How to Step In to Lead a New Group

Try this process to grow trust and gain performance.

People do make a difference. Or, more specifically, the right blend of the right people, coupled with the right leadership makes the difference. If you’re an executive or top manager staring at a new group you’ve been assigned to lead and concluding you’ve got a lineup that looks destined for last place, it’s time to take action. Of course, most of those actions involve the person staring back at you in the mirror.

The mid-’70’s Bad News Bears movie (and it’s 2005 remake) is an apt descriptor for how many newly appointed managers feel about or perceive their groups. They are brought in to turnaround a measurably under-performing group. They show up, look around and see a Bad News Bears group of under-performers. Their instinct is to overhaul the team immediately. This instinct is often wrong.

What they don’t know at this point is whether there’s ample latent talent waiting for an opportunity to perform, or, whether the group needs to be dismantled and reassembled with new players.

This early-awkward period is characterized by fear and a pervasive sense of mistrust. Group members don’t trust the new leader, and either directly or inadvertently, the new leader telegraphs through words and actions they don’t trust the group.

This doom loop of mistrust and fear often manifests in radical, costly, and culture damaging overhauls that further erode morale and trust. However, there’s another way. There’s a process you can apply to accelerate time-to-trust and shift the environment from one of fear to focus and excitement.

Pumping In Fresh Air and Pushing Out Fear

Regardless of the advance press on you, there’s only one thing on everyone’s mind: What does this mean for me? For many, the assumption is they won’t have a job soon.

There’s an escalated sense of fear in the air across the group, and fear drives aberrant behaviors. It’s imperative to tackle this issue head on and begin to pump in some oxygen while pushing out the bad air. Engaging and involving the individuals and group as soon as possible is essential to assuaging fears and gaining involvement.

The 3Ws Process for New Group Situations

After the initial introductions are over, I prefer to cut through the early-awkward phase by meeting with everyone individually and then putting the group to work based on the findings.

I share with everyone that I will be meeting with them in a one-on-one session during the initial few weeks, and I pre-publish the agenda and its three questions:

  1. What’s working?
  2. What’s not?
  3. What do you need me to do to help you succeed?

During the sessions, I shut up, take copious notes, and ask questions.

Inevitably some quick fixes emerge, such as, “I can’t do my job with this old computer,” or, “I don’t have the data I need to make these decisions.” It’s your job to fix these immediately.

The discussions themselves are fascinating. I always promise confidentiality, with one caveat: I indicate that I will roll up the key themes from the one-on-one meetings and bring them back to the group to discuss, prioritize, and act upon.

Whether the group is six or 60, I keep my commitment to meet with each individual in a one-on-one setting, and I continuously remind myself to shut-up and listen fiercely. There’s something incredibly powerful about the respect listening pays to the individuals, and frankly, they know the problems and have ideas on the solutions—it’s my duty to learn from them.

Armed with ample input, I roll up the key themes and bring them back to the group.

Here’s the twist: I ask the group to prioritize and projectize the top two or three initiatives. I commit to my role as sponsor, responsible for providing the resources, support, and as needed, organizational blocking essential for them to succeed.

The Output of This Process is Priceless

In short order, this group of individuals moves from a situation of fear driven by uncertainty to one of being respected, trusted, and engaged. While they may still be making up their minds about the new leader, the opportunity and empowerment to work on the problem areas is the driving force in the short term. Your work supporting their efforts strengthens your credibility and allows trust to emerge at a rapid pace.

While I love the immediate engagement and improvement identification (and work), I genuinely value, as the new leader, the opportunity to observe the individuals in action. Since one of the new leader’s primary issues is to assess talent, this process provides ample opportunities to evaluate skills and abilities across the group objectively.

The bottom line for now: That point in time when you step into leading a new group of individuals is filled with tension and drama. A process of engaging and involving the individuals in identifying and improving in areas they perceive as troublesome or limiting is an excellent way to jump-start performance while supporting your need to assess talent. You’ll likely make changes to the team structure, composition, and processes over time, but for a while, you’ve got to win with the Bad News Bears group. And, they might just now be as Bad News as you had suspected.