Ok, you are thinking that I’m crazy. If the team is struggling, why would you want to be on it? Or lead it? Do you really want to set yourself up to deal with all the problems that need fixed? And what if they aren’t fixable? Doesn’t a well-established, smooth-functioning team sound like one where it will be easier to succeed? Well maybe, but not if you are a manager. A struggling team is a place full of opportunity – a chance to prove you can do more. And it’s a great place to learn some lessons even though these could be about what not to do. Some of the best advice I ever got was that as a manager I should take roles on teams that are struggling the most. This gives leaders opportunities they may not otherwise have. If the teams are established and everything is running smoothly, then you can’t really prove yourself as a good manager. All you are proving is that you can continue running a team that was already running well. Does that make you a strong leader? Does that show off your skills? Well, not really.
Many teams have problems that need fixed. They have places where some small tweaks will make them better. But that’s not the kind of teams I’m talking about. What about those teams that haven’t had managers or leaders running the team for months? What about those teams that continue to go through reorgs where the people are disgruntled and bewildered? What about those teams that think they are great but the products they ship suck? What about those teams that always over-commit and under-deliver? Now those are some challenging places to be to prove that you, as a leader/manager, can solve some complex problems and make people better at what they do.
Will you fail? You may. And that also helps prove how good of a leader you are. But taking that risk that has a 50/50 chance of success or failure is what senior, mature leaders are made of. You have to have the confidence and experience not to fail. And dedicate the time and effort to make sure you don’t fail. It’s not an option. What a challenge! But if you take it on, you will become noticed and recognized as a leader. I’ve done this many times, and every time I’ve been very happy with the results. Not just the recognition and being able to prove that I can manage tough situations. It’s also great to see how the team transforms. How the people on the team mature and grow and then are thankful that you were there to lead them. That’s the best reward of all.
Most times, the people on the team want to do the best work they can. But due to lack of knowledge, leadership, or direction, it just wasn’t possible. But when they get that leadership, they (most of the time) get on board very quickly – and those that don’t usually leave, and that’s ok too. Typically, if the team is in really bad shape when I come in to lead it, a significant part of the team will leave. I found this is because I am upfront with my expectations and it scares people. The ones that are not up for the challenge or don’t believe a transformation can occur (or don’t want a transformation to occur), will leave. That’s the tough part for a manager. I had half a team leave; I had to play multiple roles as manager as well as lead/supervisor to fill those empty roles; I had to start up the recruiting engine and find good, qualified, and passionate people to build the team back up quickly. But it’s worth it. The first time I did this, the team was a mess for almost a whole year. There was chaos everywhere, not just on my team. My manager had left as well so my peers and I were leading all the teams without clear direction. I was stressed! The second time I jumped into a team with problems, I was more prepared. It was right in the middle of a reorg so although this time I had a manager, this was the first time anyone in the leadership team had worked together. Although half my team left, I took it in stride. I promoted from within, and I hired new people. Again it took about a year to feel that things had stabilized. So as a manager, if you take on a challenging team, you need to be thinking about the long-term plan. And you need to take it all in stride. You will be surprised, and maybe even blind-sided, you may make some in the team very happy and others very angry, but roll with it and be confident in your ability to make everything turn out well. And invest in those that have chosen to stay and help you make the changes. When you get the team transformed, the team becomes closer because you all made it through the tough times together. You lived through something that makes your relationship with the team members special.