How to overcome the challenges of inheriting a data team

Data teams can be challenging to lead even when they’re well established and you’ve been working with them for a long time. Inheriting a data team can pose all of those well-known challenges and many others. While it can be intimidating to take on a data team that already has its own way of working, these challenges can be overcome with the right strategy.
Last updated
May 2, 2024

Data teams can be challenging to lead even when they’re well established and you’ve been working with them for a long time. Inheriting a data team can pose all of those well-known challenges and many others. While it can be intimidating to take on a data team that already has its own way of working, these challenges can be overcome with the right strategy.

In today’s blog, we’ll be talking about the different challenges team leaders face when they inherit a data team and what you can do to succeed in spite of these challenges. Read on to learn more.

Common Struggles When Leading a New Team

There are many obstacles to face when you inherit a leadership role for an already established data team. One of the biggest challenges will relate to the team’s work style and communication style. People are often anxious about change in the workplace, and getting new leadership is one of the biggest changes of all. 

You’ll likely face some resistance if you’re looking to make changes, and chances are you will want to do just that. You’ll also have just as much learning to do as your new team does while you get to know one another and how you work and as you figure out goals and objectives for the team. 

To minimize pushback and make the leadership transition as smooth as possible, you’ll want to avoid the common pitfalls of taking on a new team, such as:

  • Failing to lay out clear objectives
  • Not establishing open lines of communication
  • Veering too far into friend mode and failing to establish yourself as a leader
  • Introducing changes too quickly

 To avoid these pitfalls, there are several strategies you can try.

Learning About Each Person

The first and best thing you can do is get to know your new team. There’s no way you’re going to be able to work well with a group of total strangers. This means getting to know them a little more personally, but it also means learning about their communication styles, their work style, their skills and their current roles and responsibilities on the team.

Learning about the team as a whole will also help you learn more about the work culture in that environment. While culture changes can sometimes be good, you may want to leave elements like this alone if they’re working and helping employees to be happy and satisfied with their job. Of course, if the culture is toxic, then things need to be adjusted.

In short, there’s no way to know any of these things without sitting down and assessing the situation. Once you’ve settled in and got the basic introductions out of the way, set aside some time to talk to each member of the team individually. Prepare questions for them and make sure you’re open to their suggestions and feedback. They’ve been around longer, so they’ll have a fuller view of the current situation for you to start working from.

Sitting down and talking to each member of the team is only part of getting to know them. You should also observe how they work as a team and how they interact with one another. The team dynamic is just as important as — if not more than — the individual skills and personalities. Group meetings can also be beneficial, so you can have an open discussion about goals, potential changes and any ideas that you or other team members have to contribute.

It’s important during this introduction phase that you also establish trust and open communication. Team members shouldn’t be afraid to come forward and express their opinions to you. Make sure you establish these lines of communication and that your team feels like they can trust you and provide feedback without fear of backlash.

It’s also important to keep in mind that being overly friendly at this point might feel like the easiest path, but be careful not to go too far here. You still need to establish yourself as the team’s leader.

Setting Expectations

That first step of assessing the team and getting to know everyone can actually be one of the most challenging steps to navigate. It takes emotional intelligence and diligent observation to learn the ins and outs of a new team and how they work together. 

Putting forth the time and effort to get to know everyone and establish trust will go a long way toward making the other steps easier. You can overcome many common challenges if your team trusts you, feels comfortable communicating with you and views you as a confident and capable leader. It’s easier said than done, but it’s essential.

Once you have the ball rolling on gaining the team’s trust, you can start setting expectations. What are the goals and objectives that you want the team to meet? Do you think the team is heading in the right direction as it stands now? If you set clear objectives, your team will know what you expect of them and will be able to set milestones to meet those expectations. Without an established strategy and direction, your team will not be any better than when you started.

Of course, it’s important to get team buy-in during this expectation-setting phase. What goals would they like to hit? What objectives do they view as important? While not every suggestion has to be implemented, it’s a great idea to understand what the team thinks you should be working toward. Also, if the team members feel like they’re an integral part of this process (which they are), then they’re more likely to work hard to hit those established objectives.

Introducing Changes

Now comes one of the biggest challenges of inheriting a team — making changes. Again, if you’ve established trust and set expectations, this pill is much easier for the team to swallow. Also, your team is competent enough to realize that you were brought in as a new leader for a reason. New leadership begets new changes for a team because it’s likely that something wasn’t working with the previous leadership. This isn’t always the case, but there’s typically going to be a point where changes need to be implemented, whether you’ve inherited a fixer-upper or a well-oiled machine.

The best way to introduce changes is to roll them out with full transparency. Make sure you loop your team in when you’re considering or planning to make a change. Talk it out with them, get their feedback and find out how they’d like to roll out the change. 

Not every change is going to be well received initially, but you can make the transition easier by explaining why you think the change needs to happen and how you think it will help the team. Clue your team in on your strategy and how you think the change will affect the work. A culture of transparency will only increase those trust levels, and your team will be less resistant to changes in the future.

Integrating New Tools

Data team members can sometimes be set in their ways. If they have a tool they love or a language they prefer working in, they may push back when you’re wanting to integrate new tools into the process. So if you know a tool will help your team — whether it lightens the workload, increases efficiency or brings about other improvements — it’s up to you to convince your team to get on board.

Open communication once again comes in handy here. You can help get your team engaged by showing them demos of new tools or getting them a free trial to give it a spin. This gradual rollout will help your team get used to the idea of the new tools instead of having to make an immediate switch. Also, this helps you find out if a tool just won’t fit into your workflow. Sometimes the current tools being used are already working well for your team.

Of course, in data roles, new tools and platforms are always being developed to help teams work more effectively. At some point, new tools will likely be necessary to implement. If you establish transparency and you walk your team through your reasoning, it will be much easier to integrate these new tools seamlessly into your current workflows.

Reshaping the Team

Finally, we get to the step that sounds the scariest. Reshaping the team can mean a lot of things, and the first assumption people make is layoffs or cuts. Of course, these unfortunate realities are sometimes necessary, but they’re far from the only way to reshape a team.

If you have a team of talented individuals, reshaping a team could simply mean empowering them to be more effective in their roles. Perhaps a team member’s strengths are being underused or they have skills that aren’t being applied. Maybe there is one person performing a task that requires two people. Maybe the team is overworked and burned out because they need additional team members. There are many ways to reshape a team. Doing a full assessment and talking with your team members will help you realize where things can be improved and how you can make the team better, happier and more effective.<p>

What Makes Data Teams Different From Others?

Data teams are made up of highly skilled individuals — typically data engineers, data analysts and data scientists. These specialized roles require specialized tools and knowledge, which means leaders and management need to be knowledgeable too. To have the trust, communication and transparency necessary for a successful data team, you need to understand how they work and what they do.

This is a big differentiating factor when it comes to managing data teams versus other types of teams in an organization. When data teams like the tools and languages they’re working with, it can be difficult for them to be open to change and shift the way they operate. Keeping this in mind will help you to be a more effective and understanding data leader.

Tips to Become a More Successful Data Leader

Becoming a successful data leader requires a diverse set of soft and hard skills. You can be a successful and effective data leader if you continue to communicate, be transparent and open with your team and continually update your knowledge to stay up to date with the latest trends.

Being a data leader requires commitment and effort. You have to make sure your team doesn’t fall behind and that they have everything they need to do their jobs effectively and stay competitive in a highly competitive industry. Fortunately, there are tools like Secoda to help.

Try Secoda for Free

Every data team needs a great data catalog tool. With Secoda, you’ll empower your team to easily search, document and manage company data all on one intuitive platform. Secoda combines your data dictionary, data catalog, data requests, data docs search and data management compliance. Make your data team more effective and efficient with Secoda. Check out our platform with a free trial today!

Keep reading

See all stories