Allison had made a name for herself as the breakout star of the marketing team at a mid-sized B2B software company. Joining the organization right after graduate school, she’d quickly understood the customer base and their needs – and seemed to have a golden touch when it came to building teams.
She was thrilled, then, when she was hand-picked for a brand-new role as head of the launch team for a new software suite the company had been pouring years of R&D into. Given the timing of launch, the team would need to include a broad scope of members – from quality assurance and testers to market researchers and designers. Allison expected the team to come together seamlessly, just like in marketing. Everyone was used to a different management style, but she had time to work it out.
So imagine her shock when, after just a few short weeks, she was called in by a very angry upper manager about problems in the team. Sure, she’d been surprised when tech members had raised issues with her detailed timeline – claiming it failed to account for many stages of their quality assurance. Dismissing their concerns as overcautiousness, she noticed soon afterward that the new team had begun avoiding her in the hallways. Soon, the technical members were boycotting her meetings altogether, and taking their complaints to management.
What went wrong? Allison had always heard she had a golden touch with team-building – but those teams were closely aligned and shared similar working processes. In this new role, she’d relied on her team-building strengths. But she hadn’t educated herself on what leadership might require in a different context. She was so focused on being perceived as “getting the job done” that learning how this new mixed team might function fell to the wayside.
Shaken by this experience, she acted decisively. She set up one-on-one meetings with all of the team members to listen to their concerns. She convened small groups from their respective departments, and met with other stakeholders on her team. She learned that processes and procedures varied widely across the departments she was now working with – and that her assumption that all teams were essentially the same had almost cost her this new role.
Digging deeper, she learned that most early failures in a new role come down to failures in learning. Yet few leaders treat learning as a systematic part of taking on a new challenge. Even fewer leaders have a prioritized plan for learning when they step in.
This means that new leaders might be making changes without understanding how things came to work the way they currently do – without accounting for how the history of the organization has shaped the present. It can alienate and frustrate team members, who may feel dismissed or demoralized with the changes.
To get back on track, Allison realized, she needed to do some soul searching too.