How to Lead Something You Didn’t Start

10 Minute read… 

My wife and I just bought a coffee shop.

Luckily, we aren’t on our own. The two general managers of the shop bought into the ownership team with us. They are great guys with a heart for coffee and community.

As a team, we represent the new leadership of the business. We want to create a destination in our community, for our community. We want the shop to be the place for locals to be social. We are a coffee shop, but we want to be more than a coffee shop. We envision a space of community, connection, and conversation. We are creating an experience.

We didn’t start this business. We took it over from an owner who took it over a few years prior from another owner.

These first two weeks have served as a glorious reminder: Starting something is challenging. Transitioning something feels impossible.

Starting something is challenging.

I’m doing that right now in my primary business, Transformation Solutions. Through coaching and consulting, I’m guiding leaders and organizations from innovation through implementation. I love ideas and innovations. I equally love strategy and execution. I get to do both in my new business.

I’ve learned (again) that starting a business isn’t easy. Creating the legal documents, structuring the accounting, and managing all the details of a solo venture is challenging. To that point, this morning, I’m writing content, answering email inquiries, building agendas for my upcoming coaching sessions, developing two cohort offerings (hybrid church and preaching better sermons), and processing my recent trip with a marketplace client in Louisiana. I’m sure there’s more to do this morning, but this represents my first two hours.

The opportunity feels wide open. Obstacles seem ever-present. I don’t have many resources, but I don’t have many expenses. It’s exciting. Terrifying. And positively tiring. But, I determine it all. I’m building a plane that I hope flies for years and years.

Compare that to the coffee shop we just took over.

Taking over something can feel impossible.

The glorious early days of ownership gave way to a never-ending litany of transitional tasks: opening a new bank account, transferring all financials, migrating our point-of-sale systems, informing and transitioning all the vendors, understanding the previous owner’s systems, meeting the existing team, changing a million passwords, and more.

At best, I estimate we are about halfway through the transition process.

It’s incredible. The list of transition tasks and start-up tasks on paper may be equal, but the complexity is significantly different.

Back to the plane analogy: Starting a business is more like building a plane over time and eventually testing it out when it’s ready, and you’re ready. Taking over a business is more like jumping into a moving plane, full of people, and keeping it aloft while trying to improve the aircraft, maintain our direction, and get to know the co-pilots — all while moving!

Comparing Starting and Transitioning

Not to suggest in any way that starting is easy. I’m ten weeks into starting my coaching and consulting business, and it’s not easy. But, when I compare what I’m beginning to what we’re transitioning, the comparisons are obvious.

Here is a shortlist of starting versus transitioning:

  • You birth the vision versus adopting (and eventually adjusting) the vision.
  • You align the business as it’s built versus realigning departments and teams as it changes.
  • You establish the systems versus trying to understand and execute what’s already established.
  • You create a team versus taking over a group.
  • You control the pace versus the current pace controlling you.

In virtually every way, starting something new is tough, but taking over something is much more challenging.

And we’ve not even begun the conversation on changing what you take over (I’ll get to that in another article)!

7 Tips for Taking Over

If you find yourself following a previous leader, here are some tips for beginning well:

1. Foster relationships before forcing rules.

If you’re a parent, you know this to be true at home. It’s equally valid at work — especially as a new leader with an existing team. Rules without relationships lead to rebellion. Even if the new “rules” you want to enforce are necessary and relatively agreeable, the current team will tend to rebel without a relationship.

If you’re a new leader, intentionally schedule time with every person on the team to learn about them as a person. Share your story and your dreams for the future. Remember, these meetings are about people first, product and process second. Relational connection creates leadership credibility, and that’s what you need as the new leader.

At the coffee shop… As the primary owner, my wife is beginning to schedule these team member meetings now. I suspect each person on the team will be somewhat nervous, so she plans to explain why these meetings matter at our next all-staff meeting so they can walk in comfortably and connect. Each session should take an hour. And we’ll pay each person their hourly rate for their time.

2. Seek to comprehend the business before attempting to change the business.

Most leaders have grand plans for the organization they take over. In most cases, that’s why they decided to step into the leadership position. Plans require strategies, and strategies require understanding. The better a new leader understands the specifics of the business, the better able they are to identify innovations and implement solutions.

At the coffee shop… Eventually, Chantel and I will institute changes that will hopefully generate improvements. We are word-smithing a new mission and vision. We want to improve the speed of service. We want to personalize every interaction. But, until we better understand the business, we can’t effectively suggest or implement solutions for the business.

To this point, Chantel (my wife) and I are going to barista school. We will learn the ins and outs of coffee before we attempt to improve the coffee. We plan to work in the shop and experience the business first hand. The more we learn, the more we understand, and the better we can plan.

3. Be the team member you hope your staff will become.

Leaders should always model what matters. Within the context of taking over an organization, those around you are watching closely for cues to success. Most people want to be successful. When a new leader walks in, tensions heighten. By actively modeling behavior, you give your team a clear picture of the coming culture.

At the coffee shop… We care deeply about the customer experience. There is a lot that goes into a great experience. For instance, cleanliness is next to Godliness. That’s not in the Bible, but it should be. We want our space to sparkle. Right now, it does not. So, modeling what we want to matter, I’ve personally cleaned the counters and tables in front of the team. I’m being a person who sees a connection between the customer experience and the cleanliness of the space.

4. Talk extensively about being, not doing.

It’s so easy for leaders to focus on behaviors. After all, it’s the “doing” that gets things done. But, and especially as a new leader in an existing organization, focusing on “being” over “doing” will lead to better doing in time from a place of vision, not direction.

Being helps infuse the “why” around the doing “whats.” Being is vision-centric. Being is a state of believing and thinking. And, if we get the being correct, the doing often takes care of itself.

At the coffee shop… This is why we are working so hard on our new mission and vision. Why we exist (mission) and what we aspire to be (vision) will drive the being side of our staff experience. Don’t judge this too harshly, as it’s still a work in progress, but our vision is to “be the best part of everyone’s day.” How we do that is behavioral, but why we do that is being. This new vision will become the most talked-about element of our staff culture. If we all commit to this way of being, the doing will be just fine.

5. Invite the team to identify problems and conceptualize solutions.

As the adage goes, people need to weigh in to buy-in. As a new leader, engaging the existing team to identify problems and propose solutions immediately gains trust through listening. Sure, the current team may suggest all sorts of terrible solutions, but their excitement to participate and be heard is the greater goal. Of course, you will most certainly get some great suggestions that could lead to some significant improvements.

At the coffee shop… Chantel and I want to see our service speed improve. The food is quite good, but it can take too long when the shop gets busy as everything is cooked to order. We plan to pull our entire kitchen team aside at our next monthly staff meeting and engage them in the conversation. We’ll walk through a series of questions like this:

    1. In a business like ours, ideally, how long should we expect a customer to wait for their food order?
    2. If we hope to be the best part of everyone’s day, how do food quality and wait times affect the customer experience?
    3. What are some immediate solutions to reduce the wait times?
    4. What can we, as new owners, do to help (buy equipment, approve a menu change, etc.)?
    5. What would you change about the food menu and preparation time if you were in charge?

All these questions are essential. The first question sets the vision at the center of our proposed solution options. Our posture of staff involvement engages those who will need to execute the solutions. Wins all around.

6. Define your role to define the expectations.

Every leader sees and approaches leadership differently. Ask ten people to define leadership, and you’ll get ten different answers. As a new leader of an existing organization, it’s essential to define terms in a way that defines expectations.

Unmet expectations birth frustration. Leaders who do not clearly define expectations automatically create an environment of frustration. The most critical initial expectations are not what you as the leader expect from the team but rather what the team can expect from you. Remember, the team had a leader, and now they have you. Their previous experiences created leadership expectations that are currently on your shoulders. That’s unfair and unswervingly true.

Make sure you tell your new team what they can expect from you in the first few days, weeks, and months while asking them to show you grace as you learn the business, customers, and them.

At the coffee shop… It’s only been two weeks, and already various expectations have been created and placed on us as new leaders. At our staff meeting, Chantel and I plan to clarify our role as owners and leaders so the team’s expectations can be better set. This group previously worked for an owner. Now they have us. They learned over time what to expect from the previous owner. They deserve to know what to expect with and from us.

7. Be patient.

Taking over is time-consuming. As the new leader, you’re trying to maintain a business while transitioning all the systems and accounts. Attorneys and CPAs and vendors and customers are all involved. And they all take time — more time than you expect. Most leaders focus on building something better, but any structure built on a faulty foundation is sure to crumble.

As a new leader of an existing establishment, take plenty of time to transition what exists before creating what could become. Plan into your daily and weekly rhythms time for rest and relaxation. Put hard limits on your time and in your calendar. Make sure you and your family aren’t sacrificed in the name of leadership. Remember, the most important thing you lead is yourself and your family.

At the coffee shop… Chantel and I could talk about the shop from morning till night. I am building a separate and primary business, as well. Our entire life feels engaged with these two new opportunities. We are working to be better, but our goal is to keep our Friday night dinner date free of business talk. Together want to maintain healthy patterns in the evening, like watching one show episode before bed, sitting together for dinner, and talking about our future. Personally, we must vigilantly protect our exercise, learning, and sleeping time. Maintaining healthy routines will pay tremendous benefits to both of our new business ventures in time.

Starting is tough. Transitioning is much more demanding. To find success, be sure to start with a relational leadership plan, not a transformation improvement plan.

How can I help?

Helping ministry and marketplace leaders make things better and make better things is why I created Transformation Solutions. That includes coaching presenters and communicators through the process of crafting and delivering content.

Go right now to and sign up for a free, 15-minute conversation to decide if working together works for you.

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