Know when your team needs help?

I recently enjoyed lunch with a long-time client. It had been a few years since we last worked together, and it was great to catch up. She had recently moved to a new CEO position and wanted to discuss some challenges.

“I’ve been working with the new team for 9 months now and I think I’m getting to know them”, she began, “but when I turn to the subject of shaky systems, heavily staffed operations, and the slow start on the initiatives we all agreed to earlier this year, I don’t feel I’m getting the full story.”

My friend’s concern was that she wanted to help the team, but could not get to the bottom of what kind of help they really needed. One option was to get started (they had) and see how well things developed (they hadn’t). Should she let the team learn on the job through trial and error, or mandate some additional expertise to help them through the hump?

What would you do?

Here’s what I suggested.

As we talked through her challenges, three things quickly became clear; the team was competent, dedicated, and knew the business well; but the current challenges were beyond the experience of anyone on the team; and the stakes were too high to use these projects as a learning exercise. Yet there was a risk of undermining the team's confidence (and their trust for the new CEO) by bringing in help for the first major assignment they had faced together.

My advice was to engage outside help in a short term empathetic intervention to guide the team through a catch up process, simplify the challenges (because I felt there was opportunity to do so), and establish the right approaches to complete the work. The intervention should then back off in to an advisory role, attending Steering meetings and providing additional help only when the team requested.

By doing this, the risk of the CEO alienating her team would be minimized. And that risk was minor compared to the consequences of failure.

Done right, the intervention would be an opportunity to bolster the confidence of the team, and their regard for my friend.

My challenge to you : How do you determine when your team needs help to surmount new, high-stakes challenges?

Here are a few questions to ask of yourself:

  1. How long does it take for your projects to hit a pace? If you could plot the progress curve, would look like a trapezoid, a bell curve or a hockey stick?
  2. If your team comes to you with concerns about their challenges, would they prefer to tough it out rather than ask for help? Are they being honest?
  3. Have you had any delays or re-sets while fundamental approaches are revised mid-project?
  4. Has trial and error ever cost you a deadline?
  5. Do you think your team needs help?

If you answered Yes to questions 2-5, you might benefit from an empathetic intervention.

Want to discuss the outcome of this challenge? Contact me at to schedule a conversation about your results. I'll also help you interpret your answer to question 1!