Five Leadership Lessons After Inheriting a Team

When we talk about leadership in sports and business, there’s usually an assumption that the leader gets to build their team. This isn’t always true. A lot of time, you’ll inherit a team.


Perhaps you’ve joined a company where the team is already built, or you are charged with leading a merger where you’re blendin0g teams. This is a pretty common scenario. Right now, for instance, there’s lots of merger activity in the fashion industry, and there could be more combinations between streaming platforms in the future, too. And when mergers do happen, leaders at those companies will have to work with teams they didn’t necessarily choose.


In sports, where recruiting and team building is a years-long effort, the requirement to lead a team you didn’t choose can be even more extreme. If you’re a new coach, it can be a long wait before you get to lead a team that you recruited and built from the foundation up.


So, how can leaders be effective with a team they have inherited? How do you lead when you’re still learning people’s talents, morale (due to change) may be low, and the existing team may be skeptical of you?


Here are five steps I encourage you to follow if you are in this situation:


1. Have a plan
When you inherit a team, you need to come in with a clear plan for how you will approach the work and the existing team and its development. To win, you’ll need to encourage and inspire the greatest use of the skills and talents your team possesses, which can be a challenge when you don’t know the team yet. Do your research ahead of time so that you understand what you’ll be looking for from day one. Then, carefully observe and learn how the team is currently operating. Talk to people. Get the story on how they think it’s going. Make sure that the people who already have high-level performance, productivity and resources, are recognized and rewarded early on and clearly.


2. Analyze your team
As you’re getting to know the team, use a rating system, such as an A, B, C ranking. A players are those you know immediately you want to keep. C players are those you know immediately that you don’t want. The B players are those people on the team whom you believe you can develop. Give them a pathway and recognize and reward progress and success. Ask individual team members what they think you need to know. If they share complaints and excuses about others, you’ll need to work on that with them. If they share actionable information and seek to bring you in and up to speed, keep those people close.


3. Look for collaborators
When you inherit a team, some players will step-up immediately to collaborate with you. Others may be resistant. They may be skeptical, still be attached to the previous leader, or holding some kind of long-simmering grudge. Make it clear that you value collaboration and then set clear standards for the behavior you want to see. Tell the team explicitly that if they are making progress, everyone will be recognized. If not, the team must be able to stop, analyze why they aren’t getting the job done, and create a solution to the problem. Make it clear that excuses will not be tolerated, and that you expect everyone to be treated with dignity and respect.


4. Hold naysayers accountable
Whenever you inherit a team, you’ll likely encounter naysayers and skeptics. If there are problems, make it known that you expect the team to turn it around. If those individuals still say that it can’t be done, ask for an explanation. If that explanation holds up and is a good analysis of the problem, push them to solve the problem. If it’s more of an excuse, point that out and emphasize that problem-solving will be rewarded, but excuses are not okay.


5. Eliminate problem players
In a culture of accountability and respect, some people may start out as naysayers and then turn it around. However, if the negative attitude persists, that’s not going to work. Let those people know that you’ve noticed they’re messing up and that it won’t be tolerated. Bad attitudes and excuses will infect the rest of the team and hold them back. If a member of the team can’t handle accountability and continues to make excuses and to blame others, then they are weakening the team. They have to be cut, even if they might have been a star player on paper. While the team may be put under pressure in the short term, as those problem players are replaced, overall performance will improve.


When I first started coaching football at Coastal Carolina University, I inherited a team that was in less than optimal shape. After analyzing the team and meeting with the assistant coaches, I spoke to the players as a group. I told them that all the reports I had been receiving were that they were screwing up — they didn’t have good attitudes, they were making mistakes on and off the field, and they weren’t taking responsibility for those mistakes. If that was bad information, they’d prove it to me with their actions. My plan was to evaluate them entirely on their individual merits.


I Power Seed – Reminds me of: the quote, “When there is doubt, there is no doubt”


I made it clear that we only wanted players who were going to take personal responsibility for their actions, treat others with dignity and respect, and not make excuses. If they could do that, they would play. If they couldn’t, they’d be off the team. Period.


That first season, we cut 14 players from the team. Even though that was hard in the short-term, the rest of the team started to recognize that they were going to be a better football team for it. We started winning – even a few games we weren’t favored to win. Then we won the conference, and everybody started to embrace the concept. We needed our players to live up to their potential.


I Power Seed – Learn more regarding how not holding team members acocuntable actually degrades the performance of your other team members. Accountability from 5 Dysfunctions of a Team


These principles — that teams must be accountable, take responsibility and treat others with dignity and respect — work in the boardroom, on the football field, and in every aspect of life. As a leader, you don’t always get to choose your team, but you can always set the expectations clearly, seek agreements, and exemplify the behavior you want to see in your own actions. The team will almost always improve with time if you stick to those principles.


I Power Seeds

Here are our takeaways and thoughts - pause and reflect, then nourish and grow!

Excellent article and applies in the business world. Many times we inherit a team and in my case it happens every time I start a new position. As a former football coach, we would “inherit” the players and it’s our job and responsibility to grow our team individually and together to attain our individual and collective goals (winning). The principles above are critical to the success of what you want to accomplish as a leader as well as developing, mentoring, and growing your team into highly engaged and performing team members.

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