David Wray

AdaptingChangeCommunicationLeadershipSkills

Starting on the Right Foot as a New Team Leader

Becoming the new team leader

You are hired (or recently promoted) as the new team leader. You are full of nervous excitement. The anticipation of what the future holds is exhilarating. Yet, you are slightly anxious about fitting in and being accepted by the team. This feeling is absolutely normal and manageable with a good plan. You may wonder: can I not just do it and adapt as I go along? In short, of course you can, however the journey may be bumpier than it needs to be. I say this because the whole idea behind a plan is to learn from the mistakes of those before you. 

What approaches work well in new team formations?

A popular approach developed in 1965 by Bruce Tuckman remains relevant. The Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing (with Adjourning added in 1977) model. His model allows us to better understand the stages of team formation. From that understanding, we can improve the experience for everyone. Let me illustrate: imagine your new team is in full on conflict. You know from the Tuckman’s research that the team is simply storming. What are a couple of things that you can do? 

  1. You can support the team with better communication by, for example, teaching conflict management skills. It is truly amazing how many issues are caused by poor communication!
  2. Honestly, let them storm for a while and try to work it out for themselves. Doing so will lead to much better outcomes than interfering as a leader.
  3. Spend more 1-1 time with each member, because it is an outlet for more open communication.

The curve below demonstrates the team formation lifecycle. Notice that it is almost identical with the change curve. Unsurprisingly as team formation is absolutely about change.

Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning Curve

Adapting as you go

The name of game in team formation is getting it to a performing phase as quickly and painlessly as possible. There are several strategies to set yourself on the right path from the moment you meet everyone. Let’s take a look at them:

  • Get to know each other: using icebreaking exercises is quite common.  HBR outlined an innovative approach to help build team connections faster. The whole idea is helping the team get to know you and each other better. 
  • Show the team what you stand for: share the values and behaviours that matter to you. Walk those values in everything you do. For example, stand up for individuals by being the outside face for mistakes that happen within the team.
  • Explain how you want the team to work: create a roadmap to define team values, behaviours and cultural boundaries. You want everybody to know how to work together. It is critical that the team live by the stated values rather than just going through the motions of the exercise. In other words, walk the talk. Equally, promotions occur though behaviours that align to the rules of the road.
  • Set or clarify goals: create a clear plan defining the goals and measures throughout a given period. Create a simple shared scoreboard that enables team members to self-assess their decisions and performance against expectations. 
  • Adopt an open-door policy: for every team member, no exceptions. The purpose of open-door is encouraging open communication, feedback, and discussion about any matter of importance to the individual.
  • Score an “early win”: commonly termed picking low-hanging fruit. For example, identify problems that can be solved within a reasonable period of time. And ones that have solutions producing real operational improvements. 

Transitioning to leadership or assuming leadership of a new team is something many experience at some point in their career. Learning to do it well, therefore, becomes an important professional skill. 

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