Being A New Manager On a Dispirited Team

Dave Ellery

Senior Engineering Manager at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative



"I took over as manager of a new team that was very troubled, low morale, low output - they had been through a year of very very intense development but had been unable to deliver on planned work, in spite of their apparent level of skill and talent."

Actions taken

First, as a manager, imposed onto a team, particularly where the previous manager may still be as has shifted back to an IC role, it is critical to start to build a rapport and build trust with the team, before you can start fixing the deeper issues. I did this simply at first, 1:1's with every member, listening to their problems, but also to build trust, starting to deal with low hanging fruit issues, software licenses, access to various pieces of the system, anything small you can do to get those initial wins, to show them you care and are their to help.

Second, fixing the larger process problems, once you have built up some trust, but have spent a lot of time really listening to the team and their problems, you can start fixing the real problems. For this team, initially, it was their scrum process, they were constantly overcommitted and had no real say in what work was done, easily fixed. As manager, I took control of the process, pushed back on our Product Managers and drastically cut down on commitments, as well as helping get realistic estimates of the team output, so the PM's could have better visibility.

Third, dealing with deeper issues, showing the team you really care, again, delivering on my promises was key here, building a career plan for the team, building roadmaps, changing the environment so it's open and transparent about the what the decisions are and why they were made and how that impacts their work.

Lessons learned

"The two lessons I learned from this experience was 1/ you need to really be able to listen and hear the people on your team, they know what works and what doesn't, so if you take the time to just listen initially, you'll have 90% of what you need to succeed. 2/ feedback is crucial, if you want to change an environment for the better, building an environment where the team can give/receive/accept/act on feedback, in my case, it started with me eliciting feedback on how to improve what I was doing, but it build a culture where the team felt comfortable giving and receiving feedback, so were able to improve significantly faster."

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Dave Ellery

Senior Engineering Manager at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership TrainingPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer Growth

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