Stepping into the role of new (to the team) leader for an existing team is a daunting task. It’s also a time rich in opportunity for everyone involved, if the new leader executes a proper start-up strategy and avoids the most common start-up pitfalls.

The 4 Stages of New-Leader Assimilation

Regardless of your background and success, teams tend to view the new leader with a bit of healthy cynicism. You’re the newbie, and you haven’t done anything to earn the respect of the current team members. Manage the process properly, and you will help the team move quickly through the first few of the four stages of new leader/team relationship:

1. Doubt and Uncertainty-People wonder: Who are you? Why are you here? Why should we listen to you? What can you do for us? What does this mean for us? What do you mean for me?

2. Hope-Their eyes open: Maybe you can help, I wonder…, Perhaps this is different. Maybe I should jump in.

3. Belief-Momentum builds based on respect and credibility earned: She does care. Her focus is truly on us. She’s helping us succeed. This is different. Perhaps I should…

4. Trust-A bond is forged and the nature of the relationship is positively changed forever: This person is focused on helping our business, our team and me. I’m going to give my trust, because she’s earned it.

Your goal is to move quickly beyond the cloud of Doubt and Uncertainty to Hope and then Belief. Trust is something that comes much later, usually after a lot of reinforcement and after individual team members have engaged and benefitted in some form from your leadership support.

Fair warning, many new leaders start shooting themselves in both feet from the moment they open their mouths for the first time, and end up destroying any possibility of progressing through the stages. Once Doubt and Uncertainty turn to Cynicism and Disregard, it’s all over for you with this team.

5 Key Issues at Start-Up:

As the new leader, you’ve got to:

1. Understand the business mission of your team and how it fits in the bigger picture of the firm’s strategy. You owe your team context for their purpose and reinforcing (or building) the linkages between team priorities and organizational priorities is a key task. Of course, you need help from your boss, your peers and your internal and external customers to gain this context for yourself. Your networking, questioning and listening skills are critical in this phase.

2. Break the Ice…help the team get to know you and of course, you need to get to know your team members as individuals and as performers in a group. In both group and one-on-one settings, you’ve got to ask and execute on these questions:

  • What’s working?
  • What’s not?
  • What do you need me to do?

The first two create content ripe for group assessment and action. The third one opens the door to identifying opportunities for you to knock down walls and accelerate your movement through the stages.

3. Identify opportunities to help the team…while quietly assessing performance and talent. You won’t know this team and the people for a while and unless there are raging people problems, resist a rush to judgment. I tend to begin realigning new teams very carefully at around the 45-day mark, with a target to have this part of the job completed by day 90.  Your actions here must be preceded by a great deal of observation and listening.

4. Begin forming an effective working atmosphere based on accountability, transparency, fairness and a propensity towards action. Once you break the ice and get people talking about key issues and obstacles, you can support their efforts to deal with the issues. Establish accountability and standards for quality from the start and don’t let go of these key issues.

5. Identify opportunities to support the development of your team members.  Within the 90-day window, but somewhere beyond the first 30 days, it’s appropriate to add to your list of questions above:

  • What do you want to do here?

For those team members going forward with you, you owe it them and to yourself to provide developmental opportunities that allow people to explore their desired directions.

4 Common Pitfalls of the Start-Up Leader


1. Making it all about you. You’ve invaded their world…it’s truly all about them, not you.

2. Asserting your agenda without context for the team and its’ perceived mission or for the culture and values of the team.  Again, it’s their team…until you’ve earned the right to say “my team” or better yet, “our team.”

3. Imposing your way instead of helping the team understand the need for a new way.

4. Operating with a hidden plan. “The Secret Plan” didn’t help Nixon engender trust when talking about unraveling the Vietnam conflict, and not talking about the expectations from your boss for the team engenders doubt and cynicism. (Note to my readers: I may be showing my age with the Nixon comment here. I was only 7 when he uttered those words, and I didn’t believe him then.)

The Bottom-Line for Now:

For a brief moment in time as you start-up as the new leader of an existing team, you have a remarkable opportunity to make a difference. You get one shot at working your way through The 4-Stages. Don’t squander the opportunity by tripping all over yourself.