This is an interesting time for many who are in leadership positions having either recently been promoted or recently taken on greater responsibility. As a result of reorganization or restructuring, I have met many people who have been promoted even at a time where the focus of the news is on those who have been laid off from their jobs. These are the “Survivor” leaders whose career advancement is bitter sweet. They are in new areas of responsibility with new employees but at a time (and sometimes speed) that they did not anticipate.
At the same time, there are, and will be, a large number of people who have new leadership roles, not because of negative business outcomes but because their business is in recovery. As much as we are skittish about whether or not the business world is really on the mend, businesses are getting their feet back under them. This requires strong management and leaders who can take new positions with authority and success.
There are plenty of challenges to making this happen but one of the most difficult is taking the role previously filled by somebody else and make it your own. If your predecessor was a well-loved figure, you have the challenge of “filling big shoes.” If your predecessor was a jerk, you have the additional challenge of letting people know that you are not the person who was there before you. In either case, while wanting to move at a speed that does not overly disrupt the lives of employees, you also need to start making things happen. The “I’m new in this position” response is short lived because, in your new position, you are expected to deliver results.
Tip #1: Be Authentic. Even if you are following one of the greatest leaders you have ever known, the last thing you want to do is try to copy that person. Often this is an effort to simply not change anything and maintain what the person before you has started. As far as some business practices, this might be a good idea if the practices are working. But in terms of the leadership style and method of the person before you, it hardly ever works. If they were loud and outgoing and you are more reserved and introspective, don’t try to become an extrovert because they were. Most leaders who try this imitative approach fail because they simply can’t pull it off. Employees don’t expect you too either.
Tip #2: Listen. Often leaders in new roles have the unbearable urge to start “doing something” immediately in order to establish that they are the boss. While it is likely that there are expectations that you do, indeed, get things done, there is an opportunity at the onset of a new position to listen to those who are going to be impacted by your leadership. Even if this is a leadership position in an area where you have been working for 20 years, taking the time to listen to your new followers will not only send the message that you want to make changes together, it will start to cast you in the new light of your new position. No matter the urgency, have at least a few small group or one-to-one conversations with your employees about what they see as the priority and even what advice they have for you as the leader.
Tip #3: Let your predecessor go. By this I mean there is little or nothing constructive to talk about when it comes to the person who was in the position before you. In your very first communication with your new employees it may make sense to in some way honor the person who preceded you. But that’s about it. Whether they were great or terrible, they are now in the past. Don’t participate in the inevitable employee conversations about the “old days,” and don’t let comparisons drive your behavior. It is only normal that employees will, for awhile, measure your words and behaviors against those to which they have become accustomed. But that doesn’t mean you need to. Continuing to evoke history, or compare yourself to the one who came before, will only make that transition more difficult.
When Jeffrey Immelt took the reins of GE he told people, “There is no way I am going to out-’Jack’ Jack.” The same is true for your new role. Don’t try to outdo somebody who is no longer in the picture. Be yourself, listen to your folks, and move on. Comparisons are inevitable but they should not drive any of your behavior. The problems that you inherited are now your problems and the fact somebody else may have created them is irrelevant. It is your chance to lead and to do it as only you can do.