Pay attention. It’s an essential choice for an executive onboarding into a new role – what you and others pay attention to. Focusing on your predecessor’s mistakes is a distraction from your call to action and is especially painful for your predecessor’s supporters.
Inevitably, your predecessor will have done some good things and some bad things. You’re going to have to work with people that supported and were supported by that predecessor. They’re going to be more receptive to you as a new leader that honors and respects the good things your predecessor did, standing on their shoulders to move things forward, focusing on solutions to the problems you inherited, without letting anyone get distracted by non-productive efforts to assign blame.
In times of change, everyone’s first question is always “What does this mean for me?” As a new leader, you always have to deal with that in order to get them to pay attention to anything else. If you attack your predecessor and what they did, the people that were brought in, supported by, or supported your predecessor will take that as an attack on them. They’re going to be even more scared of what you’re going to do to them next.
The basic equation A x B x C > D generally holds. The platform for change (A,) multiplied by a picture of a brighter future in which all can envision themselves (B,) multiplied by a call to action (C,) must be greater than inertia.
Platform for change
No one will change anything unless they have to. Inertia is a powerful force. Compelling people to forward motion starts with getting them unstuck. Compound that with your need to make them feel good about themselves so they can move forward with confidence means that external platforms for change are more effective than internal platforms for change.
Find a change in circumstances that compels actions, changing because something changed in the world. Of course, we can always do better. Just don’t make that the initial driver unless it’s a collective change in ambition. And, above all, don’t make yourself the platform for change following your horrible predecessor. You’ll lose your predecessors’ supporters before you get started.
Once you’ve got people unstuck, they need a new direction. This is the picture of a brighter future. A key point is that it’s not about your vision. It’s about theirs. They have to envision themselves in this brighter future.
Call to action
This is what you want people to pay attention to – what they can do. The platform for change is the problem to be solved. The picture of a brighter future is the end state. The call to action is how we’re going to get there. People want to be part of the solution. They want to contribute. If you focus their attention on doing positive things to move forward, they’ll be happier, more confident, and more productive.
Putting this into practice
This is going to play out differently in different circumstances.
If you’re taking over from a founder,
- Think and act like an interim steward, caring for and managing the business until someone else’s turn to take the reins
- Honor and respect the founders, and what they and their team have built
- Stand on their shoulders and propel the organization forward
If you’re following a failed leader, you have to get people to recommit – especially if you’re making a hot landing into a particularly stressful situation. Your communication about this – and everything in a crisis – should be emotional, rational and inspirational.
- Emotional: Be authentic, relatable and vulnerable as you empathize with how the crisis is affecting people personally and the importance of keeping them and all safe.
- Rational: Lay out the hard facts and possible impacts of the current situation.
- Inspirational: Paint an optimistic view of the future and your call to action to inspire and enable all to do their best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose.