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You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks: Tips on Taking Over a New Department

Many of us consider ourselves experts at whatever we do every day, all day. It’s easy to get complacent and forget that while you may be the go-to expert in your company when it comes to Thing 1, there may be a time when you have to learn how to do Thing 2. When that happens, here’s what to do:

Sometimes a department has been around for a while and needs new direction and leadership. If you have a previous track record of organizing departments, you may be tapped to do so again. But then, it’s not always easy to come in, learn new processes, make mistakes and then develop your peers into better employees, but that’s part of the job.


Make an entrance.

You must smoothly transition your way into the team. Managers in organizations with highly effective communication and change management practices are 11 times more likely to listen carefully to different points of view. While change is important, you don’t want to come in guns-a-blazing making unnecessary changes, but instead learn from the people in the department. Take the time to ask your new colleagues what’s working and what isn’t. Conduct learning interviews in your first couple of weeks to find out more about the team dynamics.


While change is important, you don’t want to come in guns-a-blazing making unnecessary changes. Click To Tweet


Advocate for your new team.

Report what is currently happening in the department and get colleague feedback on a plan to fix it. Ask which timelines are genuinely doable and which are a little unrealistic. This shows you are willing to admit that you have some learning to do and builds trust in your leadership skills. If you start making changes too quickly or incorrectly, you’ll alienate your team, lose their respect and reduce their strength. This will only make any shifts that are absolutely necessary, even more difficult.

The following tips will help you through the transitional period and create a bond with your team that they wished they had always had:


Step 1 – Prepare yourself:

Do your research. Find out as much as you can about the department or team that you are taking over. This information will give you a pulse on how things are running and give you a general understanding of what to expect. It would be best to start this before the change happens so you can speak with other members on the team to see what they see as the issues.

Some great questions to ask are:

  • What’s the most challenging part of this department?
  • If you could choose 1 top area of improvement, what would it be?
  • What are the goals of this team?

Getting more than just one person’s response is key. You want to get a general idea of how this department is working. Take your answers and compare them to information about the specific industry and/or vertical that you can find online. Are the timelines off within your new department? Are they using best practices in line with other companies that are similar? Use this tertiary information to help you start setting goals you can then share with your new team when you begin building plans for the entire department.


Step 2 – Tread lightly:

According to a recent study by the Center for Creative Leadership, nearly 40% of new chief executives fail outright within their first 18 months on the job, and even more of them fail to live up to the expectations of those who hired them. Many new leaders use their first few days to mark their territory. Nothing could be a worse idea. Unless you’re in a Hollywood romantic comedy, you don’t need to “teach a lesson” on your first day or week, or…hopefully ever. When you first take over realize that all eyes are on you. You will be studied carefully and this could lead to backlash from envious colleagues, frustrated new co-workers and even interference from HR. Project confidence and always treat everyone fairly and honestly, even when it’s difficult.


Nearly 40% of new chief executives fail outright within their first 18 months on the job. Click To Tweet


Step 3 – Work on your communication skills:

Speak with your employees as soon as possible. 64% of high performers communicate strategy and business benefit more frequently. Make sure you are easily reached and let them know they are welcome to approach you about anything. Even if the department is doing well you should make sure they know you are present. If you just keep quiet there will be questions asked.

Spend time with each employee to get familiar with their personalities and to get a better understanding on how they contribute to the team. Make these meetings short and sweet. It’s critical that the team gets begins establishing a personal relationship with you in order to build trust and credibility. Employees get anxious about a new manager and without face-time this is only heightened.

Here are a few questions:

  • What would make your work more meaningful and satisfying?
  • What is it that keeps you from seeking other employment?
  • What changes need to be made in your work environment?
  • How do you like to be recognized, acknowledged and rewarded for a job well done?
  • How do you learn best?

Whether you’re a new manager or not, you’ve got a lot to learn when taking over an existing team. Don’t be afraid to admit it.  As a leader, you need to show strength, but you’re still human and showing that to your employees will get you farther than attempting to show you know it all. Asking your employees for help will only build your credibility with them.


As a leader, you need to show strength, but you’re still human and showing that will get you farther with employees. Click To Tweet


Step 4 – Set your expectations:

When you take over an existing team you have your assumptions and they have theirs. Make sure your team understands your initial expectation of them from the start. There shouldn’t be any questions once you have done this. If any issues arise because something isn’t done correctly and you didn’t clearly set the expectation at the beginning, it’s your fault. Instead of trying to do everything for your new team, use your valuable first few weeks to teach them (and learn from them too!) 80% of frontline managers fail and not setting expectations may be a huge factor in that.


Step 5 – Set new team goals:

Only half of the organizations participating in the 2014 Talent Management and Rewards Study say managers are effective at working with employees to set appropriate performance goals for individual performance. Taking over a new department is a shocking experience for all involved. Remember, though, to avoid setting new goals until you have helped your team meet the ones you were brought in to fix. The team needs leadership and confidence. Don’t be nervous to take over, go out and show them you are the leader they have been needing.