Over your career as a leader, you will encounter many different situations, but one of the most challenging I have found is rebuilding a struggling team. Teams struggle for a variety of different reasons but as a broad generalisation, it comes down to a failure of leadership. The problem requires a careful touch and a lot of attention. I am going to focus on the pivotal role of team lead in this article and specifically a new leader joining a team. A lot of these rules will apply to an existing leader as well, but the situation will be slightly more complicated because there is also a need to rebuild trust amongst company leaders.
Your first step is to diagnose the issue. Here are some tasks and questions to get you started:
It is very important at this early stage that your presence is seen as calming. Make it clear that some changes are needed, but that your goal is to get the team working effectively with as few changes as possible.
Generally, struggling teams become a focus for senior people in the company. This adds to the pressure and anxiety the people in the team face. Talk to those senior people one by one and ask them to take a step back; you are working with the team and looking for ways to improve the issues. Give them a time frame for when you will come back to them with suggestions and improvements, and ask in the future that they come to you with any issues rather than going directly to the team. By doing this, you release the pressure on the team and provide some assurance to senior stakeholders that the issue is recognized and being worked on. Ensure you maintain open communication with these stakeholders over time so they are up to date with what is happening.
There is a secondary outcome to both of these steps; you are in the process of building trust both externally and internally. During this process, there will be times where you don’t have exact answers and essentially you will need to fall back on some variation of, “I am taking responsibility for this, trust me”. Having the relationships built to allow this is critical.
Managing more senior leaders in this scenario tends to be a much easier endeavor. They will have other things on their plate, highlight that this is why you were hired and if they want this process to be successful they need to trust you. Clear communication and good planning will generally get you the rest of the way.
Inside the team itself, it will really be about the time you spend with them. Make sure they understand you have listened to them, understood their issues and that your goal is to get the team working effectively with as few changes as possible. Finally, relieving the pressure from senior stakeholders will help build this trust as well.
Now that you have a good idea of what the issues are, it’s time to reset expectations both internally and externally. If you have followed the two steps above, you should have built some goodwill both inside the team and with key stakeholders. It’s time to spend some of that:
Turning around the team will take time; it’s important to be clear that change won’t happen overnight. Layout your understanding of the issues and how you intend to solve them. Ask for the time to fix these issues. It means that development may slow down for some time but the end result will be a more functional team and better results. In all cases it important to ensure you create some time and space for change to happen, if possible adjust deadlines to allow for this. There will be cases where the expectations of what the team can realistically achieve are unreasonable, here it is your job to present a strong argument as to why these expectations need to be adjusted. In most cases struggling teams are going to miss their deadlines anyway so rather then framing this as moving the deadline back it is better to describe it as properly reflecting the reality. If you can’t move the deadline look at ways to reduce the scope or shift some work to other teams, it is crucial to create some extra space.
Internally, you need to make it clear that things need to improve, but that you and the company are invested in making it happen. Bring the results of your meetings with senior leaders to this conversation. Talk about how space has been created to allow room for the team to improve, remind them this is an opportunity to reset and ask the team to direct senior stakeholders to you. Ensure you get across the idea that this reduced pressure comes with an expectation that performance will start to improve.
It is common for teams to be faced with multiple different priorities and stakeholders. To a struggling team, this can be overwhelming and result in a lack of focus. The first step you have already begun; asking senior stakeholders to come to you rather than going directly to the team. It’s important to address other groups who could be suggesting changes as well, such as external product/project managers and clients. Ensure there is a process for scoping out and deciding which features get worked on. You need to be absolutely ironclad on this; the only way work gets done is through this process. Once you have this in place, start slowly building a roadmap that will begin to order the chaos. This isn’t something you should expect to get done immediately, but it’s a medium-term goal to work towards.
As a part of building your roadmap pick out some smaller tasks and focus on getting them delivered as a team, celebrate when they are done. If possible, choose a balance of tasks, ones that are for people within the team and ones that are for senior stakeholders. Don’t go overboard with the celebrations, but thank everybody for their hard work and start looking at more challenging tasks to build upon your success.
The worst thing you can do in this situation is make too many changes. During your process of talking to the team and stakeholders, it’s likely you will have received an overwhelming amount of opinions on what changes you need to make. Start categorizing these into low, medium, and high-impact changes, as well as which you intend to implement and which you plan on ignoring. Set out a timeline for implementing the ones you would like to make and communicate this to both the team and senior stakeholders.
That said, there is a great deal of value in quickly making some small low-impact changes.
Look at the meetings on your team’s calendar, remove as many as possible and examine the results of the rest. Are they achieving their purpose? Do they leave people feeling dispirited afterward? Start bringing new energy and focus to these meetings. It is your job as a leader to create the energy you want in the room.
Fix tech and hardware annoyances, for example, a build that fails too often, lack of access to necessary resources, insufficient software, or admin privileges. Obviously, some of these will be impossible or too time-consuming to fix, but there are always some quick wins.
The key here is to draw a line in the sand that will allow people to reset their mindset and begin afresh. Once you have made your quick changes, it’s time to start implementing your longer-term plan. Do these things one at a time and assess their impact.
Unless it is very clear that a person on the team is actively detrimental to the improvements you would like to make or is damaging to team morale, I personally recommend holding off on making any decisions about removing people for at least six months. It is important to have a clear understanding of the team and its dynamics before you make a decision like this. Additionally, in the UK and Australia (the places I am most familiar with when it comes to employment law), these processes are often quite time-consuming and can take anywhere from 3-6 months. It is important that in those early months you are focused on improving the environment for the whole team. You will create a lot more value with the addition of process, focus, and energy rather than spending it on a formalized performance improvement process. That is not to say it’s something you should ignore. Start to have discussions with people about how they can improve and helping them to develop their skills. If at the end of this time period you are still having issues, it is time to start considering your options when it comes to performance management.
Transforming a struggling team isn’t a task that will happen overnight. It will require a lot of patience and probably result in a fair amount of frustration. Through this process, it is important to remember that you are dealing with a team of people with their own set of desires, emotions, and ambitions. Earning their trust and respect will go a long way towards guaranteeing your success.
Lastly, remember this is a learning experience for you too. You will make mistakes and misjudgments. Be kind to yourself and focus on what you can do better next time. Good luck!