Why sometimes an inheritance can be more trouble than it’s worth

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It’s true. 

Especially when it comes to inheriting a team of people as opposed to building a team from scratch. 

I know this from personal experience. 

I have been fortunate enough to have been able to build a team from scratch twice. Once for a business I worked for many years ago, and then again when building my own company. 

It’s a great feeling to know you are single handedly responsible for choosing who to bring on board; for setting the vision and culture of the company; and for establishing “the way we do things around here” from the get-go. 

Something else I distinctly recall from my experience growing a team by starting with employee #1 was how many years it was before I received my first resignation, as opposed to when I took over a team and had two members exit in my second week! 

Whilst inheriting a team is certainly exciting, it comes with a plethora of challenges and it’s important for any leader finding themselves in this situation to be ready to tackle these challenges head on.

Besides, inheriting a team is far more common than having the luxury of being able to handpick your players. 

Most of the time you have no choice. You might be promoted into a leadership position within the team you have been working in for a while. Maybe you are moved into a managerial role in a different part of the business. Or perhaps you are offered a new role leading a team in a different organisation entirely.

Regardless of the scenario, you are basically being asked to lead a team that someone else has built (perhaps even a series of people before you) and where up until the moment you accepted the challenge, you had absolutely no say in any of the decisions that had been made previously. 

And now you’ve been put in charge. 

Of course, then there’s the question of whether you are inheriting a high performing team where perhaps the previous leader moved up or chose to find a new challenge, or whether you have been brought in to turn things around because your predecessor was ‘moved on’. 

Do you really know what you’re getting yourself into? 

One of your first (not to mention one of the most important) tasks is to quickly get a lay of the land – to get to know who’s who in the zoo in terms of the team and the individuals. 

You might choose to do this both formally and informally with a combination of in-office team meetings and 1:1 conversations along with some off-site coffees, lunches, or (dare I say it) team bonding activities. 

When I inherited a team once, I recall taking one of my team members out for a casual ‘get to know you’ lunch in a nearby café. It was winter and we’d both ordered soup. She was clearly very comfortable with the change in leadership, and clearly very comfortable with me, since at one point she reached her spoon across the table and took a taste of my soup!  

Awkward! 

Assuming you’ve had no say in creating the team composition, structure, or dynamic, you could consider administering some kind of personality profile or assessment so you can get to know your team members better and see where their strengths and values lie, and how well they might really be able to work together. 

One of your main goals might be to re-shape the vision or re-create the culture in some way. However, this won’t always be easy since some things will be pretty entrenched. Having said that, it’s still important that you make your vision and strategy clear to the team from the outset. What are your plans? Even if it’s to make absolutely no changes at all for a few months while you get your head around how things work – particularly if you have come in from outside the organisation. What are your expectations? How high are you planning to set the bar in terms of the performance you expect from the team? 

At this point some people may choose to opt out, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Prepare for the fact that people will leave (as I shared above). They won’t like your vision or the changes you’re planning to make (or that they think you will make in the future). Although it’s hard not to take this personally, it’s all part of what I often liked to describe as ‘repairing the plane while flying it’. 

If you are stepping into a successful team, you’ll need to identify your true high performers and ensure you quickly put a plan in place to retain them.

What might you need to do to encourage them and support them to be even better? For example, you might implement a coaching or professional development program designed for top performing or high potential individuals. 

On the other hand, being asked to take over a team that is performing poorly can bring about a whole suite of challenges – especially if you are coming in from outside the organisation as you won’t have any personal context or back story to help set the scene. In this case you’ll need to quickly assess what skills gaps might exist in the group, where team communication might be breaking down, what fractures in processes might be impacting productivity, or any other reasons preventing the business from growing according to plan. 

Perhaps not immediately (but it’s best not to leave it for too long either), you will probably want to share your observations with the team. What have you noticed? What are your short-, medium-, and long-term goals? Have you given them an insight into your leadership style? Have you been able to articulate the way you hope to see things done moving forward?

Especially in the early days, you should be comfortable asking your team members how they think you’re doing in the job, too. By doing this confidently, you will avoid any nasty surprises. 

At least for a period of time, try to get the best out of the team you’ve inherited before making any real changes to the team structure. 

Just like a new leader stepping into the role for the first time, even for the most experienced leaders, inheriting a team can sometimes feel overwhelming. It’s just part of the learning experience. Whilst at first you won’t know what you don’t know about the team, it will quickly become apparent exactly what you need to do to ‘make it your own’, and before long, you’ll be cooking with gas.

Just don’t put too much pressure on yourself. 

hellomonday provides coaching and support to leaders at all levels; prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change; and reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching.     

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