Managing Groups and Teams/What should a New Leader do when entering into an existing team?


“The actions you take during your first three months in a new job will largely determine whether you succeed or fail. Transitions are periods of opportunity, a chance to start afresh and to make needed changes in an organization. But they are also periods of acute vulnerability, because you lack established working relationships and a detailed understanding of your new role.”,[1] These words by Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, are a great summary of new leader transition within an organization or a group. In general, team leader transitions fall into two categories. The first category is better known as “internal leader transition” and occurs when a team member is ascended as team leader from within the very same team. The second category, better known as “external leader transition” occurs when a new leader, from outside the team, is assigned to an existing team.

The distinction from internal or external leadership is important because the costs, risks and effects between the internal and the external leader transition differ substantially. The difference is attributed to several factors that Manderscheid [2] summarizes below:

  • Outside executives are not as familiar with the organization’s structure and the existence of informal networks of information and communication.
  • Outside hires are not familiar with the corporate culture and therefore have greater difficulty assimilating.
  • External candidates are unknown to the organization and therefore do not have the same credibility as someone who is promoted within.

The effects produced by a new leader joining an existing team depend on the intervention to prepare and adapt the new leader to the new team and the organization and vice versa. This intervention is known as leader assimilation.

According to the consulted literature on leader transitions, although several authors recognize the importance of an intervention in leader assimilation, little research has been conducted to explore its effectiveness. (Manderscheid, 2008)

Recent research made by Alexcel and the Institute of Executive Development [3] contains interesting data from 150 executives and talent professionals across diverse industries and companies. A summary of this study prepared by Cindy Kraft [4] concludes that:

1. Global CEO turnover is approximately 15% according to a 2007 study by Booz Allen, a decade–high number. Other studies suggest 40% of new leaders fail within the first 18 months. And Aon Consulting reports a 50% chance an executive will quit or be fired within his first three years.

2. Ninety two percent (92%) of respondents said it takes 90+ days to reach productivity and 62% said 6+months. And even after making it through the first 90 days and the first 180 days, a significant percentage of external executive hires are gone within two years.

3. While not as long as with external hires, 72% of respondents said internal executives need more than the “first 90 days” to get up to speed, and 25% said 6+ months were needed.

4. Thirty percent (30%) of external hires fail to meet expectations in two years and the fail rate of internal senior executive transitions is 20%, representing millions of dollars in losses at the executive level. Among all respondents, 68% indicated fail rates are related to a lack of interpersonal and leadership skills; 45% of respondents indicated it was a lack of personal skills; and 41% of respondents attributed underperformance to goal conflicts between the executive and the organization.

What circumstances prompt a change in leadership?Edit

There can be internal and external circumstances in an organization environment that require a change in leadership. These various factors could be organized in three main groups:

  1. Changes in the environment - Usually, changes in the external circumstances of an organization require a change in leadership to help the organization to adapt to the new environment. There could be changes in technology, competitors, suppliers, buyers, substitutes and potential entrants that require some radical changes in leadership to solve the new challenges.
  2. Changes in the architecture of the organization - The internal circumstances usually prompted by alliances, joint ventures or merger and acquisitions demand changes in the structure of the organization, as well as changes in leadership to rebuild the organization according to these changes.
  3. Changes in the vision of the organization - In general, there could be changes in goals, scope, competitive advantage, logic of an organization that could be prompted by internal or external changes, or simply as a way to change the path of the organization thinking about the future.

Leadership transition in any group or organization is going to raise some questions from both internal and external stakeholders of the group. Some of the questions that may arise during these transition periods can be:

  • Vision: What’s the company’s strategic story going forward?
  • Vision: Does the organization need the successor to be a visionary?
  • Architecture: What are the operating requirements over a three- to five-year time horizon?
  • Architecture: How is the organization changing?
  • Environment: How will the top executive roles need to change to fit new business demands?
  • Environment: Should the person have deep operational credibility and experience?


The above chart depicts the amount of time that can be be needed if the new leader is coming from outside of the organization or group. The analysis emphasizes two points; first that the amount of time for an external candidate to adapt to their new environment can be considerable and second; that planned leadership changes can be the most successful in preparing both the new leader and the team by allotting more time and resources to create a successful transition.

The most crucial time in the integration process is labeled the transition phase. During this period both the team leader and team members should focus on activities related to structuring the team, planning the team’s work, and evaluating the team’s performance such that the team will ultimately be able to achieve its goal or objective in order to establish the structures and processes that will enable future effectiveness.[6]

Although there is no comprehensive data comparing planned vs. unexpected leadership changes, the importance of a planned transition phase that helps create a functional team is supported by the fact that external executives can take less time to be productive or to jump from the transition to the action phase leadership functions, if they integrate successfully to the team and the organization, which is the objective of the transition phase.

What are the advantages of bringing in a new leaderEdit

New leader assimilation is a difficult task that usually represents a large investment for an organization. The high rate of failure in new leader assimilation requires a process to create a successful transition to reduce the high cost and frustration in this process [7]. High costs and risks associated to bringing an external new leader have to be inferior to those associated to promoting an internal new leader as it is compared in the chart below:

Chart 4


A list of circumstances in which hiring an external leader could be more beneficial than hiring an internal one can include:

  • New thoughts/ideas: Usually a new leader can bring new perspectives and ideas to solve innovation and change problems in an organization that the same organization cannot solve using its own resources. As we talked earlier, there could be radical changes in the environment, the architecture and the vision of an organization that could require new leaders to affront these new challenges.
  • Solve conflicts or evaluate processes: There is a dispute that cannot be solved using internal resources, and it is required to hire somebody else to establish a new order.
  • Lack of resources: Organization does not have internal resources to provide the desired leadership and need to hire an external one, but this circumstance can be a good opportunity to hire somebody who could inject fresh blood to the organization.
  • Experience in new markets or cultures: Expansion usually requires experience in new markets and cultures that the organization does not have. Internal experts usually make assumptions from their own market experience that cannot be applied directly in new markets or cultures.
  • Gain Industry experience: Before a company is launching a new product or entering a new industry, they might look to external hires for industry expertise in order to minimize risks and maximize opportunities.
  • Rapid growth: Companies can grow rapidly and they simply do not have the internal resources to provide leadership into the expansion and creation of new functional areas or divisions.

What are the possible difficulties (and possible solutions) faced by the new leader?Edit

We most often see organisations looking to outside sources for leadership change. That is to say, for a leadership change that will cause cascading changes that permeate throughout the organisation. While a new leader brings new perspectives, new thought processes, new decision making styles and other numerous advantages, it also brings challenges. In the Harvard Business article, Right from the Start, the article opens with the story of a new leader joining an organisation as an “outsider”. Some things he lacked that the insider would know would be the detailed knowledge of the organisation, its structure and systems, its politics and culture. "His situation was complicated because, coming from the outside, he had to simultaneously manage a personal transition and lead an organisational transformation, in addition to managing their accession to the top job. Together, these elements of transition, transformation and succession constitute a challenging scenario for a new corporate leader.” (Ciampa & Watkins, 2005)

Challenges resulting from the change in leadership are not just had by the new leader but they are faced by many throughout the organisation. The comfort that is felt by choosing an “insider” isn’t just a comfort for those managing the position but it is a comfort for those who are being led by that position. A new leader can face an assortment of challenges from subordinates, especially if they were more in favour of a different candidate to be their new boss. A new leader has the possible situation of managing those who were interested in, and perhaps applied for, the position. You might find your team has no want of a leader and they feel they can manage the tasks at hand without your help. Additionally, a new leader can find themselves in a situation where their team has no desire for change or growth or see no need for enhancement. Perhaps the individual whose position you are taking has been absent (emotionally, mentally, or literally) from the team for such a great deal of time, your new employees aren’t sure how a “leader” fits into the group.

The following five challenges, along with possible resolutions to such challenges, are discussed by Ciampa and Watkins in the same article, Right from the Start.

  1. Acquiring needed knowledge quickly - If you’ve been in a new leadership position you’ve probably expressed something similar to “there was so much I didn’t know.” We know some of what we don’t know and yet there are things that we don’t know we don’t know. Find them out. The learning curve is steep and there is little time available during this early transition period for considerable error. You must move quickly to make the transition for yourself and the organisation. “The new leader may lack critical knowledge in any or all of three domains – technical, cultural, or political.” [9]
  2. Establishing new working relationships - The challenge comes because you are leaving a comfortable, secure environment where you know the people and have established relationships to enter a situation where you know no one and have no connections. It is impossible to function at a high capacity without the essential components of relationships and networking in place. It makes it vital to establish productive, working relationships and build credibility as soon as possible. “Even under the best of circumstances, it takes time to establish productive working relationships. The new leader will have met few of his peers and subordinates, and his knowledge of their expectations, hopes, and concerns will be based largely on the opinions of others. New leaders cannot fully control how they are perceived by the people who in large part will determine their success.” [10]
  3. Juggling organisational and personal transitions - It’s important not to just be reactionary when entering this new organisation full of unknowns and uncertainty. Establish the prevailing tone and pace you desire to utilise to shape the organisational change that has been the aspiration for your addition to the company. Recognise that the change mandate may have been recently delivered to the employees, possibly in the same breath that they are told ‘Oh yeah, we also have a new leader coming on board.’ Recognise that you will have a variety of employee perspectives from anxiously awaiting change, to sceptical and unbelieving, and perhaps still others threatened by the arrival of an unknown person to this position of power. It might be difficult to recognise who is reacting in what manner at first but little if anything can be done to avoid this. Understand and anticipate that you might have little control over some aspects of this situation but still try to make the best of it in whatever means possible.
  4. Managing expectations - The expectations start as early as the first phone call. The search team and you, as the candidate, both had expectations of this new situation. Both wanted to give and receive something from the formation of this new possible relationship. It is important to manage and set reasonable expectations throughout this time. Additionally, employees’ expectations are inevitably affected by rumours and hearsay as well as the official declaration when a new leader is announced. Unfortunately, a new leader has little to no control over this. “All he can do, typically, is to try to comprehend the prevailing expectations and to deflate–carefully–those that are dangerously high while taking advantage of those that are useful.” [11]
  5. Maintaining personal equilibrium - “Some version of the first four challenges confronts all new leaders during their transitions. Handling them successfully often depends on maintaining emotional balance and exercising clear-headed judgement.” [12] You will inevitably feel a mix of emotions when taking a new leadership position: anticipation, excitement, fear, uncertainty. This is natural. The important part is keeping balance of all aspects of your life and recognising you are setting a standard by how you react to these emotions. Is work/life balance important? What is a “normal” work week? Remember that others are watching your reactions and you are in fact modelling the behaviour which can set the tone for your tenure of leadership as well as the tone for your organisation.

Overcoming obstacles of possible conflict before they become insurmountable is extremely important in this new undertaking. Asserting oneself and reaffirming that you were the best possible choice for the position while not offending or isolating your new team is a complicated process. It’s important to create momentum from the beginning and to harness any excitement and positive components that you’ve got going for you.

One of the key decisions that you need to make, when you are replacing the leader of a team, is whether to promote someone from within the team, or to look for someone from outside of the group. Both of these options have advantages in certain situations, and both present challenges to overcome as well.

When replacing a leader, what are the advantages of promoting someone from within the group?Edit

When you are replacing a leader who has been doing a good job, and the team is on the right track, it is often a good idea to promote a new team leader from within the existing team. One of the major advantages of promoting from within is consistency. Leaders promoted from within the team already know what is going on. They are familiar with the team's goals, processes, and culture, and therefore can usually step right in to the leadership role and keep things going with a very short transition period needed.

Promoting from within also sends signals to the rest of the members of the team. When a teammate is promoted to a leadership position it signals to others that there are opportunities for growth within the organization. It also signals to the team that they are on the right track and they are doing a good job. Both of these signals can help to support the morale of the team members and encourage them to keep moving forward.

There are some challenges that may arise from promoting a member of the team to a leadership position. The new leader may struggle to make the transition from a team member and friend to leader and boss. Some members of the team may feel that they are more qualified for leadership position. Others may feel that their existing friendship with the new leader entitle them to special privileges above the rest of the team. “Allying the jealousy and winning the trust of those left behind, while still asserting authority, requires a diplomacy and agility that many [new leaders] lack. But they must master those skills if they hope to get ahead.” [13]

What are the advantages of bringing someone in from outside the group?Edit

When the group is struggling to accomplish their goals and drastic change is needed, bringing in a new leader from outside of the organization can help to correct the course. A new leader who is previously not connected to the team can bring fresh ideas and insights to the table. They may also be able to refocus the team on the goals and can help to shift an ineffective culture.

Again, making the decision to hire a new team leader from outside of the organization sends signals to the members of the team. In this case, the new leader signals that there are needed changes in the teams operations, and that the way things have been done in the past may not be acceptable in the future. The hiring of an outsider puts all team members on notice that their position within the team is not secure, and that other changes may follow if results are not achieved.

It is likely that a new leader who was not a member of the group will always be viewed as an outsider. This view creates challenges in getting cooperation from the team members, and in maintaining high morale. It takes time for a team to make an effective transition to a new leader in any event. If the leader is an outsider this transition usually takes longer and requires patience both from the new leader and the organization as a whole.

Rarely is the decision of whether to promote from within or hire from outside a clear black and white scenario. In most cases there are some things the team is doing well, and so some continuity is desired. At the same time there are usually some areas in which improvement is needed and change is desired. There are also issues regarding whether or not any of the team members are prepared to take on a leadership role which also must be taken into account when making the decision on where to look for a new team leader. The most important thing when making this choice is to be aware of the consequences (both good and bad) of that choice, and be prepared to help your new leader to be successful in their role. We have examined the effects of a new team leader joining an existing team and in this section we will focus on how a new team leader can take advantage of the opportunity that initially exists without becoming prone to the vulnerabilities that also exist.

The transition process plan. Tools and resources.Edit

There are a number of traps that can await a new leader throughout the transition, however if the leader can focus on key points during this time they can be much more successful both in the short term and long term. In a letter written to Vikram Pandit during his transition to CEO of Citigroup Michael Watkins and Dan Ciampa noted the six leadership lessons that they have learned through their research of leadership transitions. [14] A summary of these lessons is below:

  1. Identify critical alliances within the group and organization – This step of the process involves identifying powerful internal and external constituencies and gaining their support. If a new leader can convince these influential individuals that it is in their interest for the leader and their strategy/goals to be successful they can quickly gain their much needed support during the transition. Examples of these influential individuals which the new leader will want to identify include key senior members of the group, leaders of other groups within the organization, executives or board members within the organization and influencers within the partner or customer organizations.
  2. Get the right team in place fast – As a new leader transitions into his role within the group or organization it is inevitable that they will inherit senior members of the team which are holdovers from the previous leader. The key here is to identify those with the skills, knowledge and background to help the new leader and their goals succeed. The most difficult task as a new leader is to remove or disrupt the senior membership of the team or organization but is essential for both the short and long term success of the leader. If they want to create a successful team that will share their vision it is important to get the right team in place fast; even if it requires replacing key people from the previous leader’s team.
  3. Secure early wins – As seen in the movie 12 o’clock high it is important for a new leader to demonstrate tangible successes to the team as soon as possible following the transition. The wins do not have to be large relative to the overall goal of the team; in fact it is suggested that they are small but the necessary component is that the results are tangible so that the group can experience success early on under the new leadership. Pick the low hanging fruit first.
  4. Lay the groundwork for effective communication – As a new leader joins a team everyone is closely watching their actions and listening to their words searching for signals and directions as they try to figure out who the leader is and what the new leader is all about. This is why it is crucial to clearly define and communicate your priorities, values and expectations early in the transition. If you want to influence the group and get buy-in as the leader it is key for them to know who you are and what you are all about. One effective method to accomplish this is through a new team leader assimilation meeting. In this meeting the team leader simply presents himself and who he is, both personally and professionally, and asks his team members do to the same. This open and collaborative communication early in the process allows for barriers to be broken down between the new leader and the team’s members.
  5. Shape your vision – This is not the mission of the company or the group, rather it is a vivid mental image of what the new leader sees as the future for the group. It should be a picture of what is seen, heard, and felt when the group fulfills its mission and objectives. The key people within the group must be inspired by this vision if it is to be effective.
  6. Build and use a balanced advice network – This could be the most important of all of the key areas to focus on. Too often new leaders come in with an attitude that they are in place because they know everything about the group’s objective or process. This is most likely not the case and new leaders can run into troubles when they are in fear of the vulnerability which can be created by showing their lack of specific knowledge related to the group and make a decision simply because “they are the leader”. To avoid this trap, new leaders should build a well balanced network of individuals within and outside of the group. This allows for the new leader to accelerate the learning process when it comes to group culture, market trends, products, etc. This can be the most effective tool in the new leader’s arsenal.

Successful transitions within a group can also be influenced by actions taken by the organization or team prior to the change in leadership. Many companies and groups develop succession plans in advance of the departure of the current leader as a way to lessen the downtime and soften the negative effects which result from leadership transitions. Perhaps the greatest benefit among these plans is the ability to transfer organizational knowledge from the outgoing leader to the incoming leader however to effectively accomplish this it is important to identify potential new leaders in the early stages of the succession plan [15].

Recommended steps for a new team leaderEdit

Lessons learned from leadership transitions in the political arena can also be applied to new team leaders in the business sector. In an article discussing the quick departure of New York Governor Elliott Spitzer and the accession of then Lieutenant Governor David Paterson, Rick Lash, North American director of the leadership and talent practice at Hay Group identified five critical points to aide in a smooth transition. [16].

  1. Don’t step into the old leaders shoes – If following a well liked leader it is important not to get into a popularity contest; conversely if you are following a leader that experienced negativity throughout their time in the role you do not want to be overly concerned with making the same mistakes. Simply put you need to be yourself and follow your own vision. In establishing credibility and a loyal following amongst the team it is important that they see you for you and not a mold of the previous leader.
  2. Stand up for what you believe in – One of the first steps is to let those around you within the group to know what you stand for. Often as a new leader you have skills, values and beliefs that others aspire to have and it is essential that you communicate this to those within the group.
  3. The great pretender – All new leaders stepping into a role within the group are going to have some knowledge gap of essential information specific to the group which they will have to learn. There is always going to be the fear of being ill-prepared as the new leader, however those that are successful are the ones that effectively deal with this natural anxiety as they step into their new role.
  4. Listen and learn – A new leader of a group should not be completely consumed with wanting to take action in the beginning of the transition. While it will be important for them to share some small successes with their team early on, it is also important to listen with an open mind. This step can help the new leader in gathering important information that may aide them in making future decisions which may have gone unnoticed or overlooked if they are only concerned with taking action and making changes in the early stages of them assuming their new role.
  5. Seek advice – This can be the most problematic and difficult trap for a new leader to overcome. After taking over a group new leaders tend not to reach out to others for advice, rather they solve problems and uphold their image as the leader at all costs. The reality is that the best leaders are those that are able to recognize their weaknesses and seek out advice to make the most informed decision possible.

Both Gilmore and Watkins suggest the same basic tools for a new team leader to have a successful transition including effective communication and building an environment of collaboration around you. In addition Peter Fischer offers a framework for effective leaders to avoid typical pitfalls and mistakes during their transition in his book “The new boss: How to survive the first 100 days.” This framework which has been summarized by the Leading Blog website emphasizes the new leaders ability to identify and prioritize what is important and more importantly what is not, their desire to develop key relationships early in the process and most importantly the leaders ability to impart confidence and trust throughout the transition by communicating their vision [17].

Leaders who make transitions successfully Leaders that are less successful in transitions
Possess superior knowledge and familiarity with the field and readily distinguish between what is important and what is not Often come from outside the field and take too long to get their bearings
Recognize and develop key relationships, deal adroitly with hidden rivals and predecessors, build networks in the organization, and show that they are team-oriented Focus too much on the tasks to be accomplished, neglect the development of working relations built on trust, and tend to prefer to work things out alone
Know how to group the many issues and problems into a vision and to motivate the employees Pursue too many approaches at the same time without a persuasive strategy and focus on eliminating weak points
Communicate with senior management on strategy and style of leadership Accept unclear expectations from senior management
Have knowledge about the process of changing leadership and impart confidence and trust because they can assess developments Are too easily surprised, concentrate only on changes and thereby neglect the employees’ need for stability and security


  1. . Watkins, M. (2003). The First 90 Days. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Publishing.
  2. . Manderscheid, S. V. (2008). New Leader Assimilation: An Intervention for Leaders in Transition. Advances in Developing Human Resources 2008 10 , 686 - 702.
  3. . Alexel / Institute of Executive Development. (2008). Executive Transition Market Study.
  4. . Kraft, C. (2008). Executive Transition Market Study. , 1.
  5. . Alexel / Institute of Executive Development. (2008). Executive Transition Market Study.
  6. . Frederick P. Morgeson, D. S. (2009). Leadership in Teams: A Functional Approach to Understanding Leadership Structures and Processes. Journal of Management 2010 36 , 5-39..
  7. . Alexel / Institute of Executive Development. (2008). Executive Transition Market Study.
  8. . Alexel / Institute of Executive Development. (2008). Executive Transition Market Study.
  9. . Ciampa, D., & Watkins, M. (2005). Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role. Harvard Business School Press , 336.
  10. . Ciampa, D., & Watkins, M. (2005). Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role. Harvard Business School Press , 336.
  11. . Ciampa, D., & Watkins, M. (2005). Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role. Harvard Business School Press , 336.
  12. . Ciampa, D., & Watkins, M. (2005). Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role. Harvard Business School Press , 336.
  13. . David Koeppel, “Executive Life; A Tough Transition: Friend to Supervisor” New York Times March 16, 2003
  14. . Michael Watkins, D. C. (2007, December 18). Advice for Vikram Pandit, the New CEO of Citigroup. Retrieved October 2010, from Harvard Business Review:
  15. . Hakala, D. (2008, August 21). Promoting from within. Retrieved October 2010, from HR World:
  16. . Gilmore, A. (2008, April). In With the New: Leader Dos and Don’ts. Retrieved October 2010, from Talent Managment:
  17. . The Leading Blog. (2008, June 13). Retrieved October 2010, from