One of the most important choices to make in taking over from a long-serving CEO is about posture. Are you easing in on your back foot, letting things evolve as they might? Are you moving in on your front foot, pushing for change? Or are you going to go in with a balanced posture, ready to lean in or back as appropriate?

The choice is especially hard if you’re following a long-serving iconic CEO. GE’s Jeff Immelt went in on the back foot, not wanting to upset what his predecessor, Jack Welch, put in place. As a result, 16 years later, GE was worth $150 billion less than it was when Immelt took over.

Thomas Campbell has a similar story at The Metropolitan Museum of New York. He followed Philippe de Montebello’s 31 year run during which the museum doubled in size. Campbell was recently forced out after a “brief” eight-year tenure due to his inability to deal with the museum’s financial pressures.

Harvard’s Drew Faust is stepping down at the end of this school year after a decade as the university’s president. What’s the right approach for her successor?



Victim – Fighter – Compromiser – Opportunist  Creator Framework

Essential Human Capital’s Robert Friedland told me that people approach situations with one of five different attitudes.

1. Victims wait for things to happen to them. They have assumptions (what happened before will happen again) and limiting beliefs (because I am or am not X, I cannot Y).

2. Fighters are angry, frustrated and defiant. They say “I’ll show them”. The good news is that this anger can propel things forward. The bad news is that their anger can work like blinders and their conflict mode is not sustainable.

3. Compromisers justify, rationalize and settle for things they see as “good enough”. They say “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

4. Opportunists have energy, are active and are always connecting. They see situations as full of “many win-wins to be had” and ask “What’s next?”

5. Creators have supreme confidence and optimism. They feel good about their lives, their careers, their choices and believe that wherever they are is where they are supposed to be. They can summon attributes of other levels as needed.



Choosing posture and attitude

It’s useful to make choices across both posture and attitude. For example, you may choose to come in a little more assertively on the front foot and then choose whether to act creatively or opportunistically, to compromise or to fight. The same is true for a back foot, listen-first posture or a balanced posture. The choice of posture does not dictate the choice of attitude.

Even though Immelt and Campbell came in on the back foot, they didn’t have to be victims. They could have done a better job of creating value, taking advantage of opportunities, and compromising or fighting when appropriate.

Faust’s successor at Harvard may be able to come in on the front foot. In any case, they need to have their eyes on the organization’s purpose and make their own choices about how to move it forward.



Implications for you as an executive onboarding into a new role

This is a choice you should make during your Fuzzy Front End as you’re choosing your entry approach. The combination of the urgency of the organization’s need for change based on its business situation and cultural openness to change informs whether you should assimilate in, converge and evolve fast or slow or shock the organization.

Certainly assimilating in implies a back-foot posture and shocking implies a front-foot posture. It’s less clear which is the right posture for converging and evolving. You’ll likely want to make a series of choices as you work through the situation.

The best leaders use their approach and posture choices as general direction and then consciously choose whether to create, be opportunistic, compromise or fight on a tactical basis. But they are never victims.