Taking over a team

Pleased to meet you: Tips for managing an established team

Main illustration: Krystal Lauk

A few months ago, I moved from one business area within Intercom to another, and in the process, I began to manage an existing team.

Taking over such a team is always a challenge – the cogs are already spinning, everyone has probably formed opinions about you, you don’t have deep context about anything and usually there is no time to slow down.

The process has taught me quite a bit about the dynamics of managing an existing team, so let me share some thoughts on what’s important, and what’s not so important.

Think about people first, then about code

The most important thing is to think about people, as that’s where you’ll be able to add the most value and impact. Even if the code, infrastructure and tests are not in excellent shape when you arrive, you won’t be able to fix them immediately. Instead, think about people and consider their anxiety and stress as you arrive. People will worry that they might need to rebuild their position within the team or lose the rapport they had with the previous manager.

It’s crucial that you do your best to ease these concerns. A genuinely successful transition means that everyone is excited about the change and no one leaves the team, or even worse, the company.

Align on goals and plans

When taking over a team, there are already existing plans and goals for this quarter or, in Intercom’s case, six weeks. Make sure that everyone on the team, stakeholders and your manager understands the goals and plans the same way.

“The success of the transition will be shaped by your first quarter”

Realign with engineers on what’s ambitious but realistic, and lower the bar a little bit if you think that the goals are too ambitious. The success of the transition will be shaped by your first quarter and if your goals are met, so put a lot of emphasis on planning as soon as you arrive.

Have strong opinions, extremely weakly held

You bring new experiences and opinions to the team, but if you don’t have a deep understanding of the problem space of your team and context on their work, you probably won’t have valuable or impactful opinions to share right away. Instead, think about those skills and insights that are transferable.

Bring new opinions about how to prioritize tasks, how you handle particular customer data migration, or high-level thoughts about application patterns or infrastructure. These are all things where you can strengthen or alternatively weaken the approach, making the team maybe slightly more aggressive in their work or slightly more cautious if necessary.

“This is how you can inject new ways of thinking into a group of people who have been working together in a certain way for a while”

Share your opinions and ask for feedback whenever you see the chance. Sharing your thoughts makes you more accessible, but only if you hold them extremely weakly. Proactively ask for counter opinions or feedback – this is how you can inject new ways of thinking into a group of people who have been working together in a certain way for a while. Be sure to respond and don’t go silent when receiving your team’s opinions.

Evolution of processes over revolution

There are processes left by your predecessor that you might not fully enjoy or understand. But acknowledge that they were created with a reason and in most of the cases, they actually improved something and brought value.

Make sure that you understand the why for each process and before making any changes, understand the second and third order consequences of changing it. Above all, evolve the team slowly instead of turning things upside down.

What is the data?

Learn what data the team measures and why – after all, you can’t improve what you don’t measure, and we unconsciously improve the things we do measure. You may think that the team should measure more thing to get better insight into what to improve. Add metrics as you want, but don’t immediately settle the goals.

Let the team understand the purpose of new measurements and over time, build alignment on what success looks like. It’s also a good opportunity to use these metrics as a tool to align the team behind higher level strategy of the company or the group they operate in.

There is another side to data and monitoring – the operational health of your product. Make sure that you feel confident with the monitoring and alarming of your new area of ownership. Get this confidence from the most tenured members of the team and if you lack it, prioritize work in this space. You can’t ship confidently and build a performant team without robust monitoring.

Be deeply curious and ask questions

It’s crucial that you be deeply curious and ask questions. But don’t inquire just about technology, as it’s common for former engineers-turned-managers to get excited and start diving deep into the technology.

“Gather insights about your shared understanding of everything you do as a team”

Instead, ask about what your new reports think about things that are crucial for high performing team. Gather insights about your shared understanding of everything you do as a team. Find out how they trust each other. Understand what they think about their velocity. Ask these things both in a group meeting and during 1:1s. Make sure that you listen to all the quiet voices, as there are always people who might not feel comfortable discussing these topics out loud in front of the team.

Six weeks to build long-term success

To summarize, if there is only one thing you could focus on in your first six weeks in a new team, make it the people. People in your team are the most important asset and building a strong, healthy and successful relationship with them should always be your top priority. Acknowledge that they know the product and the business area better than you and instead of pushing your ideas, guide and nurture your team to solve problems, deliver goals and improve the team and product.

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