Managing a new team

I recently received an e-mail from a reader who accepted a new job managing a dozen IT professionals. He wrote looking for advice on how to integrate himself into this group: "I didn't hire any of them, and I don't want them thinking I'm coming in and I'm going to start axing people from the start."

Many of us can relate to that, as few of us get the opportunity to accept new jobs and create a new team from scratch. Most of us have to step into a group that already has its own history, culture, environment and backstory. As someone who has found herself in this position several times, I offer my own advice:

  • Meet with all your team members as a group and brainstorm what they want to see. What do they like about the department, what works, what doesn't, etc.? What is preventing them from doing their jobs and how can you help remove those obstacles?

    If they have issues with the former manager try to keep it from devolving into a bashing session. Instead, focus on where you all can go from here.

  • Meet with all your members individually. Ask them what they like about their jobs and what they don't like. If money were no object, what training would they like? Try to ascertain where they are and where they want to be. What are their career goals? It's natural for employees to feel nervous around a new leader, as they may fear you're looking to swing the ax, no matter what you say. Don't be surprised if they're not very forthcoming or seem to love everything and everyone; as their trust grows, you'll get the real answers. If possible, take each person out to lunch for this talk. If budgets are tight, have lunch with them somewhere quiet; make it an informal, get- to-know-you information gathering session. Invariably, in asking these questions you'll learn about their personal lives, hobbies and more, so you'll learn a little about them as people, too.

  • When you process all of the information from the team and individual meetings, develop an action plan for your department's needs and each person's. On the department side, get them to rank their issues in order of importance so you can try to tackle them in an order. On the personal side, figure out what options (training, cross training, flextime, etc.) are available to meet your employee's needs and try to meet them as best serves them and the department. Keep asking these questions of them whenever they're formally reviewed to ensure you know how they're doing as well as their priorities.

  • Hold regular staff meetings and keep people up to date on whatever departmental or company news you have. Use the meetings as a way to suss out problems and brainstorm solutions. Always keep the lines of communication as open as possible and share as much information as you're allowed.

  • Don't make any major changes until you understand the processes in place and how they work (or don't). Consider spending a day (or more) with each team member to get a feel for their jobs, so you can see first hand how processes or problems affect them and your department. Then you can determine if it needs to be tweaked or overhauled based on first-hand experience.

I think the most important thing going into a new situation is to establish trust, which is what the above suggestions are intended to do. With a new manager, folks always worry that you're there to fire them - or learn about them so you can fire them later especially given the current economy. If you conduct your leadership in the interest of learning and removing obstacles so they're more effective, you'll go a long way to building a great team.

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