You would have thought I would have been smarter!
I was hired as the Chief Administrative Offer for a small town in Canada’s arctic.
During the hiring process, I specifically asked about labour relations and organizational health & culture. “Don’t worry,” I was assured, “we have a great team.”
I should have recognized the lie and I later found out I was hired to solve problems.
The organization was top-heavy with 7 Directors for a team of 25, and the residents had unmet needs. Stories about missed opportunities and hints of a toxic culture had drifted upward to the Mayor and Town Council.
All those factors had prompted the decision to replace the out-going CAO with someone from the outside, and I seemed to fit the bill. I had a record of accomplishments in leadership, turning around broken teams and implementing wholesale changes in business models.
But in taking on this new role, I faced a common challenge: I didn’t get to handpick the people who would be working with me.
Rather, I inherited the team that had created the situation I was hired to fix.
It was like fixing a plane 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.
I needed a framework for taking over this team to:
- Assess the human capital and group dynamics they have inherited;
- To reshape the team according to the organization’s goals; and
- Accelerate performance.
What Qualities Are You Looking For?
Like most leaders, you may have a “gut” sense of what you look for in people.
But different situations and challenges call for different strengths.
This exercise will help you better understand and articulate your priorities when you take on a new team.
Assign percentages to the qualities below, according to how much emphasis you think each should receive, given your current circumstances and goals. Make sure the numbers in the right column add up to 100.
Those numbers will be rough, of course. For some team members (say, your head of finance), competence may be the top priority; for others (say, your head of marketing), energy or people skills may be equally or more critical. The importance of the role and the state of the business may also affect your estimates.
|Competence||Has the technical expertise and experience to do the job effectively|
|Trustworthiness||Can be relied upon to be straight with you and to follow through on commitments|
|Energy||Brings the right attitude to the job (isn’t burned-out or disengaged)|
|People skills||Gets along well with others on the team and supports collaboration|
|Focus||Sets priorities and sticks to them, instead of veering off in all directions|
|Judgment||Exercises good sense, especially under pressure or when faced with making sacrifices for the greater good|
Your requirements will depend partly on the state of the business. In a turnaround, you will seek people who are already up to speed—you won’t have time to focus on skill-building until things are more stable.
If you are trying to sustain a team’s success, however, it probably makes sense to develop high potentials, and you will have more time to do so.
To conduct this assessment, hold a mix of one-on-one and team meetings, supplemented with input from key stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, and colleagues outside the team.
Also, look at team members’ individual track records and performance evaluations.
Depending on your style, these meetings might be informal discussions, formal reviews, or a combination, regardless you should approach them in a standard way.
Review available personnel history, performance data, and appraisals. Familiarize yourself with each person’s skills. Observe how team members interact. Do relations appear cordial and productive? Tense and competitive?
Create an interview template.
Ask people the same questions and see how their insights vary. For example, What are the strengths and weaknesses of our existing strategy? What are our biggest challenges and opportunities in the short term? In the medium term? What resources could we leverage more effectively? How could we improve the way the team works together?
And my favourite question … If you were in my position, what would you do to make things better?
Look for verbal and nonverbal clues.
Notice what people say and don’t say. Do they volunteer information, or do you have to work for it? Do they take responsibility for problems, make excuses, or point fingers at others? Look for inconsistencies between people’s words and body language, this can signal dishonesty or distrust of management.
Pay attention to topics that elicit strong emotions, this provides clues to what motivates people and what kinds of changes would energize them.
Summarize and share what you learn.
After you’ve interviewed everyone, discuss your findings with the team. This will demonstrate that you are coming up to speed quickly. If your feedback highlights differences of opinion or raises uncomfortable issues, you’ll also have a chance to observe the team under a modest amount of stress. Watching how people respond may lead to valuable insight into team culture and power dynamics.
Reshaping the Team
The next task is to reshape the team within the constraints of the organization’s culture, the leader’s mandate, and the available talent.
You want people to be able to share information freely, identify and deal with conflict swiftly, solve problems creatively, support one another, and present a unified face once decisions are made.
The most obvious way to reshape a team is to replace underperformers and anyone whose capabilities are not a good match for the situation.
But this can be difficult culturally and politically, and in many cases, it’s simply not possible.
Spend the first few months observing employees in critical roles who clearly cannot do the work, or for truly toxic personalities that are undermining the enterprise.
Ensure everyone has a clear sense of purpose and direction.
To get everyone aligned, the team must agree on answers to four basic questions:
- What will we accomplish? You spell this out in your mission, goals, and key metrics.
- Why should we do it? Here is where your vision statement and incentives come into play.
- How will we do it? This includes defining the team’s strategy in relation to the organization’s, as well as sorting out the plans and activities needed for execution.
- Who will do what? People’s roles and responsibilities must support all of the above.
Energize team members with some early wins.
Start by setting challenging goals for the next three months. Specify the work involved and who was accountable for it, and develop messages to share your team’s successes.
Once the team had those successes in place, it kept building on them.
The result is a cycle of achievement and confidence.