Leading a Team that Needs a Reboot? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I work for a national mortgage company and recently took over a team from a leader who had led it for 37 years. Every single person on the team is more experienced in the business of the team than I am. And every one of them is very disengaged because their former leader clearly had checked out a long time before he left.

A lot of the processes—some of them possibly of no use whatsoever—are outdated and labor-intensive. When I ask why things are done the way are done, the answer is always a variation on “that’s just how we’ve always done it.” There are some time- and labor-intensive tasks where the owners aren’t clear why they are done or who cares about them.

All of my questions seem to be making people nervous. I am confused as to how this happened. The other parts of the company I have worked in are well run and up to date, and we were always asked to look for efficiencies. My manager has no explanation for me, and precious little guidance.

I am intensely frustrated with the condition of the team. It feels like everyone is lost in the land that time forgot. It needs a massive overhaul. I am pretty sure we don’t even need half the people on the team. I don’t want to scare anyone, but as the team leader, I can’t let things go on like this.

Any suggestions for how to approach this mess?

Need a Reboot


Dear Need a Reboot,

I understand your frustration and your confusion. It is uncommon these days to uncover parts of a business that have not been forced to slim down or to leverage technology to do more with less. For reasons you may never know, your predecessor was left to his own devices with little to no oversight. The people he left behind probably are either delighted to have a job they can coast through, completely burned out, or too bored and worn down to care.

I think you have a great opportunity here to rebuild your team from the ground up. At Blanchard, we define team leadership as an influence process focused on helping the team reach and sustain high performance. We define a team as two or more people working interdependently to achieve a common purpose with shared accountability for results. Let’s not call this group of people a “team” until they actually behave like one. You can find more detail on our thinking about teams here.

The thing that will trip you up is a deadly combination of too much, too soon, too fast. Slow and steady wins the race. It doesn’t sound like your manager is paying attention anyway, so why rush?

You might start by sharing your vision for the team with the team. This will be personal and sound something like, “Our team is an energetic and creative group that adds value to the organization by providing x, y and z.” You can share your plan to make some changes, but that you are committed to carefully planning each step so that all points of view are considered, nobody feels overwhelmed or left behind.

Next, outline some high-level goals—the first of which is to really understand all critical deliverables, who in the organization wants/needs them, and the purpose of each one. Once you have that figured out, you can brainstorm ways to go about delivering on them.

Then, get to know each individual on the team. Get detailed information about what they do, what they are good at, what they like to do, and how they see themselves contributing moving forward. You can assign specific tasks like research around software or updated ways to accomplish things to match skills and interests.

Create a first draft of a plan, get input from everyone on the team, tweak, and refine. Once you have a plan, you might think about creating a Team Charter.

A Team Charter is a co-created document that outlines:

  • Your company’s vision
  • Your company’s values
  • Your company’s purpose: What does the organization do? For whom do they do it? Why do they do it?
  • Team Purpose: What do we do? For whom do we do it? Why do we do it?
  • Team Goals: What are the measurable outcomes the team is responsible for in order to achieve the team’s purpose?
  • Team Roles: What are the key responsibility areas of each team member for achieving the team goals?
  • Behavioral Norms: What are the behavioral expectations and team practices (strategies and processes) that the members agree the team should follow? What are the ground rules? These can include but are not limited to: communication, decision making, problem solving, and accountability.

Along the way, your group of employees will either be excited by the opportunity to make a tangible contribution to your company or they won’t. If you are vastly overstaffed for the work required of the team, this process will make it easy to identify the people you can probably get along without.

Stay focused on moving forward and let go of your distress about the past. Make a concerted effort not to criticize anyone or anything done in the past—the person responsible for it is gone, and it will just make people feel like you blame them. Let people know you have the backs of those who are all in on creating a future together. Put a road map together and move deliberately, step by step, toward your milestones. You will definitely have some bumps, but at least you will be acting as a team and creating a landscape that makes sense.

It will be an adventure, but it sounds like you are ready for one!

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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