Making Your Mark: Taking Over for a Superstar Manager

Sep 23, 2011
18 Min Read

When Tiffany Dufu sits at her desk at the White House Project, she often glances at a proverb she has posted there that says: “If things are getting easier, maybe you’re headed downhill.”

That’s a sentiment Dufu hangs on to – and repeats often to others – as she begins to steer the White House Project in a new direction after she took over its top spot in January. Dufu replaced leader and founder Marie Wilson in the nonpartisan organization that helps develop and advance women in leadership roles.

“Sometimes I have thought, ‘What the heck am I doing?’” Dufu says. “Then, I remember that this was all Marie’s idea. She chose me. So, I just pull myself together.”

Dufu was tapped by Wilson to take the reins, and in many ways, that helps ease the transition into a role so strongly shaped by someone else, she says.

But for other new leaders, taking over a job that has been filled by a superstar performer, a beloved leader or long-time manager may be more difficult. Teams may have trouble accepting change or shifting their loyalties. They may doubt the new person’s abilities – or even try to sabotage the person’s efforts.

So, if the new role isn’t handled well, it could not only cause the team’s performance to suffer, but place the new leader’s career in jeopardy.

If you find yourself in this position, and you’re not able to deliver results that can stand up to – or surpass – your predecessor’s, you may be judged incapable of handling any kind of challenge, experts say.

Further, research by business leadership expert Joseph Grenny found that employees who don’t bond with their new boss quickly are more likely to quit. At a time when organizations are focused on hanging onto key talent, being the cause of workers wanting to leave won’t earn you high marks or endear you as a leader who can work toward collaboration and cooperation, experts say.

Unfortunately, this problem is compounded because many managers don’t feel they get the training they need to take over leadership roles, let alone those for top bosses who had solid reputations.

Dufu says she was mentored by Wilson whom she calls her “sage,” and Apple’s Steve Jobs recently turned his CEO role over to Chief Operating Office Tim Cook, the man who filled his shoes when he had pancreatic cancer surgery in 2004. But that kind of planning isn’t common: Only one in 10 leaders say they were actually groomed for a job, says a Development Dimensions International (DDI) study. More than half of those polled say they learned through trial and error.

That often leads to potential disaster.

“A real common mistake of new leaders is to try and scare people,” says Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at The Wharton School. “They tell people that if they don’t perform better, they’re going to lose their jobs."

But when taking over for a revered leader, such tactics will only further alienate team members who may already be concerned about changes. It also won’t work to just try and mimic your predecessor, Cappelli says.

“It gets down to a question of style. You want to be your own person. If not, you’ll always just be seen as a cheap imitator,” he says.

Rallying Your Team

Catherine Kaputa, a motivational speaker and author of “You Are a Brand,” says it may sound counterintuitive, but new leaders taking over for strong managers should show their vulnerability.

“It becomes a strength in terms of connecting with others,” she says. “You tell them: ‘Look, I’m not a genius.’ Talk about how it is to be in that position, and you’re just a mere mortal. It’s a very powerful way to connect quickly.”

Terry Bacon, the scholar in residence for The Korn/Ferry Institute, says there is often an “icon penalty” for the person who must follow a superstar or beloved leader.

“People have such confidence in that leader who came before you. So, when you show up, they instantly become anxious because they’re not sure of what will happen. They start worrying that if this whole thing goes south, then they’re going to suffer,” says Bacon, author of “Elements of Influence.”

In the DDI study, one out of three leaders say they regretted being promoted because they were unprepared and didn’t know how to succeed. Further, even after they’ve been in the role for a year or two, 30 percent of managers report they still don’t understand what it takes to be successful.

So, while it may seem the odds are stacked against you when faced with filling the shoes of a popular leader, there are steps you can take to not only gain the trust and approval of your team, but also to shine in your new position.

Experts recommend you should:

Shake gently.

Don’t start firing people right and left when you take over, believing that establishing a new team will gain you a devoted following. “You’ll go down in flames if you do that,” Cappelli says.

“Making a bunch of changes can backfire,” Bacon agrees. “What you want to do is show fidelity to the person before you. Honor that person, talk about the great things that person did. That shows    you’re aligned where people are emotionally.”

Michelle Tillis Lederman, author of “The 11 Law of Likability,” advises asking individual team members what they would like to see happen in the organization. “If they don’t feel heard or understood, then they won’t be able to listen,” she says.

Look for the white space.

“You do want to find ways to be different, the ways that will be authentic to you,” Kaputa says. “What is it you stand for? What is something about you that is different from the person before you or other key leaders? You don’t ever want to copy someone else because you’ll always be compared to them and you won’t be an ‘A’ player. Look for your own strength, your own aptitude.”

Cappelli notes that iconic leaders such as Steve Jobs left room for his predecessor to make his own mark. “Even at Apple not everything is hunky dory,” he says. “What you look for are those things that people aren’t so happy with or need improving, and you work to do something about that.”

Kaputa agrees. “Steve Jobs is brilliant, but he has also been known as autocratic, secretive and very controlling,” she says. “You look for the weak spot that a former leader had that you can shine in. Analyze the person. Find one of the weaknesses where you feel you stand for the opposite.”

Be aware of rotten eggs.

Sometimes despite your best efforts, you have members of your team who never want you to succeed. It could be that they wanted the position awarded to you for themselves. Bacon advises addressing the issue directly with the person, but if he or she refuses to be cooperative, “you may have to get rid” of the person.

“No mutinies allowed,” agrees Timothy Keiningham, global chief strategy office and EVP of Ipsos Loyalty. “These employees have a duty of loyalty to the organization to support you in your role."

Avoid the blame game.

As a new leader, there are probably going to be a few glitches along the way. But Keiningham advises not pointing a finger at a team member for making a mistake. “If your team ever gets the impression that you will leave them to the wolves when times get tough, any loyalty that you ever received will be rightfully gone for good,” he says.


Bacon believes new leaders have about six months to a year to “come in with a win of your own.”

Kaputa says you should work to mobilize your team around a new mission that you can work on together. “You want people to stop looking in the rear-view mirror,” she says. “You want them looking forward.” Dufu, of the White House Project, says that she often reminds her team that “anytime there is progress, there will be struggle.”

“It may be uncomfortable at times,” she says. “But you begin to condition people that it’s going to be challenging and tough. I tell people that we need to get to a place in meetings where we’re really embracing conflict. If we don’t, then we’re never going to really get underneath what assumptions we need to question, and what we need to get better at.”

Cappelli says that if team members challenge you by saying your action isn’t what the predecessor would have done, you can say, “Well, I believe that it is, because this is what a responsible leader would do.”

Managing for the Future

Another challenge facing managers who take over for popular leaders is fulfilling the expectations of higher ups and garnering their support.

Keiningham says that winning this loyalty is more difficult than winning over a team, because you won’t have the ongoing daily contact to make inroads.

“The key is to really understand what they loved about your predecessor,” he says.

He suggests meeting with your bosses and having them talk about what made your predecessor a star in their eyes and the criteria this predecessor met to have him or her be judged exceptional.

“For better or for worse, that is the performance threshold that you will be compared to for at least the next 12 months,” Keiningham says. “You have to find a way to do a respectable job on” those criteria.

Still, he emphasizes what other experts have advised: Don’t try to be a copycat of your predecessor. Your team won’t like it, and neither will the top leadership.

“The words of martial arts legend Bruce Lee seem appropriate: ‘Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is specifically your own,’” Keiningham says.

Dufu says that she has the complete support of the White House Project’s board, and when others reminisce too much about the organization under her predecessor, she reminds them that her predecessor wanted the organization to move forward and that’s what is happening.

“The toughest part of this whole process is being clear and centered about your own vision, especially when you have a predecessor who has been so dynamic and powerful,” Dufu says. “But I tell people, ‘this is the White House Project 2.0’ and we’re going in a new direction. You have to be able to sell that, and figure out what the motivator is to move people forward.”

Notes Keiningham: “Really making a mark often takes time…and without meeting the expected performance thresholds, the time to see your efforts bear fruit may never come to pass.”

Kaputa also warns that you have to realize as you’re driving to make your mark that your team may be in mourning for the leader who has moved on. “Have one-on-one meetings with the people who were closest to that leader. They need to know that their feelings are acknowledged by you.”

Keiningham says it’s important that leaders taking over a position held by someone who commanded great loyalty realize that the same loyalty doesn’t transfer to them automatically.

“The first thing to recognize is that any loyalty initially given to him or her will reflect employees’ loyalty to the organization or to their own moral code. And it is this level of loyalty that you should expect to receive starting in a new position,” he says.

“It is unreasonable to ask employees to be loyal to you personally,” he adds. “They don’t know you, and you haven’t yet done anything to prove that you deserve that loyalty. Loyalty takes time to develop, and is the direct result of how employees view your loyalty to them.”

In the meantime, it’s critical to focus on a shared purpose, experts say.

Dufu says that while there was some reorganization at the White House Project after she took over, she has spoken with remaining staff who had been her colleagues before she assumed the lead role.

“I told them, ‘Trust that my core vision is driven from my core purpose to help women. My life’s work is advancing women and girls. That’s why I was put on this planet,” Dufu says. “That was a place we could all start from.”

Recomended Posts