Ask Sanyin: How Do I Escape the Specter of My Predecessor?
Coaching for the Future-Forward Leader
I’m new in a C-suite role and struggling with my predecessor’s long shadow — especially their great results and popularity with employees. How do I get my predecessor out of my head and stop second-guessing my decisions?
Chances are, you are not alone in this dilemma: The past year saw one of the highest rates of executive turnover in decades. Few new leaders start with a blank slate. You are wise to focus on how comparing yourself with your predecessor is affecting your confidence, rather than trying to win a popularity contest against a ghost. In my coaching and advisory work with CEOs and their successors, I’ve consistently found that leaders who transition effectively are able to resist the urge to overprove themselves by trying to show that they are the smartest person in the room.
As beloved as your predecessor is, you may be in this seat because they did all they could and have left you a foundation that you can take to the next level, or because now the organization needs you to be the change maker. This is a different phase for the organization, and therefore it requires a different combination of leadership assets. Ponder this introspective question suggested by former Microsoft U.S. CTO and TIAA board director Gina Loften: “What do you and the team that you are building bring to the table that is needed at this point in time?”
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We tend to forget that context matters, and we attribute results to our individual strengths and weaknesses — what behavioral scientists call a fundamental attribution error. We allocate more credit (or blame) to the individual while overlooking contextual factors — a familiar trap that undermines our human capital analyses (and plays games with our self-image).
Consider the context you’re in and how your challenges differ from what your predecessor faced. Is the organization in a turnaround, growth, or global expansion stage? What does it need now, and what do you bring that makes you a fit for the role? Think beyond attributes such as your great network or depth of expertise in a specific area, and identify some particular talents the organization needs now that happen to be among your superpowers — say, the ability to get siloed teams to come together and work as part of a whole.