13 Tips for Taking Over an Existing Engineering Team [+ Free Templates]

It’s normal to feel out of the loop when leading a new team—here are our tips to get through those first few weeks. Plus, get free templates!

A Gallup study found that the way managers approach their teams can affect employee engagement by up to 70%. In the US, 50% of employees have left their team due to troubles with their manager. 

So, as a manager taking over an existing team for the first time, it’s totally understandable why you might feel like the pressure’s on to impress your new team right off the bat. 

To help get you through those first few weeks, we’ve put together our 13 top tips for making the transition to your new team as easy as can be—for both you and them!

13 tips for taking over an existing engineering team

1Know your team’s expectations and communicate yours

From the beginning, it’s crucial to set your boundaries and expectations with your team and also understand where theirs lie. You can set these with your team in your first meeting together. When doing so, remember that you and your team are both totally new to each other, so consider starting off with just your “absolute” expectations—things that cannot happen any other way. As your relationships progress, consider setting other expectations that align with your new knowledge of the work and team. 

2Schedule team meetings

Getting your team in sync is the first step to building a solid engineering operations cadence early on. Scheduling regular team meetings to discuss engineering operations can also provide more opportunities to familiarize yourself with the team dynamics, culture, and any ongoing projects. Sending out feedback surveys after your meetings will also help you understand what works best for your team, what they hope to discuss in the future, and how you can optimize future meetings going forward. 

3Understand the team culture 

Engineering teams work closely together, and your new team has likely already established a culture of practices that they work within everyday. Get to know your team’s existing culture by asking questions such as:

  • What hours do most people work? Is overtime acceptable, and in which scenarios?
  • What is the operational cadence for work?
  • How frequently do team members work outside of their comfort zone, and why?
  • When a challenge arises, what is the default reaction and what are the next steps? Who is involved in the resolution of problems?

4Ask for feedback 

Feedback can be delivered in quite a few forms. Consider asking for feedback through a survey after your meetings or directly discussing it in one-on-ones with your new team members. You might also consider asking for feedback from someone outside your direct team, like another manager from another department with whom you work closely. If they’ve worked in the organization for a long time, they may have some helpful insights to guide your first few weeks. 

Remember that feedback can be both positive and negative. Both types are helpful for your development, and you can put both into action plans for furthering your work with your new team. 

5Focus on management first, then coding

This tip is especially important for new managers coming from an independent contributor role. If you’ve spent the last few years focusing on coding and testing, you might feel more comfortable first making suggestions on how to better design the architecture or run deeper quality assurance (QA) testing. While these hands-on focuses can be helpful to engineering operations, they’re also tasks the team can manage themselves while you settle in. As a manager, your first priority should be understanding team dynamics, getting to know each team member one-on-one, and identifying strategic gaps or areas of opportunity. 

6Shadow the previous manager before taking over

If you have the opportunity to do so, shadowing the previous manager before taking over is a super efficient way to transition the role. The previous manager may have specific processes, tracking systems, or communication styles in one-on-ones that the wider team doesn’t see. So, if you transitioned into the role without support from the previous manager, you may miss out on this pre-built management infrastructure (if you want to call it that). However, if you do end up in a role where you weren’t able to shadow the previous manager, consider asking your boss (or the previous manager’s boss) about where they would have stored those critical documents, insights, or tracking systems for your reference. 

7Build rapport with regular one-on-ones 

Through one-on-one meetings, you can get to know each of your new team members individually. You’ll be able to understand the unique skills that each member brings to the table, their working styles, and their ideal plans for personal or professional development at the company. In your first few one-on-one meetings with your new team members, focus more on getting to know them as a person and their relationship to the team. As you settle in and have a better understanding of each employee, you can begin delegating new projects, assign action items in meetings, or ask for detailed project updates. 

8Be an active listener

Active listening at work is a fantastic strategy for building trust, ensuring audience engagement, and improving an employee’s feeling of purpose within their work. Some ways to practice active listening include:

  • Asking open-ended questions that provide an opportunity for the other person to respond and elaborate
  • Providing verbal affirmations to show that you were paying attention
  • Paraphrasing what was said to you to show you understood the speaker’s core message
  • Waiting until they have completely finished their thoughts before sharing your opinion

9Ask questions 

Asking questions is a great way to understand how the team works, how an individual contributor relates to the team, and how processes function, and doing so also shows that you’re actively interested in comprehending the full existing situation. For example, rather than suggesting to the team that they change their process for testing code, you may want to first ask why they’re currently doing their testing a certain way. There may be certain boundaries within which the team is working that you may not yet be aware of, so asking questions enables you to get the full context of the current working environment. 

10Prepare for resistance 

Regardless of how agile a team may be in product development, some people may still have a more difficult time with change in their working environment. To help your new team effectively cope with this new change, remind your team that you’re available to help and hear out their concerns, stay open-minded to adapt to the team’s existing flow, and work closely with other managers or support staff in the organization. Minimizing the amount of changes that employees have to manage at one time can make the transition smoother and more digestible for your new team. 

11Form connections with other team leaders

Other team leaders may have some great insights to help you navigate your first few weeks (and maybe even your first few months!). For example, other managers may be able to guide you on how to set up team meetings, motivate your team, raise employee concerns with HR, or hire new employees as needed. If you have an external network of engineering team leads, they would also be great to reach out to as they might have insights that are more applicable to engineering teams (like how to best train junior developers). 

12Align your goals with the team’s goals 

Coming into this new role, you likely already have some goals set for yourself. For example, you might want to improve the accuracy of code produced by junior developers, or you might want to ensure security is integrated into the software development life cycle (SDLC). Before jumping into a plan to see your goals through, understand where the team’s goals are. Are they focused on short-term or long-term goals? Are there specific operational areas struggling at the moment? Are team members interested in more professional development opportunities? Having answers to these questions can guide your planning for the first few months of your new role before you jump into other new projects.

13Allow time for reflection

Even if you’ve been a new manager to multiple existing engineering teams in the past, each team will have unique needs, goals, and a culture to which you’ll need to adapt. Remember to take a step back regularly and reflect on your progress as a manager. At the start you might reflect every day, and as you progress you might switch to doing your reflections on a weekly or bi-weekly basis (as often as you do one-on-ones with your team). Some questions to guide your reflection can include:

  • What kind of feedback have you received, and how are you adopting it going forward?
  • How much have you learned about this team since you started? What else would you like to know?
  • What areas are you comfortable managing? What areas do you still struggle with?
  • Who can you talk to to get the remaining information or support that you need?

Free meeting agenda templates for new engineering managers 

Parting advice 

Leading a team that you don’t know can feel difficult, overwhelming, and even just outright confusing at times. You might also feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t get what’s going on while the existing team continues with their everyday operations. All these feelings are normal. To help get you through those first few weeks with your new team, keep your focus on building relationships, getting support from other team leads, and developing a really solid understanding of the current operations. When you’re comfortable and know how things work today, you can begin planning and optimizing for the future!

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About the author

Alexandria Hewko

Alexandria Hewko, holding a Master's of Digital Transformation & Innovation at the University of Ottawa and a Bachelor's of International Business from Carleton University, brings a rich blend of international marketing, business management, and IT expertise to her writing. Founder of a travel blog in 2018 and an experienced global marketer in the tech and consumer electronics sectors, Alexandria excels at illuminating lesser-discussed topics through compelling storytelling.

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