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3 lessons learned from inheriting a new team

Inheriting a new team seems like it shouldn’t be difficult if you’ve ever worked with people before. You introduce yourself, spend time talking with everyone, change a few small things to make everyone’s jobs a bit easier, and make yourself available. Easy, right? That isn’t my story, but it is what I naively thought would happen when I began managing a second business in Austin, Texas.

Seeing as I already manage my family business, Casey’s New Orleans Snowballs, I thought managing a second, new team would be much the same. One of the selling points that led me to accept this new job was that there was experienced staff in place, including a good assistant manager. I wouldn’t have to spend time hiring and training a new team and could instead focus on my charter: to cut operational costs, locate potential avenues for growth, and execute.

What I didn’t know was multifold: the 11-person team was young, part-time, and had been burned by a string of general managers before me. Their experiences had been difficult and I’d have to rebuild their trust in management, all while also overseeing another business. You can probably guess—I failed at this. But here’s what I learned about taking on an established team.

How not to take over a team

It’s an awkward thing to walk into a room of people waiting to meet their new boss. I was greeted with smiles and answered some questions about myself, but people needed to get to know me and that would take time and effort. There wasn’t a culture of regular meetings and some of the staff only came in twice a week.

I made a point to tell everyone I met that I valued them, that they were integral to operations, and that I’d be leaning on them to learn about their store and how they operated. I was also candid about the fact that change begets change—and I’d understand if they decided to look for another job if this didn’t feel like a fit, just so long as they gave me notice and helped to transition their knowledge.

At first, I tried to spend time with people, but that’s where I made the first of two mistakes: I was working to build trust by working alongside servers until closing or scrubbing toilets. While that got me some credibility, it wasn’t an effort that everyone could see or appreciate.

My second mistake was not taking the lead from the beginning. I was focused on learning the ropes, and since I had another shop to keep humming, I relied on the senior staff to make decisions without verifying that they knew what to do. I was told they were capable—and they were—but they had not been managerless for long and weren’t used to making decisions without oversight. We had a few instances where a decision made in my absence generated chaos instead of eliminating it. That left us all feeling like we had to pick up the pieces.

3 lessons learned

1. Listening requires follow-through

I asked my assistant manager to set up an "all hands on deck" meeting during my second week on the job. At the meeting, we discussed what was going well and what could be improved. The balance weighed heavily on the latter.

Honestly, the negativity scared me. I needed the whole team, but it was clear that some people were fed up and only around for the paycheck. I worried about their investment and its impact on performance, and whether it could be recovered.

I promised to make meetings a regular occurrence, and that we’d begin finding ways to tackle some of the cons on the team’s list. But then I ended up feeling overwhelmed by the tasks at hand and didn’t follow through. It came across like I’d disregarded the team’s feedback and it made me undeserving of their respect. That’s bad management at any time, but really bad in a time of transition.

I promised to make meetings a regular occurrence, and that we'd begin finding ways to tackle some of the cons on the team's list. But then I didn't follow through. That's bad management at any time, but really bad in a time of transition.

It is appropriate to come in with a learner’s mindset, to ask probing questions about why things are done the way they are, and to talk to everyone as a group and one-on-one. But any feedback you receive needs to be promptly addressed and incorporated into your calendar, or delegated as necessary. —because you can’t ask others to keep their promises if you can’t also be held accountable. (Or, you can, but turnover will be nightmarish.)

2. Learn the existing culture

When you take on management of an existing team, you have to realize that they’ve already created a workplace culture. Sometimes that culture is a good one, but sometimes it’s toxic and you need to start rebuilding from the foundation.

The assistant manager I inherited had trained and seen two GMs come and go. She felt alone in managing and carrying the store. The senior staff didn’t feel authority or ownership in their jobs, and the newer hires had energy but were shut down by the senior folks. Everyone pointed fingers at everyone else instead of accepting responsibility and making improvements.

The assistant manager I inherited had trained and seen two GMs come and go. She felt alone in managing and carrying the store. The senior staff didn’t feel authority or ownership in their jobs, and the newer hires had energy but were shut down by the senior folks.

The existing culture was toxic. If you find any of those weeds in an inherited team, defeating or sabotaging the team’s sense of purpose or success, you have to be firm and address the issues and people directly. You may also do as I did, and reach out to your network for advice. "There are three levels of teamwork," my friend and mentor David Altounian told me. "Agree with the plan and execute, disagree with the plan and execute, or leave. There’s no sitting around making a stink."

When staff changes, culture changes, and whenever new management is introduced, attrition is always a risk. But new managers face a tough choice, too. I wanted to be a good manager—not a pushover unwilling to rock the boat, or someone too quick to make staff changes. I chose to take a few employees aside to say, "Now we do it this way." This gave me the chance to set expectations and them a chance to change their behavior. If they were resistant, then we’d have the "You have a job here until you find a new one" conversation. Mostly, the response was positive and we quickly moved on.

Make changes slowly so that they are meaningful, and set quantifiable goals that involve everyone. This helps prevent the team from being scared off and it also gives you the opportunity to create some easy wins. And, if the team sees you measuring progress towards the goal, you’re building accountability.

3. Send an ACK back

Running two stores, and two teams, had my head swimming. The flow of information and to-do lists meant I was playing catch up all day, every day. As messages came in, I read them and noted down what I needed to do. One day, my aforementioned mentor David sent me a message. I added it to my to do list and marked it as read. An hour later, I got another message from him that said: "Where’s your ACK back?" Meaning: acknowledgement that I received the information. I suddenly realized that I’d been leaving my teams in the dark—or, at least, feeling that way. I had to break my bad habit to correct this, but it was a catalyst for improving my communication style.

You need to let people know you hear them, but the reality might be that you can’t address everything right away. You may also need to triage feedback and delegate. In my case, I sometimes had to say, "Put that on the wall calendar. We’ll work on that next month." Or, "You and Jimmy can start on it tomorrow"—but, if you delegate, remember to verify that the job gets completed.

I suddenly realized that I’d been leaving my teams in the dark—or, at least, feeling that way.

Team chemistry is a living, breathing thing

A team never stops evolving or trying new things. As a manager, you’re leading the pack and shepherding the changes. I’ve mentioned David a few times already, and that’s because he’s the kind of person who dispenses tattoo-worthy wisdom: wise gems you want always visible. About success, he says: "The keys to success are organization and communication. It doesn’t matter how good an idea is or how smart a person is—if they can’t organize their ideas and communicate them, they’re going to struggle to be successful."

So I don’t have that tattooed anywhere, but I took it to heart and repeat it every morning when I wake up. The team I inherited was largely burnt out, and maybe I didn’t come along early enough to make a difference, but the lessons I learned along the way have steered me toward rebuilding and maintaining a healthy team. With any luck, the next time I inherit a team, I’ll get there much faster.

Mars Chapman graduated college and immediately went into semi-retirement. During the summer he operates Casey’s New Orleans Snowballs, his family’s shaved ice business. As soon as the cool weather descends upon Austin, Mars enters into the off-season. He travels the world, cooks and does the dishes for his partner Page Grossman, fosters kittens, and reads everything he can get his hands on about business management, personal finance, and entrepreneurship. On his quest to be a Renaissance person, he’s started sharing his knowledge through writing. He struggles with going to the gym and getting through his bottomless pile of reading.