Lions and Cubs - Part 2

In Part 1 of Lions and Cubs, I talked about how leaders shouldn't treat their experienced resources the way a pride treats their mature males. In a lion's pride, when a male is on the cusp of maturity it's outed from the pride and forced to find it's own way. This is not the way you want to treat your highly valuable, highly experienced team members. Today I want to look at the way a lion, just taking over a pride, deals with the existing male cubs and, again, how this is a poor path for a leader, especially a new leader, to follow.

The male head of a pride keeps his place for around 5 years until he's pushed out by a younger male
(probably with an MBA). The new male then kills any male cubs, for a couple of reasons. One, he doesn't want the competition and two, female lions won't be fertile until their cubs reach maturity. Do the math - if you take over a pride, and you're only going to get to run it for about 5 years, and you have to wait 2 years before the females are ready to produce your offspring, you're only going to get one good push at getting your genes out there. While this may seem cruel, getting rid of the cubs doubles and maybe triples the number of offspring you'll leave behind.

That's the logic of a new male taking over a pride. But what about a new manager taking over a team? This isn't an uncommon occurrence - managers get moved around to new teams. They get promoted. They get re-org'd. They get RIF'd. They get hired. It’s inevitable. At some point in your leadership journey, you’ll be the one taking over a new team.

Obviously, when this happens to you, don't kill off all of the junior team members that the previous manager hired. But in the chaotic and rushed days that follow you taking over a new team, the resources with the least amount of experience may seem like those with the least value to add as you try and get your legs under you. While you’re trying to figure out where your team fits in the larger organization, where you fit into your bosses arm of the org chart and sometimes exactly what it is that your new team even does, it makes sense that the long time resources and those with the most experience will be the ones with the greatest value in helping you get on top of things.


Not entirely. While it’s true that the “old timers” on the team might be able to get a new manager up to speed quickly on the status quo, it doesn’t mean that the less experienced resources can’t help, too. In fact, they may hold the keys to the knowledge needed to take a good team and make them great. Their lack of experience can become one of your greatest assets.

To begin with, remember that they have recently walked in a version of your shoes. They, too, had to figure out what your team does, and where they fit in. They may have documented things they were told that aren’t in the employee manual, or are different in real life than they are on the oft referenced but rarely updated company intranet. Asking your “cubs” if they have answers to company questions won’t make you seem weak. It will show that you’re human and occasionally need questions answered, too. This opens the door for your team to come to you with their own questions later on.

Your junior team members are also less likely to ignore the dead body in the room. We’ll talk more about this principle in a later post, but for now here’s the short version - imagine there is a dead body in the middle of the room. At first, everyone is freaking out and talking about what to do with it, how to get rid of it. But eventually they just walk around it. They get so used to it being there, they no longer even notice it.

Bad process, bad code and inefficient methods are the dead body in the room. Your experienced resources have learned to deal with them. They consciously avoid these problems, or have developed work-arounds and unconsciously ignore the issues. But the newer folks? They are still freaking out about the dead body. They know it’s there, they can’t ignore it and DEAR GOD WON’T SOMEONE DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

That’s where you, their new manager, comes in. They hope you’ll see it, too. Spend the time talking to them and out right ask them if there are things the team does that just doesn’t make sense. Is there a code deployment process that’s out of date? Technical debt that, once completed, would save the team hours a week? A hole in the overall team’s knowledge? Your juniors are more likely to have noted these things, and are less likely to tell you “but that’s the way we’ve always done it”. By engaging the entire team in advising you on what works and what doesn’t, you’ll get a holistic picture of the work that needs to be done to rev the team up and meet their full potential.

There is a second benefit here, too. By directly asking your junior team members for their thoughts, you create trust. That makes it easier for your team to come to you later with issues and instills in them the understanding you really are there to help make the team better, not just push projects through as quickly as possible.

New or old, each member of your team will have a perspective on how the team operates and what is holding them back. Collectively these points of view will help you push your new team through their road blocks to being a productive and happy group.


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