How to Succeed When You Have Big Shoes to Fill

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Originally published by Harvard Business Review

Starting any new job, whether it’s an internal promotion or a new opportunity at a different organization, can feel a bit nerve-wracking. It’s all that much more daunting when you have big shoes to fill. When Tim Cook took over for Steve Jobs in 2011, Apple employees — along with shareholders and the rest of the world — wondered if he could fill his larger-than-life predecessor’s shoes and maintain the company’s momentum. No pressure.

While you likely won’t have the entire world watching you, taking over for someone who is highly regarded or has had a significant positive impact on the business — or likely, both — can be exciting and scary at the same time. The scary part is that, according to a 2018 McKinsey report, nearly half of all leadership transitions fail. The report also highlights that 74% of U.S. leaders and 83% of global leaders think they are unprepared for their new roles, and less than one third of these leaders believe their organizations provide enough support in these transitions. Given this, it will likely be up to you to ensure your success when stepping into a new role where all eyes are on you.

To increase your chances of success, implement the key strategies below.

Do your homework before you start.

You will need to get up to speed on your new job before your first day. This may involve getting smart on the company’s product, a key client, an industry vertical, or functional knowledge adjacent to your area of expertise. Karen (not her real name) had been promoted to CFO of a large, public company when the prior CFO, who was very well respected both internally and externally, retired after almost a decade in that role. Karen needed to learn other aspects of finance, such as tax, treasury, real estate and dealing with the investment community, to which she didn’t have any previous exposure in her role as VP of finance. She studied these areas prior to starting her new position, often waking up at 5 am to have focused time before her workday started, since she still had a “day job.” If you have time off before you start your new role, it’s good to take some time to unwind from your previous job, but make sure you also take time to ramp up for your new one.

Be yourself.

Don’t try to take on your predecessor’s personality or leadership style or be someone you’re not. Being unapologetically authentic will earn you respect and help pre-empt judgment from others who are likely to compare you to your predecessor. While Tim Cook pursues excellence like Steve Jobs, the current CEO’s calm demeanor and style is genuine, making it apparent that he didn’t feel like he needed to “be Steve Jobs” in order to be successful.

Christine Lagarde, former head of the International Monetary Fund, took over in November 2019 as president of the European Central Bank. Upon starting her new role, she declared, “Each and every president has his or her own style of communicating. So, I know some of you are keen to compare and rate or rank. I will have my own style. So, as I said before: Don’t overinterpret, don’t second-guess, don’t cross-reference. I’m going to be myself, and therefore probably different.”

Both leaders displayed a strong sense of self that inspired confidence from others.

Understand and manage stakeholder relationships.

A key element of your success will be your ability to establish and effectively manage stakeholder relationships, both internal and external. This requires knowing not only who these people are, but also what they care most about, what they each expect from you, and what concerns they have. Some may be skeptical of your ability to live up to your predecessor’s performance. You’ll want to meet with each stakeholder and ask relevant questions like:

  • In your view, what should my top three priorities be over the next six to 12 months, and what would success look like to you?
  • What other internal and external relationships are most important to support these priorities?
  • What concerns do you have, and how can I address them?

Another option is to engage an executive coach to ask these questions on your behalf as part of an “assimilation coaching” program, which may get you more candid answers. However, this is in no way a substitute for you meeting with these stakeholders to start to build these essential relationships.

Assess the team.

Given your top priorities, you’ll want to assess if you have the right team to accomplish them. This includes hiring to fill any gaps on your team, as well as directly addressing performance issues that can prevent you from getting the leverage you need or impede your progress. Anthony was hired as COO of a rapidly growing financial services firm. People were counting on his deep financial services operations experience to help the organization scale. He found himself constantly in the weeds, in large part, because he did not address performance issues with selected individuals on his team, as he shied away from difficult conversations. This cost him dearly, as it diverted his attention from his strategic priorities so much that he was ultimately fired, becoming another failed leadership transition statistic.

Check your mindset.

Having big shoes to fill can make you question your own capabilities and whether you have what it takes to meet the standard set by your predecessor. Imposter syndrome is not uncommon, especially as you get more senior and are faced with completely new challenges. Even if there is evidence to the contrary, you may feel like a fraud or question whether you can measure up to the standard set before you. This is normal to some extent and even has some benefits, but it’s something to manage as you get your bearings.

Another important aspect of mindset relates to addressing your limiting beliefs or assumptions. In Anthony’s case, he had a limiting belief that he’d damage his relationship with others if he held team members accountable and engaged in difficult conversations. If you think you might have an assumption that’s getting in your way, design some safe experiments to test its validity. In Anthony’s case, this would have been talking to others he respected to see where they’ve engaged in difficult conversations and how these conversations served to build their relationships.

Seek ongoing feedback and support.

Create feedback loops with your key stakeholders for them to share early and often what’s going well and what’s going less well, so you can make real-time adjustments, as needed. Keep in mind, not everyone is going to like what you do. With your team, recognize that giving upward feedback often feels very risky, so you will need to give your team explicit permission to do so. Your job is to then listen — if you don’t, rest assured that your reports will not likely try a second time, and you will not get the information you need to hear. When you have big shoes to fill, you also will likely feel that there are few people with whom you can confide about the challenges you face. Having a mentor outside the organization, or an executive coach — or both — can provide useful outside feedback and perspectives, as well as provide a safe space to share what you are really thinking and feeling.

Having big shoes to fill is a big opportunity, but also presents challenges. Using the strategies above, you can demonstrate to yourself and others that the shoes you’ve been given are just your size.



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