When Lady Di said to her interviewer, "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded" no one had to guess what she was experiencing. A similar sensation is reported to be part of many executive transitions - the presence of the predecessor lingers, crowding the new executive. The experience is often so subtle that few executives are able to articulate what is happening.
It is not their imagination.
It is independent of whether the incumbent was beloved. The role they've just assumed has been imprinted by those who sat in their chair before them.
Research has shown that the first person to hold a particular job in a new organization, or a long-term predecessor in an established organization, puts their imprimatur on the role so indelibly that it can determine the success or failure of those who follow. A study conducted by Burton and Beckman (2007) revealed that new leaders tend to be more successful in new positions if they exhibit qualities seen in the executive that held the role previously - even if their backgrounds were not typical for the role. In some organizations, the imprint on the role created by the first incumbent impacted the success of not just one but several generations of successors.
It is not difficult to see how this happens. The incumbent creates the role around him or herself. Not only is the job defined by them, but the jobs that are structured around them are built to fit. When the incumbent moves out of the role and a replacement is named who brings a different set of qualities to the job, the fit with the role is often poor. Filling the role will be awkward and will likely lead to early departure. Creating the role to fit the replacement is the only successful path.
There are a few simple guidelines to follow when moving into a role that has had long-term predecessors or highly influential incumbents.
If you are moving into an imprinted role:
1. Understand the impact of your predecessors. The best discovery you can do is to learn as much as you can about those who have gone before you in the role. Your own excavation can take several forms.
- Ask questions. What legacy did your predecessors leave? What priorities did they spend most time on? How did they make their mark? What were their towering strengths? How did the organization evolve around them to complement their strengths and weaknesses?
- Listen to stories. As you talk with people about the organization and the role, listen to the stories people tell you. The patterns and practices of those who held the role will tell you a great deal about their priorities, their focus, their influence, their interactions, their impact.
- Look for organizational clues. If you look in the right places you will discover the changes made by those who have held your role. A quick review of historical organization charts will provide clues as you examine the roles, titles, reporting relationships, tenure, frequency of change. Take note of how critical organizational decisions (acquisitions, downsizings, new lines of business, expansions) were made. Understand how change initiatives were launched and how successful they were.
2. Understand your impact. You are assuming your new role in order to move the organization forward from its current state. The business strategy determines your key priorities and areas of focus. What qualities and characteristics of yours will need to be front and center if you are to move these strategic priorities forward? Now that you know how the organization has been wired, a deep self-awareness will be required to understand where that wiring will likely help you and where it may trip you up. Ironically, self-awareness is accelerated with the help of others. Whether you seek out a mentor or colleague or executive coach, find someone to help you articulate what you will intentionally bring to this role and how your unique constellation of strengths and weaknesses will have maximum impact.
3. Discover how the team you inherited is uniquely suited to complement your predecessor - not you. Those who surround you now were chosen for a reason. They filled the gaps and allowed your predecessor's strengths to shine. It will be immediately clear who is on your team, their titles, their history with the organization and their areas of responsibility. What will need to be learned is how their current role came to be, how that role maximizes their contribution (or not) and how their responsibilities intersected with their past boss. The task at hand is to determine how who they are and what they do best can complement who you are and what you do best.
4. Create the role, don't just fill the role. Start with you - be clear about the contribution you want to make and the legacy you want to leave. This is the center circle. By knowing your strengths you will focus your own time and energy on those aspects of the work where you can make the biggest impact. Then, build the concentric circles around you. Determine who you need in your first-ring team to shore up your gaps and reinforce your strengths. Encourage your team to do the same.
Positions are indeed established in important ways by those who have held the role before. If you want to stay long enough to leave your own legacy, make the role your own.
Dee Gaeddert, Senior Partner with Korn/Ferry's Leadership and Talent Consulting practice.