Getting a New Leader on Board the Right Way

Change is the one constant we can depend on. Unfortunately, this means that even good situations – such as having a team leader who’s effective and respected – won’t last forever. In some industries such as information technology it’s not unusual for project teams to experience some kind of restructuring every 2-3 months. Team mandates, decision-making capacity, and leadership are all subject to change, regardless of team performance.

Nonetheless, new team leaders can harm morale and drag down a high performing team if they aren’t integrated properly. Taking the time upfront to establish rapport and understanding on both sides can help maintain team effectiveness and remedy potential conflicts before misunderstandings ensue.

One method for expediting understanding is through purposefully integrating a new leader. This process involves educating the new team leader on your team’s needs and also ensuring your team is willing to listen and respond to the new leader’s needs.

I recently facilitated this process with an HR group whose leader was being replaced. The original leader was leaving a legacy of dysfunctional management marked by micromanaging, confrontational behavior and poor productivity. Upper management realized that some kind of venting session would be required with the team and the new leader so that the sins of the past would not be recreated. The difficulty rested in designing a session that would clear the air for team members but not turn off the new team leader.

New Leader Integration Meeting Process

This process has been adapted from the book ‘Facilitating with Ease!‘ written by Ingrid Bens. This process occurs in three stages, with the last stage requiring facilitation by an internal or external facilitator. This will ensure that someone is available to manage the structure of the meeting and any resistances or emotions that may potentially hinder the success of the final stage and the integration process itself.

Stage 1: The Team Defines Its Needs and Offers

During this stage the team strives to clarify its mandate and profile without the new leader being present. This profile will be given to the new leader in advance of a joint session (Stage 3). If the current team leader is well-liked and respected, I would encourage you to have him/her present at this meeting to define details that are important from a team leader perspective. The notes resulting from this discussion should be recorded and typed for distribution to all members. Parameters discussed should always include ‘what we need’ and ‘what we’re willing to offer.’ Some suggested questions could include, but are not limited to:

  • Who are we? (Our purpose, products/services, staff/skills)
  • What are we most proud of?
  • What are we doing very well at this time?
  • Why are we doing so well in this area?
  • What aren’t we doing that well? Why not?
  • What are we doing to improve?
  • What’s ahead for us in six months, one year, three years?
  • Under what leadership style do we work best? Why?
  • How empowered have we been/should we be? For which activities?
  • Based on the above, what do we need from our new leader to continue fulfilling our mandate?
  • What are we offering our new leader so that he will feel part of this team?

Stage 2: The Team Leader Defines His/Her Needs and Offers

Having received the group’s profile, the new leader is asked to prepare one along the same lines. The leader is asked to be ready to discuss what is needed from the group and what he/she’s prepared to offer.

Stage 3: Team and Team Leader Meet to Share and Ratify Needs and Offers (2.5 – 3.0 hours)

My experience of this stage is that members sometimes enter this meeting with concerns that the new leader will feel ganged up on. The team leader on the other hand may feel a need to control the group and begin demonstrating his/her management skills. In order to avoid these pitfalls, the first step of this session is set ‘safety norms’ followed by the members’ and then the leader’s presentations. Following the presentations, both parties plan for the actions that result from the discussion. Below I have captured my step-by-step notes for running this process:

Activity Process Notes
Welcome and Agenda Overview (10 minutes) At the meeting the facilitator reviews the steps of the process as identified below.

The process does not commence until everyone ratifies (‘can live with’) the process. The facilitator will need to modify the process wherever any resistances are stated without diluting the power of this process.

Determining Norms for the Meeting (20 minutes) Overview the importance of setting ‘safety norms.’ The facilitator asks the group: What rules of interaction do we need to put into place to ensure that we all feel safe in disclosing our ‘needs’ and ‘offers’ without the other party feeling like we’re sabotaging them?

Flipchart all responses. The facilitator will use these rules to monitor the interpersonal climate throughout the meeting.

Team Members Presentation (60 minutes) Members are given the opportunity of speaking first, to share their profile, needs and offers.

The leader is asked to listen and ask clarifying questions only.

Leader Presentation
(30 minutes)
The leader is given the opportunity of presenting his/her profile, including leadership style, wants and offers, etc.

Members are asked to listen and ask questions only for clarification purposes.

Discussions and negotiations (30 – 60 minutes) Once both parties have heard each other, the facilitator manages a discussion of any of the points where there appear to be differences or require further exploration.

If any item needs an action plan, the facilitator can help the group identify its next steps.

Adjourn Have a coffee break or meal planned to encourage social mixing and informal discussion.

A group’s ability to overcome its barriers with a new leader coming on board is threefold. First, the group must openly discuss what those barriers are. Second, the group must plan to reduce those barriers. Third, and most importantly, the group must ensure follow through of those plans.

In my experience the first two steps are typically done well. It’s the third stage, negotiation, which often proves to be difficult. Each side must be willing to compromise and let go of their sacred cows in order to move forward.

Be prepared as a team with a new team leader to also discuss your concerns about either party not following through on plans. Build in contingencies (i.e. which of our needs might fall through or prove to be unrealistic?) Finally, be prepared to come up with some form of monitoring plan and stick to it!