How to Turnaround an Underperforming team

Inherited an Underperforming Team? What Now?

If you’re a great leader, it’s bound to happen to you. You invest your heart and soul getting your team to peak performance, and just as you’re about to breathe a sigh of relief, you get the call. There’s an underperforming team that needs your leadership.

Your boss asks, “Would you be open to a “special assignment” or a “lateral move” or even a “promotion that’s going to be a bit of a challenge?”

So you trade-in the high performing team you’ve built the hard way, and you brace yourself to start all over again with an underperforming team and all the drama and pressure that comes with that. You know it won’t be long before everyone forgets what a shambles you took over, and starts to question your leadership and results. You’ve got to get to work, fast.

This is no time to be timid. Get set for some careful and deliberate boat rocking.

My best leadership memories have come from turnaround work with underperforming teams.  Those were the years I grew the most and learned how to win well. If this is your scene, game on. Sure it will be frustrating at times, but if you can dig deep and weather the stormy seas, you’re in for a rewarding journey your team will look back on with pride.

When you rock a sinking boat, it’s hard for the naysayers to notice. Rock it. Make an Impact.

When turning around an underperforming team, the trick is to carefully assess the situation and then articulate a bold vision and strong execution plan that builds hope and excitement as you turn the ship around.

How to Turnaround an Underperforming Team

Do This

  • Start slow and ask a lot of questions.
  • Be curious about the current “brand” of the team or organization and where it came from.
  • Talk with key stakeholders about what is working and what’s not (do this as early as possible, they’re far more likely to tell you the truth before you’re considered part of the problem.)
  • Give the current team the benefit of the doubt (listen carefully to what they’ve been doing and why.)
  • Find your “A Players” and listen carefully for best practices (you can watch a video of how to do this at the bottom of this post.)
  • Articulate a BOLD vision.
  • Identify the most important things/priorities (MIT. )  (You can’t fix everything all at once, be sure to start with what will make the biggest impact.)
  • Identify specific BEHAVIORS that will lead to success every level.
  • Communicate what’s got to go–what behaviors must change for the team to be successful.
  • Spend as much time side by side with your team as possible. Ask about what’s holding them back, listen deeply and respond.
  • Communicate the MIT priorities and behaviors until everyone sees you coming and screams “Okay, okay we get it.” For tips on how to do this well, click here.
  • Clearly define the skills needed for success.
  • Assess the will and skill of the current team, and get the right people in the right seats.
  • Recruit for missing skill sets.
  • Celebrate and reward incremental wins.
  • Repeat.

BONUS TIP

  • Consider re-branding the organization or project with a new name and/or logo (make sure something is really different before you do this.)

Not That

  • Talk poorly about previous leadership or strategy.
  • Assume everything needs to change.
  • Write-off your current team assuming they don’t have the potential to be successful.
  • Change everything.
  • Assume you know what is best.
  • Be afraid to make some bold changes.
  • Give up too soon–real change happens incrementally.
  • Start claiming victory too soon–see above.

One of my Favorite Turnaround Success Stories from My Sales Team Leadership Role

Want a deeper view? We share our system for building high-performing teams in our book, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results–Without Losing Your Soul.

Your turn.

What’s your very best advice for turning around an underperforming team?

Posted in Winning Well.

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.

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