New managers: 6 tips for a smooth transition if your predecessor is still around

May 19, 2021

4 mins

New managers: 6 tips for a smooth transition if your predecessor is still around

Few managers are given the opportunity to build their own teams from scratch. Yet taking on someone else’s team is tricky––much like taking over the controls of an aircraft in mid-flight. If the former pilot is still in the cockpit, you can expect there to be some turbulence too. Will they sit there quietly without interfering with the flight plan? What should you do when the crew keeps turning to them for the answers? Fasten your seatbelts, here are our top tips for a smooth transition.

Tip no 1: Check the forecast before take-off

When you’re a new manager, you have about six months to a year to “come in with a win of your own,” writes Terry Bacon in his book Elements of Influence. If you want to be in a strong position, you must know the terrain. The challenges you face will depend upon how the former manager left things when moving on. Making a smooth transition, therefore, requires knowing the history of the team you’re inheriting. Try to find out why your predecessor is leaving. Have they been promoted? Are they changing careers? Are they moving to another city? Getting a clear view of the situation will help you to understand future behaviors and anticipate potential obstacles. For example, a manager who has been promoted probably will be more cooperative than someone who has been sidelined.

Tip no 2: Dig deep into relationship dynamics

When taking over as a new manager, it’s best to meet each team member face to face, where possible. During these meetings, try to gauge the relationship between each staffer and their former manager. Did they have a mentor-mentee relationship? Were they close outside the office? Were daily interactions harmonious or tense? This will help you to determine whether your predecessor is likely to try to interfere in your projects, whether your team is likely to let that happen or whether they might even go behind your back to ask their former manager for support. But don’t rely on first-hand information. In her article for The Muse, an American online career platform, career development expert Nicole Lindsay writes that “much of what you need to know will not come from formal communications—it will come from comments that you overhear in passing and watching how others interact”.

Tip no 3: Set clear rules of operation

When taking over from your predecessor, keep things simple. Organize a meeting with your new team to discuss the rules of operation. Talk about different situations that might arise and the best way to handle them. What if a team member wants to ask the previous manager for advice? How can everyone ensure that an unfinished project gets completed efficiently? Listen to the wishes of your team, express your needs clearly, and, if necessary, find a balance between the two.

Tip no 4: Listen to advice but decide for yourself

When getting up and running in a new position, a manager has to absorb a huge amount of information in a short time. If your predecessor is still around, that’s actually a bonus—they can provide extra guidance and answer questions in person. But it’s equally important to show how you can add value in your own unique way as a leader. In an article on interim management, consultancy firm Morgan Philips suggests that any new manager is also an opportunity for a fresh new outlook. Therefore, new managers are not unlike interim managers in that they too must “be able to think outside the box to draw their own conclusions about the problems faced by the company”.

Tip no 5: Don’t assume the worst

Cognitive bias is everywhere in the workplace. People tend to give the benefit of the doubt to those they like and think the worst of those they find annoying. When taking over someone else’s team, keep an open mind. Even if you get hostile vibes from your predecessor, don’t jump to conclusions. Confront your own biases. Is the old boss always asking about the progress of a project? Maybe the project was their brainchild. Do they send you emails every day? It might seem intrusive at first, but it could be their way of offering a helping hand. “Innocent until proven guilty,” as the saying goes.

Tip no 6: No matter what happens, keep it together

Despite your best intentions, some situations are unpleasant and difficult. Is your predecessor intrusive or perhaps very uncooperative? While it’s now your job to solve problems, your predecessor may be blissfully unaware that they are getting in the way. It could simply be that they don’t share your way of working or your values. For example, an enthusiastic but verbose former boss may not get that their inability to communicate clear information impedes your ability to manage. Similarly, someone who is very meticulous may find it difficult to let go and allow you to learn by doing. What looks like interference might simply reflect their desire to help as much as possible. And if your predecessor also happens to be your former boss, any hint of condescension in front of the team will undermine your authority. But this could simply be their way of continuing to mentor you. In other words, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

If talking about it doesn’t improve matters, human resources can get involved to mediate and help everyone to find their rightful place. No matter how bad things get, don’t be negative in front of your team. “Negativity spreads like wildfire. If you’re negative about your company or your role in it, your team will pick up on it and won’t be able to help but see things in a negative light as well,” writes Cecil Adkins in an article for Medium. This doesn’t mean hiding the truth or pretending everything is perfect. Just do your best to stay positive and keep drama out of the workplace.

Another thing to consider: your new team may be less than thrilled to welcome a new manager. Perhaps they really liked the former boss. Or someone on the team might be envious of your position because they’d been promised the role. In a report on Quickbase written by Anita Bruzzese, Catherine Kaputa, lecturer and author of You Are a Brand, explains that “it may sound counterintuitive, but new leaders taking over for strong managers should show their vulnerability”.

Whatever approach you take, do not be a copycat. Find your own style.

Finally, remember that a successful team is a well-oiled machine. When employees lose a manager, it throws everything off. It takes time to get used to a new person and a new way of doing things. But with some cooperation from your predecessor—and a whole lot of self-assurance from you—the transition can be more or less smooth.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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