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What to do when you inherit troubled talent

4 min read


Unless you specialize in start-up companies, where you get to handpick your direct reports as they come in from the outside, the chances are excellent that you will inherit your teams now and then.  And, let’s face it, some of your new team members will be coming in with baggage. That’s the drawback of working with humans.  It’s a drag, I know.

Eventually you’re going to find how who those extra, uhm, special team members are.  They may reveal their true nature to you directly.  But, more likely than not, their reputation will precede them:  “Watch your back with Joe.”  “That Mary, she’s a piece of work.”  “Daria? Well, she’s not exactly a self-starter.”  “Between you and me? Peter, well, you know….”  Innuendo. Hints.  Flat out indictments.  You’ll get it all.  And your own excitement about your new job will be threatened by the looming feeling that maybe you’ve taken on the Dirty Dozen.  Or that you’ve landed on the Island of Misfit Toys.


The situation may not be as bad as you might think it is.  What you’re getting is a report of how people performed in the culture that your predecessor had established.  With you as their new leader, you’re changing the alchemy of the group. And so you represent a fresh start, even if the rest of the team continues to work with each other the same way they did the months and years before you showed up.  And, as a leader, it’s quite possible that the most valuable thing you can do for your team (at least in the first quarter) is give them a chance at a do-over, without having to change their own jobs to do it.

Here’s how:

  • Check your own assumptions. Do you believe that people are basically zeroes until their performance starts racking up brownie points? If that’s how you evaluate people, then the ones with a bad rap really do have the odds stacked against them.  Unless you change that fundamental approach to your people, your team is truly at a disadvantage. Work with a coach (or a therapist) to help yourself neutralize this attitude about people.
  • Give all your people an A. It’s much easier to (not to mention more inspiring) to keep up a perfect score than it is to haul yourself out of a ditch. Let everyone know that starting now, what you care about is what they can do for the team and company. You recognize that they were hired for their capabilities.  And, as far as your concerned, from this point forward, that’s what you’ll be focusing on.
  • Make your team about performance, not about reputation. People with dinged reputations already feel bad. You don’t have to remind them.  Give them measurable and identifiable performance goals and focus your conversations with them on that.
  • Establish a no-bad-mouthing rule. Because you’re changing your team’s culture to one that focuses on performance, this is also a great time to remove the focus on reputation. Let it be known that you won’t tolerate your team members speaking ill of each other. And you especially don’t want to hear it.  Naturally, at first people will still talk — mostly behind your back. So keep focusing on performance in your messaging, and eventually the talk will die away.
  • Make “that was then, this is now” your motto. It’s quite possible that the real source of your team’s difficulty was your predecessor (but you may not know for sure, since you’ve established a no-bad-mouthing rule).  You may have just replaced the main source of bad chemistry, ill-will and demoralization.  That team member whom people have pointed out as being a misfit or nonstarter?  That person might have been a scapegoat picked on by your predecessor.  The fresh start you represent just might save this valuable player’s career.

If you’re starting a new job leading a new team, it’s a fresh start for you and your career, to be sure.  But it’s also a great new opportunity for your new team to press the reset button on their own professional lives.  Helping save great talent that just needed a chance with a new leader could be the most valuable service you perform for your company during your first year as the new boss.

Martha Finney, president and CEO of Engagement Journeys, helps companies build authentically engaging workplace cultures.  She is the author of more than 15 books, including The Truth About Getting the Best From People.

Image credit, thomasd007,via iStock