You’ve Landed a Leadership Role and You’ve Inherited Your Predecessor's Team, Now What?

Leadership Advice from a 5x Leader, Startup Advisor & Board Member 

You’ve landed your next, or your first, leadership role and are inheriting your predecessor’s team. Even if this is your millionth rodeo, there will be some nerves and challenging lessons ahead. 

On top of not knowing what to fully expect, you were most likely brought in to revitalize the department or company. Whether to grow the team, take things to the next level or right the ship – the CEO and Board have big expectations, and change is inevitable. A change that not everyone will be comfortable with or ready for. Change that requires leadership.

Leadership is hard. Many have innate skills but most of us have had to develop our skills through education, training, and experience. Certain traits, such as self-confidence, emotional intelligence, and the ability to communicate effectively, can contribute to effective leadership. Even if these traits come naturally to you, they can also be further developed and improved through practice and experience.

So, where do you start when you’re inheriting a team? And how do you ensure you provide the right leadership for your team so you can achieve both growth goals and employee fulfillment?

We sat down for a Q&A with John McAuliffe to get his insights on leadership and how to go about leading an inherited team. 

John is an Advisor, Board Member, and Marketing Leader. In his current role, he helps companies accelerate growth by moving entrepreneurs and investors from Phase 1 (where there has been success in building a product or service) to Phase 2 (building a company by bringing scale, repeatability, and accelerated growth).

So let’s dive in…

What Makes a Boss a True Leader? 

The first thing to remember is 90% of your job as a leader is leading people.  Your success and the organization's success are directly causal to how effectively you lead people to achieve defined success.

One of the first things you should do when stepping into a new team is to ensure everyone is aligned on where you want to go (vision) – I like to call it the destination. Both you and your team must have a crystal clear description of what the destination is – what the future state of the business is like when you reach your goals.

The journey, however, should account for a certain level of friction within a team because that's how you get better. You don't want people to do what you say; you want a group that challenges assumptions and improves upon initial hypotheses. Your team should feel comfortable offering their opinion on how things could be different or improved.

Providing flexibility and leeway allows people to contribute their best, but the first step is to ensure that you have complete buy-in and everybody is “on the bus” going to the same destination. 

Once you have that buy-in, you should assess the current team based on two parameters, which I call “skill and will”:

  1. Do the team and each individual have the skills necessary for the things that need to be done to get to that destination? In other words, are they the right people and are they in the right seat?
  2. Do they have significant motivation to do that? Have they bought in? Do they want to get to the same destination as has been charted?

Assessing for skill is a bit more familiar for most leaders so I will not get too into that other than you would be well served in putting together an attribute skills assessment scorecard for each role and determining where each individual scores. Hopefully, all individuals score high for the roles they are in, otherwise, you will need to help them find a new seat either inside or outside the organization. 

Assuming you have the right people sitting in the right seats, you now need to understand their willingness to help you toward your destination. I find that people sit in one of three mindsets.

The Three Buckets

Bucket One

Employees who have been looking for change well before you arrived and are eagerly waiting for new leadership to lead them to the destination they wanted to go. These people welcome you with open arms and are eager to contribute, listen, learn, and help in any way they can. They have a high level of will.

How to Manage Bucket One: 

Your role as a leader is to encourage these people to “swing for the fences.” You want to give them the opportunity to contribute and put their stamp on things. Nurturing this bucket is critical for two reasons: 

  1. It gives those employees a sense of purpose.
  2. It can also help the other incumbents (those in buckets 2 and 3) feel better about what's going on and what’s changing.

This brings us to bucket two…


Bucket Two

Those who are not ready for change – they were comfortable in their old job and don't have it in them to go through a significant change. In some cases, they may even disagree with the new destination a company is headed towards. Or maybe they were ready to lead the team; whatever the reason, those people will quickly identify themselves.   

How to Manage Bucket Two: 

With bucket two, it’s all about helping them find the best place for them and their career growth. Your empathy trait will be required for this group, but don’t confuse that with indecisiveness. You need to quickly come to an agreement with people in this group. Do they want to and can they move into the first bucket or not? 

In most cases, people in this bucket will self-select their departure. If they don't and they show disinterest in being on the new bus you must help them out of the organization. You’ll need to have a very open, honest conversation about their place, and their career goals, and help them depart in the most elegant and helpful way possible. Your goal here is to help people be the best they can be whether that’s within your department or in a different role, department, or company. Be decisive and kind.


Bucket Three

The third bucket is the toughest. They are undeclared - they may show some signs of enthusiasm and commitment but they may also be hesitant and not fully committed or convinced. Their lack of commitment can be for a whole host of reasons. Maybe the organization has gone through change many times already, and they think, “Here's another person coming in, they're going to make a whole bunch of changes, and nothing's going to happen, so I'll wait them out.

It doesn’t matter the reason: when someone's not committed, their motivation level will not be at the level required to make a meaningful impact. 

How to Manage Bucket Three:

As a leader, you need a team who has the skill and drive to achieve outcomes toward the vision/destination of the company. This requires a fully committed team. Those who are not fully committed end up becoming what I would call energy drainers instead of energizers. This will become disruptive to the rest of the team. 

Similar to a sports team, you can have a very talented player, but if they don’t want to play for that particular team, their lack of interest will be evident in their play. They won't execute the plays the way the rest of the team does – they won't have that extra drive. 

As a leader, it is your job to secure buy-in, create excitement and help those on your team get to where they want to be and become successful. After all, their success is your success. If you’re going to be a good leader then you need to get behind this sentiment and figure out what drives each team member so you can help them drive toward successful outcomes both company-wise and career development-wise. 

You need to decide for each person in this bucket, can you get them to bucket 1? If you cannot, you need to recognize they are in bucket 2 and act accordingly (decisive and kind). 

How Can You Build a Strong, Unified Team? 

Once you have the right team members in the right seats, you will want to align the team toward the planned destination. This requires unification. Unity boils down to three elements: priorities, accountability, and communication.

1. Priorities

The first element to focus on is ensuring everyone knows what is important and why. It is just as important for your team to know what the priorities are as much as why (your purpose). Everyone is far more engaged and motivated when they know their work is meaningful and they have a purpose within the company. 

There are a number of leaders that I am a student of, two of which are Jim Collins and Simon Sinek. If you’ve listened to either of them, they talk about the difference between good & great. Great companies have a purpose that transcends the commercial reason for the company. It's the why – why are we here? What is the meaningful impact we're making on the market/community/world we're playing in? 

As a leader, you need to instill this in your team and constantly remind them that their work is more than ringing a cash register. They are making a meaningful impact on people's lives. Everyone must understand that what they do contributes to the company's ability to fulfill that purpose. 

2. Accountability

Nothing erodes a team faster than a lack of accountability. And, your team will often see who is not delivering on the outcomes they're accountable for before you do.  

Colleagues typically see it sooner because they're working with that person day-in-day-out, so you want to ensure an open accountability system is in place. Open accountability amongst peers helps to keep people aligned and accountable. Ensure you set clear metrics and quantified outcomes for the group and each individual and openly share the progress each is making. 

3. Communication

A predictable and regular cadence of communication helps with alignment (and accountability), ensuring that everybody knows where they're going and where they are on the journey. Team members should know what’s going right, as well as any blockers or barriers that are preventing them from going faster on the journey.  

There needs to be a place for open communication and a regular cadence so that people can anticipate it. These days meetings are on the unpopular list, but structured and purposeful meetings with a repeatable cadence provide both heightened communication and routine. The cadence I like is: 

  • Daily stand-ups that take no more than 15 minutes. Designed so each team member can update on what’s been done, what is being worked on and any blockers or barriers that need to be addressed.
  • Weekly meetings to update progress on SMART and critical metrics/numbers and address issues – through a root cause identification system (Identify, Discuss, Solve) – decide on resolutions and assign accountability.
  • Monthly meetings where a larger group of us get together for learning and development. This way we could hear not only what was happening in our groups but other groups as well.
  • Quarterly planning meetings that review the progress of the existing quarter toward the yearly plan and plot the OKRs (or whatever objective planning system you use) for the next quarter.
  • Annual planning meetings where we consider the progress and set new goals for the following year. 

This regular cadence of communication allows for a level of transparency and accountability that keeps everybody aligned.

If you can do these three things:

  • Give people meaning in their work
  • Help create an environment where people are holding each other accountable
  • And have a regular cadence of communication that keeps people aligned

By default, you will give the team a higher sense of unity.

Any Day One Advice?

The reality is you might be in a company of 100, 200, or even 1,000+ people, so it’s important to remember those people did not interview or hire you – only a few did. 

Your first day one job is to get elected, and it's not about popularity – it's about credibility. Make sure that the team you inherit and the team that surrounds your department (peers and colleagues) feel that you're the right person for that role.

Building your credibility is not about chest-thumping or telling people how great you are. It’s about delivering what you say you will deliver, so expectation setting is crucial.

How Can You Identify and Avoid New Leader Traps?

One of the biggest challenges in most organizations is when a Founder/CEO is hiring a leader for a role they are not familiar with or where there has never been a leader in place before. Sometimes this creates a gap between expectations and reality

As a leader, you must know your stuff, do your homework, and have thoughtful answers. From day one, you set deliverable expectations and ensure you deliver on those.

One trap new leadership hires can fall into is agreeing to expectations that are not realistic or deliverable. And once those goals are missed, your credibility is entirely shot. 

Any Last Advice?

Have thoughtful answers, listen, learn and understand things before making radical changes because radical changes require the rest of the organization to trust you. You don't want to blow up the good because you have this sense that everybody wants change. 

It's not about change; it's about the impact you will make on the organization and improving the delivery of the outcomes you need to deliver. If that requires change, then make it – if it doesn't, don't. 

Becoming a leader who can build and grow a unified team takes practice. We hope this article will help you create a solid foundation when stepping into your next leadership role.

Looking to start scaling your team? Check out our handy tips for decoding good vs. great resumes.