Help! I’m Responsible for an Entirely New Team

By Bruce Tulgan

It’s difficult enough being the new manager. But it’s twice as hard when everybody is new to you and to each other. You haven’t met each other yet. You may not have had any say in who was chosen for the team. As far as you know, nobody on the team has ever worked together before. You’re not even sure how long this team is going to exist.

What you do know is that you have a core group of people to start with (hopefully a small one). Some more experienced than others, of course. None of this is too out of the ordinary, and is likely a start-up situation of one kind or another. But just because it’s ordinary doesn’t mean it isn’t a challenge.

Prepare Yourself as the Manager

Your team has a bunch of work to get done, very well, very fast, all day long, in pursuit of a mission, right now and for the duration of the project. It’s just that none of the team members have ever worked together. Beyond the team, there are many other internal customers and vendors you’ll all have to deal with, all very likely equally new to everybody. Maybe you have some standard operating procedures to guide you (don’t be afraid to rely on them!), but for the most part your new team has not yet established any habits or norms of interaction. Most everything is starting from scratch.

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You are as new to the situation as the rest of the team and will have to create a rigorous orientation program for yourself, as any new manager of a team would when coming in from the outside:

  • Understand where you and your team fit in the larger picture of the organization’s mission and goals
  • Brush up on any broad performance standards, workplace expectations, company systems, practices, or procedures
  • Learn about who each person on the team is at work, what their role is on the team and expectations for that role
  • Brush up on the management fundamentals

But of course, you have the added challenge that everybody is new to the work and to each other.

What do you do? Where do you start?

Avoid the Pitfalls of Team Building

With a brand new team, the advantage is that there is no baggage. Nothing is broken. You have the chance to start things off right from the outset.

Here’s the first pitfall to avoid: “Everyone hit the ground running!” It sounds great, at first. Self-starting high-performers want to dive in. The problem is that when everyone hits the ground running without good coordination, people will probably go off running in their own directions. Before long, people find they are tripping over each other, duplicating work in one area while leaving gaps in another, or unwittingly taking noncomplementary approaches to working together.

On day one, you need to make sure every individual knows exactly where he or she fits in the team and where the team fits in the larger picture. You need to get everybody on the same page, on the same plan, and ready to march together in the same direction.

The second pitfall to avoid? Attempting to fast-track connection and relationships among team members by focusing on the personal. It turns out that when team members spend their initial bonding time focusing on what they have in common outside of work, they often fail to explore how they will or will not fit together at work. At the outset, you need to get everybody focused on the shared work and who everybody is at work.

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The First Team Meeting: “Who I Am at Work”

On day one, as part of the first team meeting (and you better plan to have a team meeting on day one), after you’ve introduced yourself and the process by which you intend to lead the team (and you better have a clear process), facilitate an introduction process that focuses on “Who I Am at Work”:

  • Have everyone introduce themselves: “This is who I am at work. This is my portfolio of experiences. This is what I can do. This is how I operate, and these are my work habits. This is the commitment I am willing to make to this team.” As the leader, you start. Keep in mind that introductions usually go a whole lot better if you give everyone at least a little time to prepare in advance.
  • Ask if anyone has ever participated in a self-profiling assessment of any kind. If so, what did they learn about themselves from that assessment that may help others work better with them?
  • What do people on the team need to know about how you work that will help them work better with you? It’s so important to remember here: Be authentic. Don’t pretend to be something or someone who you are not. But also present your best self. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Hold yourself to a high standard. This is a great time to be up front about your strengths and weaknesses so that everyone can effectively support one another.

For any brand new team, the fist expedition should be intelligence gathering. The best way to end that first team meeting is with a whole list of unanswered questions. Make it a good list by brainstorming with everybody at the table: What don’t we know that we need to know in order to make a smarter plan for our work as a team? Some of those questions will naturally go to you as the boss. The rest of the questions should be divided among team members, or groups of team members. Then, share those answers at the start of the second team meeting. Make sure that meeting happens at least within a week of the first.

Of course, some questions will be unanswerable. Some will be overtaken by events. Still, the second team meeting should be focused on: What have we been able to learn? By continuing to ask this question in each subsequent team meeting and regular one-on-one meeting with each individual, you’ll build a strong, efficient new team in no time.

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