Leadership Series: Taking on a New Team
This time we’re starting an occasional series on leadership lessons learned. Today’s story is for everyone, but especially new leaders or outsiders taking on leadership of a new team. The names have been changed.
In a surprise move, I was asked to take over a large Systems Engineering team. The outgoing manager (John) was excellent and had nearly as many years with Lockheed (25) as I had on Earth (26). That fact alone intimidated me. Add in that the whole team was highly respected SMEs and I was confused how I ever even got picked to lead these folks.
About three weeks into the job, during a staff meeting, one of the technical leads (Chris) spoke up against one of my initiatives. I had been waiting for this rebellion. They didn’t believe in some kid and were waiting to put me in my place. They certainly owed me no loyalty. Heck some of them wanted the job. I needed to stop this insurgency cold. For effect, I spun into the ceiling. In short and direct terms, Chris understood quickly how I felt about his commentary.
Glaring down the table, I waited for Chris’ comeback. Instead he sunk into his seat. Victory! Then I watched his team sink and withdraw too. My blood was still boiling, but I could see I handled it wrong. That night I laid the scene out to my wife.
“I just crushed one of the top guys publicly. I didn't need to. The team likes him. I may have just lost them all.”
“So you have decided that they think you aren’t qualified? Or worse, some are angry you got the job?”
“Yeah. I wasn’t John’s choice. They have loyalty to him. They are used to someone who can do every job there.”
“Sounds like the problem is with you, not them.”
“Wait, what?” I was pretty sure Amanda didn’t understand the story. Maybe I should tell it again?
“Why don’t you stop assuming they think you can’t lead and start assuming they are impressed a young guy got the job. Maybe they think- this guy must be amazing to win out over so many known engineers. . . . How differently would you act if you assumed the best?”
It played well with her unofficial motto- No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
My head exploded. Maybe it is me??? I clearly acted like some insecure child. Every day I was choosing to expect the worst. Ok, ok- they are impressed, let’s try that. EVERYTHING CHANGED. Turns out, Chris was one of the most open employees I have ever had. It certainly helped that I publicly apologized.
That rebellion I was waiting for . . . Yeah, that was in my head. Interestingly, if I had kept my paranoia up, it’s clear they would have rebelled. I was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create the environment around them. I was creating a toxic one.
Since then, I’ve always gone in assuming the team is excited to have me. It’s continuously worked out, even when they were actually against me. In a later job, I had a guy publicly point at me and shout, “You didn’t deserve this job. You shouldn’t even be here.” No joke. He was an angry fella.
Still, 95% of people have been neutral or excited. If you want to draw out the best from the majority, assume the best from them. The other 5%? They show themselves eventually, usually after the team is fully on board with you. They see you succeeding and their hope of failure starts slipping away. At that point, they lash out in some weird way (like pointing and shouting). How you treat them after that episode will really show the leader you are, just be secure in yourself and you’ll make the right call.
Years later, my wife had the poster below made and hung it downstairs. It’s a reminder to me and my girls that how we feel is controlled by us. In each job, your attitude will become your team’s. You control it totally so just carefully manage yourself and assume the best.
For further reading- If you have any doubts, read the first ~100 pages of Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Fair warning: while a quick read, the subject is heavy. It changed my view of life, not just leadership. If he stayed positive under those circumstances, we all certainly can.
If you are in this situation or just want to talk career - contact us. We are happy to give you our thoughts privately.
We will do another in the Coffee shop questions series soon so keep the questions coming (firstname.lastname@example.org).