Of the various articles I’ve written for my website, this one is quite unique as it’s the product of a writing collaboration between myself and Col. Chris R. Stricklin. At the time we were writing this piece, Chris was stationed at Kabul, Afghanistan as the Chief of Staff/Chief Operating Officer for the NATO Air Training Command.
In addition to the unique experience of shaping and discussing the various points we wanted to share in this piece, it was wonderful to see how quickly we discovered both the common ground we share, along with the commonality found in our individual experiences regarding the challenges we’ve faced and seen in how we can help to bring out the best in those around us – even from a half a world away.
I hope you’ll enjoy the combined insights Chris and I bring to this piece on how we can effectively take over the reins of an established team and help them to continue to achieve success in attaining the shared purpose that defines why we do what we do.
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The house is perfect. Yard meticulously manicured, walls freshly painted, window treatments perfectly hung…it is as you dreamed…just as you move out. For those who move often, it is a commonly understood idiom the house is always the way we want it just before we move out.
As a leader, the same goes for developing a team. You develop those who follow to be intrinsically motivated toward the success of your mission and you meticulously handpick the different levels of leaders below you to execute your vision.
When it is finally running like a well-oiled machine, corporate promotes you to the next level of challenge. What about your successor? People think that assuming a leadership position over a poorly performing organization is the biggest challenge you could face, but the truth is… becoming the leader of a tight team is a larger challenge.
Follow these five simple ground rules and your new leadership challenge will be off to a great start.
1. Clarify expectations
Naturally, one of the first things we do when taking on a new leadership role is undertake various initiatives to help us get a good idea of ‘the lay of the land’. Specifically, we look to understand what are some the current challenges the team or organization faces, where they have been successful in the past, and what are some of the strengths your various team mates bring to your collective efforts.
Of course, while you should be making efforts to develop a better understanding of the people you now have the responsibility to lead, it’s important you also realize that you are a larger unknown to your teammates than they are to you.
So while we busy ourselves at the start with communicating what our vision is and what are some of the objectives we’d like to achieve, your team mates will be watching your every action and word in order to understand not only what matters to you, but where you’re placing the majority of your focus and attention.
This is why we see so much being written and discussed about the importance of communication in leadership – not just in the sense of how often we share information with our team mates, but also in providing clarity to those we lead about what we want them to accomplish, and especially about what resources and support we’ll be providing them to ensure their collective success.
That’s why it’s vital that upon taking on the responsibility to guide an established team, you be open and honest not only about what you expect from your team mates, but also what your team should expect from you – of what you’re willing and capable to offer to help them to be successful in their collective efforts.
This will not only settle some of their anxiety over the changes you will bring, but it will also establish a mark by which future feedback can be based.
2. Honour the journey taken
When we take on the job to lead an established team or organization, whether as the new chairman for the school’s Governing Board or the new commander of a military combat unit, it’s natural for us to want to dive in and start making changes to help improve and build upon past successes.
While it is important for us to clarify what we hope to achieve over the next couple of months and years, we also have to make efforts to honour the shared history and experiences of those under our care. We have to make sure that our measures never diminish the efforts of those before you, efforts which have brought the organization to where it is today.
We have to demonstrate that our intention is not simply to wipe the slate clean and begin anew. Rather, we need to show that we value the past experiences of those under our care in helping to inform and guide the decisions we’ll make going forward.
In this vein, we also need to ensure that those we lead understand that we don’t view past failures as a sign of weakness, but instead as opportunities for us to learn about potential oversights and hidden gaps in our collective understanding.
While the new direction you establish for your team may be the result of new challenges, new goals, and/or new desires, it’s critical that you never act as if you are there to save the team from themselves. An effective leader must continually build personal pride and ownership in your shared purpose; that we demonstrate our intention to build on the team your predecessor established so as to refine our collective efforts.
3. Focus on the foundations
Naturally, at the start of leading an established team or organization, there is both the expectation and the desire to create conditions that will serve to define our leadership and what we want our organization to achieve under our direction.
Whether or not our new teammates welcome this change in direction and leadership style, the simple truth is that it’s in our nature to fear the unknown. Even if the change we bring about will help our organization achieve greater successes, there will be trepidation among those we lead as to how these changes will impact the things that matter most to them, and which serve to define their sense of purpose and ability to contribute meaningfully to your organization.
The best method to overcome the fear of change is to establish a firm basis in the foundations on which the organization is built. Reiterate your dedication to the principles, morals or founding desires for the team. Basing your changes on these established foundations will allow common ground for all to base this new relationship.
In addition, as you move forward with developing your style and plan, remind the team members their shared purpose hasn’t changed; that why we do what we do shouldn’t be impacted by the differences in the approach we take, and how and what we communicate.
The foundation of success for any team, effort, movement or change is shared purpose. That’s why an effective leader continually builds a sense of personal pride and ownership in the collective efforts of those under their care.
4. Value others for capability not position
Looking ahead, it’s important to consistently seek out the insights of those you serve; that you view them beyond the roles and responsibilities levied by their position titles to ensure that you treat them as full participants in the shared purpose of your organization.
Just as leadership is not just a title, do not utilize your team members for the simple title on their position. They have, hopefully, poured their heart and soul into developing the team and organization before you arrived…and your task is to further develop this intrinsic motivation.
As a new leader to the organization, let them know how much you appreciate their input in multiple areas across the enterprise and not just in their unique task. This will develop a true sense of personal pride in the mission and take your followers to new heights they never thought possible.
5. Don’t enter with all the answers
When we accept the challenge of leading an established team, another natural inclination which should be addressed is our perceived need to prove to those under our care that we have the chops to lead them going forward. In most cases, we try to prove this by demonstrating our capability to provide answers to whatever issues or challenges that stand before us.
The reality though, is that if we want to truly help our organization to succeed, we need to recognize that our focus shouldn’t be on trying to develop all the answers on our own.
Rather, our efforts should be directed towards helping our team to discover the answers that will help us to move forward. This not only capitalizes on their corporate historical knowledge, but it also intrinsically motivates and incorporates each of them into the solution.
In practical terms, what this requires is our being mindful in how we approach those daily interactions with our team. We must continually remember to maintain an open mind so that we can learn and discover from those around us what possible answers and opportunities we have going forward.
To do so requires that we be honest with ourselves that we don’t have all the answers, and that we have to rely on those we lead to help fill in the gaps in our understanding of the realities our organization faces. Such an approach will not be perceived as a weakness of knowledge, but as a strength of leadership.
In examining the role of leadership in today’s organizations, there’s no question that the job has become harder as we move away from technological, process-driven differentiators of the Industrial Age to the more people-focused differentiators of this current century.
Through sharing our experiences and insights as part of the process of writing this piece, we realized that whether you work in the business field, the military, or the public sector, we all face the common reality of having to operate with less people, less resources, and less time, while having to meet higher expectations for what we can accomplish.
No where is the challenge more apparent than in those moments when we take over the reins of an established team or organization, which is why these five ground rules are critical for us to follow if we are to ensure success in achieving the shared purpose that defines our organization. Your first goal in taking over an established team is to keep the fire burning toward success.
This article originally appeared on GeneralLeadership.com, the website for “The General Leadership Foundation”, an organization that works to connect business and military leaders together so that they can learn and share their insights on how we can become more effective leaders for those under our care.