Member Corner: Lessons in team leadership

By Sherry Zylka

Four lessons on effectively leading an inherited team.

Wayne County Community College District Chancellor Curtis L. Ivery suggested the district’s executive group read Michael Watkins’ article, “Leading the Team You Inherit” (June 2016 Harvard Business Review), and consider the implications for their team leadership practices. Watkins points out that most team leadership literature assumes the creation of new teams. But in many community college situations, leaders do not start from scratch; they inherit an existing team and must carry out the needed tasks while also reshaping the team and improving its performance. Below are four lessons I have learned from both the Watkins article and my own experiences.

Lesson One: Learn as much as you can about the team members you have just inherited. Hold individual meetings to ask questions such as:

  • Why did you join this college?
  • What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of our college?
  • What are the college’s biggest challenges and opportunities?
  • What do you see as our team’s priorities?

This will give you their perspective about the college, themselves and other team members. It is also important to observe how team members interact with each other to get a sense of the cohesiveness of the team. Listen more than to talk and be prepared to hear things that you may not want to hear. Keep emotion out of the conversation. Additionally, I’ve found it helpful to review the last three years of performance evaluations to learn institutional perspective of team members.

Lesson Two: Once you have a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the individual team members, the next logical step is to reshape the team’s composition. There may be reasons that you are not able to immediately replace team members, but eventually decisions will have to be made to create a team that will be most effective to achieve the goals and objectives of your team and the institution. Some of the strategies I have used to reshape the team membership include finding a more suitable position within the organization for the person, letting normal attrition take its course, and coaching, which is helpful when someone has high potential but is underperforming.

Lesson Three: Establish credibility and build trust from the onset. Trust and credibility are earned over time; I have found that consistent behavior on the part of the leader is critical to earning it. It’s not enough to state what behaviors you expect of the team members, you must also model them. Team members have shaped their processes and habits in response to the previous leader’s preferences. It will take time for them to learn about how you want them to respond to you. I’ve found it crucial to repeatedly and consistently communicate my expectations and vision.

Lesson Four: Consider changing the team meeting structure. According to Watkins, there are three types of meetings that leadership teams usually convene: strategic, operational and learning. The strategic meetings are less frequent but require significant time because decisions are being made that impact the future of the college. Operational meetings tend to be more frequent and focus on reviewing current priorities, checking the status of projects and making adjustments where necessary. The learning meeting is typically ad hoc to address a particular issue that has arisen, such as a campus emergency, or to focus on acquiring a particular skill set. Assess the current meeting structure and make changes to schedule the right types of meetings, allocate the right time and resources and help the team come together to do different types of work.

It can be complicated taking over a team with existing members and established processes. However, if the team realizes some early victories they begin to build confidence in themselves and the team. If you listen to your people, make your best judgement with the information you have and acknowledge the fear that the team members may be experiencing during this transition, everything will work out in the end. Most of all, maintain your sense of humor, humility and positive perspective.

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Sherry Zylka

is the provost and executive director of the Design Center at Wayne County Community College District in Michigan.