Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Inheriting another person's staff: How to deal

February 24, 2012: 1:25 PM ET

As a new manager, you may want to jump into devising a grand strategy to change the business. But don't forget that you have a whole staff to convince before you take a single step forward.

By Alex Kantrowitz, contributor

FORTUNE – So you've just become a manager. As the fizz settles in that celebratory glass of champagne, the newly hired (or promoted) will need to start thinking about the challenges of their recently won positions.

And while you might have an urge to muse about your grand business strategy, you best not disregard what is likely your most critical first challenge: earning the confidence and cooperation of the staff you just inherited.

Ryan Rush ran headlong into this trial as he started his role as a vice president of merchandising and design at Santa Cruz-based O'Neill Clothing. Rush inherited 21 employees in an underperforming men's division and was asked to turn it around. As he set out to accomplish this goal, Rush faced resistance, including open dissension from a star employee who went straight to the CEO to voice his disagreements.

For new managers, Rush's situation is no strange happening; it should almost be expected. So what do you do?

Start by finding out what each employee expects from the company, says Tom Davenport, who is a consultant and author of Manager Redefined. "There is an unwritten understanding of what each employee puts into the company and what they expect to get in return." As long as an employee feels their company is living up to its side of the deal, says Davenport, they will likely continue to invest in their work.

As a new manager, you must assure your staffers that those deals are still intact. The manager is the keeper of the company's side of the bargain and, when a manager is replaced, it is only natural for employees to feel their deals are at risk. Davenport suggests asking employees questions like "Why did you join the company, why do you stay, and where do you want your career to go from here?" These questions will help you understand what your employees think their deals are, and it will give you a chance to show that you are committed to upholding them.

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You should also try to establish relationships with the team's critical leaders, says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an executive outplacement services firm, referring not just to the staffers at the top of the org chart, but the covert leaders too. "It's important to learn not just who reports to whom, but the underlying structure of the organization as well. Look for the ringleaders, those who drive the conversation, and win them over." These relationships, says Challenger, will help you find out what your team does really well and help you avoid what plagued the team under the previous manager.

On a more technical note, when you are not able to decide who exactly is part of your team, you should concentrate on job design, meaning the way you allocate tasks to each position. "In the vast majority of cases where you don't get to pick your people, job design is critical," says Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei. "One of the consistent fantasies of leadership is that you pick your best and brightest and go to war. Managers often end up designing roles for people they wish they had, as opposed to those they really do have." When you don't have control of employee selection, Frei says, you must structure jobs to match the capabilities of your employees.

In Rush's case, he set out to learn as much as possible about the company and to build rapport with his new team. He sat down with all 21 of his staffers and asked the following questions: What's right with our business? What's wrong with our business? What do you hope I might do? What are you afraid I might do? What would you do if you were me? The discussions helped him understand the business and form a bond with his team.

Rush did make some changes, and the employee who complained to the CEO ended up leaving, but things settled into place after about two months and worked smoothly for another four years. Last summer, Rush left O'Neill to start his own clothing company. This time, he'll be able to build his team from scratch.

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