As a manager, how can you set yourself up for success when inheriting an existing engineering team?
Moving into a new leadership position can be tricky. In some rare cases, you might be able to build a brand new team from the ground up. But more often than not, engineering leaders are inheriting pre-existing teams.
Being the newest person to join a team in any role can be intimidating. A pre-existing team tends to already have its own set of rituals, practices, and personalities. Established teams often have a shared context and history, which can take time to learn about and break into.
On top of that, being the new manager for a pre-existing team comes with its own unique set of challenges. How can you empower and support your team when you don’t know them that well? How can you figure out what problems need to be fixed immediately, and what processes are going well and don’t need your input? And how can you introduce changes when you see things that could be improved or done differently?
I recently inherited my own engineering team and learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, especially in the first few months. Below I’ll share three practices that you can use to help make your new role a success.
1. Understand your team’s psyche
A few weeks ago, another leader was telling me about a new engineering team that they had inherited. This team had seen a lot of attrition in the past year, and everyone was burnt out, overloaded, and languishing. As my colleague described the 1:1s they’d had with their new reports, I observed a similar underlying tone and a negative sentiment in every conversation they relayed. Hearing the similar threads in all of these conversations was the first time I realized that every team has its own psyche.
When a group of people inhabits a similar space – whether in a physical office, a codebase, or product organization – there will inevitably be some shared experiences. Perhaps the team you’re inheriting is working on a greenfield application and doesn’t need to deal with the burden of technical debt; that team’s shared experiences is going to be very different than the team that’s undertaking a massive and complicated technical rewrite. The team that just shipped an impactful feature with a lot of visibility will have a starkly different psyche than the one that just had three team members leave the organization.
The first step towards being an empathetic and supportive leader to your new team is to understand the kind of team you are inheriting, and understanding the collective psyche of that team is the easiest and quickest path to doing that. The experiences that the folks on your team had before you joined are key to understanding where they’re at and what kind of support they need in the short and long term.
So how do you begin understanding the psyche of your team? The answer is more straightforward than you might think: by asking thoughtful questions and listening to what people have to say.
You can start doing this even before you inherit the team. Take the time to talk to your product and design counterparts and ask them where the team is at, what challenges they’ve faced, and what their most immediate need is. Lean on staff and principal engineers who’ve interacted with or supported the team to get a sense of the technical challenges they’ve encountered.
Once you officially shift into your new leadership role and start having regular 1:1s with your reports, spend more time listening and encourage your reports to do more of the talking (but definitely ask follow-up questions to get as much clarity as you need!). More likely than not, this process will take a few weeks before it yields any significant results.
Keep in mind that you’re new to this group, and if your reports have never worked with you before, they might be reluctant to share exactly how they feel at first. You’ll need to work diligently to build their trust during the first month or two, but actively listening and slowly building a rapport with them will lead to more fruitful and enlightening conversations.
2. Observe before acting
Along with active listening and making heavy use of your 1:1s, the first few weeks of inheriting your new team should be passive. These first weeks are vital for building trust and for showing your team what kind of leader you are. First impressions matter, which is why it’s important that you don’t join the team only to turn things on their head and enact new processes and practices all at once. Even if there are rituals that you know have worked before and are confident will work well on this team, too, be careful not to be the leader who joins a new team and flips everything on its head.
Instead, take the time to watch and listen before changing things. This team existed before you joined, and there may very well be good reasons for why they do things the way they do. Being patient and observing how the team functions has another added benefit, too; when you do decide to introduce a new practice, you can point to your weeks of observation as evidence for why you’re introducing a new process. This will show your new team that you’re suggesting new ideas not because they’re your ideas, but because you’ve watched them in action, see room for improvement, and can justify the recommendations that you make with concrete evidence.
I’d also recommend only implementing a few changes at a time, even if you have plenty of ideas of things to tweak. Change is hard, and no one likes everything to change all at once. Prioritize which changes you think will have the most impact or are the most necessary, and only make those adjustments to start. Iterate on those changes and refine them as you go – not only will they be more palatable to your team, but they’ll be easier for you to measure.
3. Balance new processes with feedback
After you’ve spent time understanding and observing your team, found some strategies for addressing problems or building momentum, and implemented those changes within the team, collect feedback from your team to see how they feel about these new rituals.
I like to do quick temperature checks with all of my reports. A few weeks after introducing a new process, I ask everyone about it in our 1:1s, which gives them the opportunity to provide feedback and be candid about how they feel without necessarily needing to raise their hand with a concern in the larger group. Waiting a few weeks allows them to try out the new process for a little bit and get a feel for it before I ask them for feedback.
Even after you’ve settled into your role as the new manager for this team, this is a practice that you can continue. But in the early days of leading a team you have inherited, asking for feedback – and then acting upon that feedback – helps to build trust and shows your team that you’re open to leading in a way that works best for them.
Inheriting a pre-existing team can be a daunting task, but it’s also a unique opportunity to learn how and why other engineering teams operate the way they do, as well as the circumstances that got them there. By taking the time to understand your team’s psyche, observing before you act, implementing changes slowly, and continuously asking for feedback, you can lay the foundations for a happy and high-performing team. And in no time at all, your new team will start to feel like home.