can’t see the forest for the trees. In other words, once the new-guy shine wears off on week 4, everyone will be looking at you like “so, how are you going to fix this?. You my friend, have a long road ahead of you but like Mount Everest you can get to the summit, it’s just going to be a long road to get there and it will take a lot of hard work.

What’s a new leader to do?

Of course you could also be lucky enough to be asked to start an in-house creative team too, in which case you don’t have any of the history of a predecessor to worry about. But you still need to take into consideration how the business operated before you came onboard.

No matter what the scenario is for you, below are 5 suggestions I have for consideration when starting your new leadership gig:

Number 1: Don’t change anything.
Things may or may not be working as well as you hoped when you walk in the door on your first day. For better or for worse, your team is still operating like a machine. Throwing a wrench into the works early on could do more harm than you expect.

Number 2: Be observant, and listen as much as you talk.
You’re a leader, so you might be tempted to take charge of the situation to make your mark. Don’t. Instead learn as much as you can about the business, and current state of affairs, before you discuss potential changes with your own boss.

Number 3: Be patient, and have a plan.
Unless there are extreme circumstances requiring an immediate change, develop a plan for improving your operations and get buy-in on it from above and below.

Number 4: Stop interviewing for the job.
Resist the urge to remind everyone how much you know, or what you’ve done before to handle a similar situation. The person who hired you knows that, and they probably told your team and peers already. You don’t have as much to prove as you think you do. Simply do what you were hired to do.

Number 5: Build relationships.
A big part of leading a team, and its clients, is knowing who you’re working with. Take time to get to know people, and learn what drives them. It will not only help you be successful, but it will help you get buy-in on your improvement plans later on.

Final thought: Let hindsight truly be 20/20

After taking the leadership reins a number of times in my career due to promotions or starting with a new company I can easily say that I have some perspective on this, so my last piece of advice is this: Don’t get bogged down by “what was”. You have to respect the history of how things were B.Y. (before you), but you can’t let history bog you down. Learn from it, but don’t let anyone dwell on the past. Build your own history and make your own mark.

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