Background: For about a year I have been working (some of my time) in a consultant role for another department in my company, doing process improvement and setting up a reporting tool. Recently I have been offered the position of manager back office there. I have some experience managing a small back office (me and 3 directs) when I was younger, though at the time it was called 'team lead' and (young as I was) I kind of did and learned on the fly (didn't we all?)

The thing is, I won't be able to take over the department just now. In a few months the unit will be audited and they're not well prepared yet. I am currently helping the prep which means I am there almost full time, working closely with the current manager back office. During this time I will also have regular interactions with my future team (8 people).

Now, management MIGHT decide to go ahead with the change anyway. I have briefed them that I will not be able to both manage the BO and (significantly) contribute to the audit-prep. So my timeline is that somewhere in the next 2 months I expect to be given this team. The team knows something is up as reorganisations have been announced. (I hate the thought of leaving them in uncertainty for 2 months more...)

To complicate things further, there is a (major)performance issue with 2 of my future team members. One of those might be terminated before I take over, or not. Higher management is currently discussing with HR. The rest of them, they are generally known as a 'weak' team with some performance issues. What I have seen last year is that they are ruled by fear by their current manager. I have seen multiple occasions where he has been going at people to the point of crying. I am confident that I will be able to turn most of them around, also the one they're contemplating termination for. I cringe when I hear things like 'should just fire the lot and start over' when they've just suffered from bad management.

My question to you: Would I be able to do something to get a head start on developing my relation with my future team (they all already know me from last year) or will they view me in a totally different light once I become their manager and receive the big red flashing sign on my head?

I feel they need feedback, mainly positive feedback, as soon as possible if I want to show management they can improve and basically, save their asses. On the other hand, they have had such bad experiences with their previous manager that it might take me significantly longer to build even a semblance of a relationship, I don't know, this is the first time I get to take over a team like this. Do any of you have experience in a situation like this to give me some guidance?

I feel like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland: so much to do and so little time...


mattpalmer's picture

Personally, I'd be working very hard to get approval to tell everyone what's going on.  There's a very, *very* small possibility that there is a legitimate reason for not making it known what is going on, but far more likely it's just a reflexive action towards secrecy that can be negotiated with.  Keeping the lines of communication open and everyone up to date with the facts makes for a much healthier environment, and it'll make the rest of the things you should do so much more comprehensible to those around you.

Because I think you should start talking to everyone in the team you'll be managing, and building those relationships.  If you can make it public that you'll be taking over the team, you can have one-on-ones (with a much larger "time for the direct" than you normally would).  Explain it as, "since I'll be taking over the team at some point over the next couple of months, I'd like to get a head start on getting to know everyone and understanding the dynamics of the team".  You can use that exact explanation on your boss, the existing manager of the team, and the team members.

Even if you can't formally tell everyone what's going on, you can still take the time to "grab a coffee" with everyone on the team.  That should give you 10-15 minutes to run their part of a one-on-one.  Ask lots of questions, share some personal stuff of your own.  I like the questions listed at the end of (I think it was someone on the MT forums who linked to them, actually).  Ask those sorts of questions, and personal questions, and just build that relationship.

As far as the person who is at risk of getting fired, I'm in two minds about that.  If the existing manager thinks they need to be gotten rid of, I'm inclined to not get in the way of that.  You may think that the cause of the problem is the manager (and based on what you've said, I wouldn't disagree with you), but you can't know the full story.  There may actually be a very good reason why the person is on the way out.  Even if you're right, though, you're not going to win any friends by getting in the way of that.  Even the person whose job you saved isn't likely to respond well to knowing that you saved them from the chop.

By the way, I'm in a somewhat analogous position to yours -- I've just been promoted into a new role within the company that I'll be taking over in a month or two (when an existing project that I want to see through is completed).  It was announced to the whole company as soon as the decision was made, so I don't have to worry about keeping it a secret, and the department I'm running doesn't have anyone in immediate danger of being fired, but I'm planning on taking my own advice and talking with everyone in the department before I take over, and having weekly O3s with all of my directs (the team leads) until I officially take on the job.

svibanez's picture

I believe Matt's advice is right on target. Building the relationships in advance will make it easier for your new team to trust you when you become their boss.


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cara's picture

First of all Matt, thank you for your elaborate reply and the link you sent, I will go and look at that after my reply. And Steve, thank you as well for taking the time to let me know that you agree with Matt. It's good to hear that more people agree on this stuff :)

With regard to the possible layoff, what I find hard is that the current manager just expects that if he tells people to change, they will change without any assistance from his side. Then they don't hear back from him for months at a time, which I suppose gives them the feeling they're doing ok. And when it's time for their next review his 'nothing's changed' is just unexpected by them. These are not high educated people and they need someone to guide them in that kind of process. I do not mean that in a derogatory fashion by the way.

In any case, I see your point and will not push management for a decision either way. I will however ask them to make the changes public as soon as possible.

Good point on starting to build the relationship and share of my own stuff. I tend to be rather process-focused so personal stuff is usually not the first thing on my mind when talking to people. I could soooooo use a crash course in small talk ;-)


mattpalmer's picture

"How to be Effective in Everyday Conversation".  That, plus memorising a list of standard questions suitable for nearly any occasion, is all you need for endless small talk.  The really hard bit is being able to listen to a lengthy monologue about Aunt Missy's hip replacement surgery without wanting to shoot yourself.  (In case it wasn't obvious, I'm not a people person either)  The "How to End a Conversation" cast is helpful at that end of the conversation.

I wouldn't disagree that the outgoing manager sounds like he doesn't know what he's doing.  The upside is that his incompetence is to your benefit.  You will seem so much better in comparison -- to both your directs and your superiors -- by building relationships and talking about performance that you will appear god-like in their eyes.  It's much harder to come in after an awesome boss (just ask anyone who's taken the jobs I've vacated... hahahaha!)


cara's picture

Oh wow, there's a cast for that... awesome! From what I've seen from MT so far (I'm obviously a recent convert) I could have known that.

I have the (very bad) habit of wanting to continue working while making small talk at my desk, which by most people is interpreted as not interested. And looking at it from a distance I can relate to that, it's just that I feel so damn wasteful to just sit there and chat when I could type at the same time. And I know, yada yada women and multitasking yada yada doesn't work.

Thank you for lending a hand once again. I shall go forth and listen and learn and be on my way to chit-chat heaven :-P


Oh and the outgoing manager is not a bad guy at all, he has good insights proces-wise and is a great technical asset for the company. He's just not a manager. And yes, I do see the perks in taking over this way.

cara's picture


I have discussed with management the option to announce my new position. This can not be done yet, as the change is officially part of a reorganisation and as such, has to be cleared with the works council. The works council meeting was planned for last week, but has been postponed due to a funeral.

However, we did discuss the following:

The person facing layoff will receive the bad news next week. Afterwards, the team will be informed that the position will currently not be filled, due to the fact that we are under reorganisation . This will obviously create some turmoil in the team. I will then be brought forward to 'investigate and guide' the current workload. This will at least give me the opportunity to start O3's and have talks with our internal customers.

 For now, the existing manager stays on as manager on paper. As he is busy preparing the audit he will be less involved on a daily basis. I think everything combined will give me the best opportunity to start working with the team, within the rules regarding the reorganisation. I hope to be able to go 'out in the open' soon.

mattpalmer's picture

It seems like what has been decided is a workable middle ground.  You should be reasonably able to get a head start on relationships and finding your feet in your new role.  I'd advise you to be wary of gossip and poor morale relating to the reorg -- have some stock phrases on hand to use in the face of likely commentary from your soon-to-be-directs.  Given that you know things you can't share (and once everything comes out, it's likely people will know, or at least guess, that you knew in advance), you don't want to give people misleading impressions now, because it will damage your credibility later on when the full story comes out.  Don't ever tell anyone an untruth.  To make sure you don't accidentally let something slip, or mislead someone, have some phrases ready to roll (practice saying them out loud, even).

And congrats on the new role.  It sounds like you've handled things well so far, and starting well is always a great beginning.  (grin)

cara's picture

It's the one thing I worry about most, I am a proponent for openness whenever possible. It is against the current culture for this department, which concerns me. The my predecessor plans to tell the team about the one due to be fired that she is 'absent for personal reasons'.

I am very lucky as we are going to go 'matrix' and hierarchically I will continue to reside under my current manager, who is guiding a change program in the department in question. We both feel that lying by omission is lying all the same, so we'll do our best to get them to call a spade a spade.

I plan to tell the team later on, when everything is out in the open: 'You can't expect management to undertake a reorganisation and not have a general idea of where they want to go. However, we could not go public until everything was cleared by the works council. This means that sometimes, there will be a situation where I have some information that I am not at liberty to share. But I promise you now that I will always be as open with you as possible.' 

The situation is not ideal. Then again, it probably never is.

cara's picture

 I'd like to give a small update on what happened lately and ask your views on some points I stumbled across.

- two weeks ago, one of the iffy directs-to-be was terminated

- I was assigned to the team 'to help out with the tasks left by this person' and 'to manage the team's workload' and 'oversee support for the person she was supporting'

- In order to do this, I had to hand over tasks with regard to the upcoming audit to their current manager

- In order for their current manager to have sufficient time to work on the audit, I have to take as many team-related issues as possible

This week, I had a meeting with my team-to-be to set up an introduction plan and assign a roster with regard to my training. In that meeting I also asked for 30 minutes with each of them on a weekly basis, which I explained as necessary to discuss work and get their input for the reorganisation we need to finalise. This was met with MAJOR resistance, where they insist they want to do this as a group and not one on one with me. As I have no official hierarchical power over them yet, I had to ask their current manager to give them a speech that whatever I tell goes, so if I ask for 30 minutes a week they better make time for it.

I was disappointed by their reaction and fear we have a lot of work ahead of us building relationships. I was hoping to get a head start planning them unofficially already, but the pushback I get makes me doubt my decision. Alas, now I have started this, I'll have to carry through. I tried to find casts on resisting directs and enrolled in the O3 email program. Do you have any pointers for me? Also good casts to listen to would be appreciated.

Thanks in advance for helping, I have already learned so much reading here and appreciate the hard work M&M put in these free casts every week and the kind assistance of all forum members.

mattpalmer's picture

All this subterfuge is doing nobody any favours.  You don't build a relationship by deceiving people.  It seems perfectly reasonable to me to want to give input on a reorg as a group, rather than individually.  Getting their current manager to "pull rank" and order them to do what you say... I'll tell you, if someone did that to me, and then a few months later they became my boss... I would be looking for a way out.

I'd recommend stepping *way* back on the power trip and trying to talk to people from a position of deference, not a position of authority.  If nothing else, you *have* no authority at the moment, and the fact that you know you *will* have authority in the future is probably making you come off even weirder.  Seek to collaborate, not dominate.  And keep pushing the powers that be to let you tell everyone what's going on, because my guess is that the secret is putting out vibes that people are picking up on, and they're acting weird because of it, even if they don't quite know *why*.  If you've ever seen a dog or a cat immediately before a big earthquake, you know the sort of mental picture I've got in my head right now.

cara's picture

 Matt, thank you for your continued views on my situation. Much appreciated. 

I know I am not in a good place right now, have discussed my dislike of the position I have been put in with my manager and HR. I have also shared my belief that every week they keep us in this situation will take us further away from our goal of a smooth functioning team. Luckily they agree and we seem to have everyone (management, HR, Works council) lined up now so the reorg (at least on my level) will be communicated soon. Management is working on the communication plan.

My reasons for asking the 30 mins weekly were a) to start the relationship building; and b) to provide room for the less outspoken team members to contribute. We have 2 loudmouths who tend to take over a meeting and prevent the more restrained members from talking. Also, I sensed some undercurrents in the team, with some people not working well with others. I do not feel they are comfortable talking about that as a group. But as I said, I wish I had waited based on the reaction at the time.

Reading back on my previous posts, I think I might have worded some things differently, either for the sake of brevity or due to my inability to find the correct phrases in English. As you might have guessed, English is not my native language.

My feelings about the whole thing are still mixed, but the fact that at last there is movement in the situation is a positive. Next week we start our 1:1 talks, I'm eager to see what they will result in.


One positive: This week, late in the afternoon, I was alone with one of the girs and she asked me frankly ('and you don't have to answer') if after the reorg is done I will be in some form or shape their senior or manager. I told her: I'm not at liberty to answer the question, which should answer your question (with a wink). She replied that she'd been hoping for that, which of course made me very proud.