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Inheriting a New Team

When your team expands suddenly, here are ways to cope with the change.

HR Magazine, December 2006

Whether it’s due to a merger or acquisition or a simple departmental reorganization to improve efficiencies, managers sometimes face the prospect of inheriting a group of direct reports overnight. The scenario presents challenges. First, you are integrating more than one person into your team all at once. Second, you are inheriting a group that may be used to a totally different style of managing.

These scenarios are all-too-common in the fast-paced, challenging world of corporate America today. And steering through these rapids need not be all that perilous if you keep a few critical rules in mind.

You will have to answer several delicate questions: Did the prior management team make promises of raises and promotions? Are you bound by those commitments, and, if not, how do you reset expectations? How do you appraise these nice folks when it’s performance appraisal time and you’ve only been supervising them for a few months? And, what about inheriting an employee who is known to be a troublemaker or who comes over to your group on final written warning status?

The upside is that having a larger staff could provide extra “hands on deck” to keep the work flowing more smoothly in your area. Of course, the bigger your staff, the greater your resume value tends to be. And don’t forget the career development advantages of showing how you’ve led dynamic teams through change in a post-merger or integration type of environment.

Integrating Newcomers

“When you get the news that a new team is being reassigned to your unit, don’t panic—just do your homework,” advises Mary Whitcomb, senior vice president of talent solutions and executive coach in the Manhattan office of Lee Hecht Harrison. “You may not be given the choice to say no, so think strategically about the move’s benefits and plan proactively for its challenges.”

That all starts by doing your due diligence up front and gathering the necessary data to determine the group’s level of productivity and its style of working. “We like to call this cultural integration because it’s all about protecting and preserving the culture that you’ve created with your original group while welcoming the positive aspects of the new group’s style,” says Whitcomb. “The catch, of course, lies in selecting those positive aspects while minimizing or eliminating any negative ones.”

Your first step in answering these questions is to interview the prior management team, if it’s still available. Ask questions that focus on the team’s overall strengths, achievements, cohesiveness and areas for development. Keeping in mind that personalities play a part in team cohesiveness and some of this judgment may be subjective, you might find it useful to include questions such as:

  • If you had to rehire any one of these individuals, who would be the first person you would call and why?
  • Who shows the most potential from a succession planning standpoint in terms of career progression?
  • Who tends to be the “highest need” or “highest maintenance” person in the group?
  • Are there any individuals who you’d advise me to be careful with or pay special attention to?
  • Are there any special circumstances with any of these individuals that I should be aware of?

Once that initial picture is painted for you verbally, it’s time to review the paper trail for each individual involved in this crossover process. Review each individual’s resume, which may be relatively recent or may be many years old.

“Even if you can only access the original resume that the individual used to join the company a decade ago, it could still provide some important insights into the individual’s way of looking at business,” says Whitcomb.

Reviewing a resume, even if outdated, shows career introspection in terms of compartmentalizing information, distinguishing features from benefits and presenting achievements on a problem-to- solution level. Look for the following to help determine the employee’s mind-set:

  • Does the resume simply demonstrate straightforward, factual job responsibilities (e.g., typing, phones, filing), or does it structure itself around achievements and accomplishments, especially those linked to increased revenues, reduced costs or saved time?
  • Does the individual quantify results by quoting dollar amounts and percentages, or are job responsibilities more of a “cut and paste” narrative style?
  • How much commitment does the individual show toward education, certification and professional networking?

Next, it’s on to each individual’s personnel file, with a special eye on performance evaluations and written warnings, if available. Advises Whitcomb, “Performance evaluations are the sweet spot of the pre-integration process since they, more than anything else, can reveal clear documentation about an individual’s performance, career progression potential and areas for development. If performance appraisal is done correctly in the organization, those appraisals become an invaluable tool in picking up where the former management team left off.”

Speaking of Appraisals

What happens if the transition to your new team occurs just before the annual performance appraisal is due? Performance appraisals are always challenging, but they become doubly difficult if you haven’t had enough time to really evaluate the individual’s performance.

You may not be given the option of passing on this exercise by simply marking “too new to rate” on the appraisal template, so feel free to speak with prior supervisors within your company and find out how they would have rated the individual. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon to split a review between two supervisors who happened to oversee an individual’s work throughout the same appraisal period.

For example, if you will have supervised a group of newly inherited employees for two months of a 12-month evaluation period, invite the prior supervisor to conduct the appraisal with you. Simply add narrative notes under both your names outlining your respective roles and time frames and explain to the individual that the numerical score that you came up with reflects both supervisors’ opinions.

“Of course, that’s all well and good unless the individual feels that his prior supervisor unfairly disliked him,” cautions Whitcomb. “If the individual expresses that concern, explain that this shared review process is common within your company and that all individuals in the group are being handled the same way. Of course, you’ll be open to reinventing your relationship with this individual over time and will keep an open mind to his needs in the upcoming year.”

The Challenge of Differing Management Styles

Assuming you’ve done your homework in conducting post-mortem interviews with prior supervisors and in reviewing resumes and performance appraisals, then the fun (and hard) part begins.

How do you integrate different work styles? For example, if your group enjoys open communication, an environment where their suggestions and recommendations are heard, and an overall culture of empowerment and shared decision-making, how do you adopt a group that is used to “doing what it’s told”?

If you’re used to eliciting feedback and suggestions from your team and enjoy a healthy sense of camaraderie, how do you integrate workers who lack trust in management and place doubt in even your most benevolent intentions?

Well, fear not. There’s light at the end of this tunnel, too. You can’t expect everyone to take to your management style right away. First of all, everyone will be worried about their jobs, and people will be walking on eggshells waiting to see what you’re like and how you like to get things done. Just remember that it may have taken a long while to get them to the point where they are now—it may take almost as long to get them to a new way of thinking.

“Your surest bet will be to set your expectations to clearly err on the side of over-communicating,” advises Whitcomb. “New relationships like this often require more support, structure, direction and feedback. Once things are clearly coming together and you’re comfortable with your newly merged team’s interaction and productivity, then you could step back and take a more laissez-faire, hands-off approach to managing them.”

Inheriting Disciplinary And Other Challenges

“My boss promised me a 10 percent merit raise next year. Is that still on?” “I’ve been told I’ll be promoted on my anniversary, which happens to be next month. What would you like my new title to be?” “Yes, it’s true that I’m on final written warning for what my boss called substandard job performance, but she just didn’t like me.”

These individual challenges could often take up more of your time and cause you more angst than the whole cultural integration process of merging your new and old teams together.

When one employee is a squeaky wheel, dedicate your time to hearing the individual’s side of the story and tending to her needs, but promise nothing until you’ve had a chance to research the situation thoroughly and through as many sources as possible.

What prior management promised in terms of promotions and large salary increases may in fact hold true because it’s documented and because your human resource and finance departments have given final approval.

More often than not, though, you will find that such claims are based on assumptions on the employee’s part, so be sure to temper their ambitions while you look into the matter further. Unfortunately, you may have the unpleasant chore of communicating to your new employee that former management, HR and finance do not agree that this was a “done deal,” so the huge merit increase and/or promotion won’t be happening this go-round.

In cases like this, let the individual know exactly who you spoke with, what they said and why there may have been confusion. Confirm that all parties are in agreement with the decision, and invite the employee to speak directly with those individuals himself if he so chooses. Just remember that you weren’t part of that decision; you’re simply communicating what was communicated to you, and you’ll be open to evaluating the situation with a fresh set of eyes going forward.

Sometimes, though, it will be more than hurt feelings or disappointment that you will be inheriting. Candidates who transfer to your group on final written warning for substandard job performance, attendance or inappropriate workplace conduct may cause specific challenges.

“When that’s the case, make copies of the written and final written warnings, share them with the employee up front in a private meeting, and talk about them openly,” advises Whitcomb. “In most cases, it’s best to get things like that out in the open and to discuss them rationally, adult to adult.”

There are typically two sides to every story, and the validity of the documents isn’t in question: As far as you’re concerned, they’re valid because they are in the employee’s file with the employee’s signature (and possibly rebuttal).

What you want to look for now is how the individual responds to those warnings: If she is very defensive and quick to blame others, you may have someone who suffers from “victim syndrome” and who fails to take responsibility for her own actions.

In comparison, if she readily admits that she has made mistakes, assumes responsibility for them and is committed to avoiding those mistakes in the future, you’re halfway there. That’s because people who readily admit that they were the cause of a perception problem—even if they don’t agree with the facts—demonstrate a high level of business maturity and are much more prone to seeing the bigger picture and not repeating past mistakes.

Look on the Bright Side

These can be challenging scenarios that are sometimes forced on you, especially if you like your current team and don’t want the added responsibility of integrating others into the close-knit environment that you’ve worked so hard to cultivate.

But don’t underestimate the value of this opportunity that lies before you. You will rarely be given such a chance to shine from a leadership development standpoint, your resume will have a nice new juicy bullet point to discuss for years to come, and you may just find that today’s most sought after attribute—the ability to lead others through transition and demonstrate key leadership skills in a changing business environment—is a hidden strength that you can apply in any workplace situation that comes your way.

Paul Falcone is a human resource executive and a best-selling author of five AMACOM books, including 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews, The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, and 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination.


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