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When You Follow a Legend, You Can’t Be Meek

Bosses such as Tim Cook and Steve Ballmer, who take charge after a founder departs, have a particularly difficult challenge. But there’s a trick to successful succeeding: once you solve the people issues, everything else gets easier.

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BY Howard Tullman - 13 Feb 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Taking the leadership job is tough enough. But there's an even higher degree of difficulty in being Act Two, following in the footsteps of "larger-than-life" founders like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Sam Walton as they move away from the day-to-day of a thriving business or sell the whole shebang and leave you holding the bag for the new buyers. Even if most of the miracle tales of superhuman struggles and successes ripped from the jaws of certain defeat are somewhat inflated, these founders got the deals done; the investors and customers appeared; and serious businesses got built.

Following such an act is not going to be easy. But, as the Navy Seals say, there's no easy way and the only easy day was yesterday. The initial change and transition in some cases might just be something as simple as: (a) the team deciding it's time for the CEO to stop selling directly and for him or her to focus more on financing, strategy, strategic partnerships and other matters; or (b) it could be a big company-wide reorganization with you taking on a lot of new reports and responsibilities or (c) because dreams sometimes do come true, maybe the board or new owner decides that you're the right one right about now to get the job done.

Congratulations, the spotlight's shining on you and it seems like the whole world is watching. Showtime! No more rehearsals, second chances or do-overs. And understand that while the process is important, and good consistent and clear communication is critical, this whole transition thing is much more about the people than anything else. I'm talking about the ones who are coming, the ones who are staying, and the ones who are going --voluntarily or otherwise. If you get the people part done well, the rest of the transition will be a lot easier-- because you won't be doing it alone.

And, while we're on the subject of staying or overstaying one's welcome, I'd say, without seeming too callous, that the transition will have less friction if the founder becomes less visible and less active in the business. Founders have a tough time letting go and an inordinate fondness for the past and the ways that business used to get done. Of course, you might get lucky and have a real ally on your side, someone who knows where the bodies are buried and which people and other pitfalls to avoid. Because absolutely everyone's got an agenda. The best change managers, just like the best managers in baseball, are the ones who can keep the players who hate them away from the ones who haven't made up their minds yet. So, don't be too quick to shove anyone out the door. Good help is hard to find.

And, to be clear, figuring this stuff out on the fly is a real bear. But there are a few ground rules that can help you make it through the gauntlet without losing your soul or any skin in the process. Keep in mind that these are basically tactical suggestions: that is, defining the long view, setting the overall vision and strategy, and building critical cultural fit as well as social capital are topics for another day. First things first: you can't build a new foundation if the place is on fire.

The first rule is to control your calendar and make sure that you are running the show. You have to rule your inbox, not the other way around. Everything isn't an emergency and not everything has to be done yesterday. Your time is scarce and precious, unlike some of the people you'll have to deal with, who have nothing but time and are always looking for ways to justify their existence as well as to waste your time. Media mavens, public officials, job seekers, and a million other people with a cause will all appear at your doorstep looking to offer advice and asking for favors, resources, and assistance.

And, while the founder knew the ones who were full of it and figured out early on how to avoid them, you'll have to suffer these same so-and-so's for a while. But you can be smart about it. You can also expect all kinds of other unwelcome "experts" to come out of the woodwork. Mentors, advisors, and board members who suddenly return to life with only the best of intentions. I'd suggest that board members in particular should wait a while, to be specifically asked for their help, before rushing in.

The second rule is to quickly re-recruit your key players and to get the spectators off the field. Work from the inside out and fix the folks first. Focus on keeping the ones who can get you to where you need to go - the ones who've been there before - and not simply the "nice" ones who don't have any other place to be. Your job isn't to defend yesterday; it's to build for tomorrow. Change is hard for anyone and people - regardless of their age - don't like it and they like surprises even less. Ambiguity is a culture-killer and sometimes any decision, right or wrong, is better than limbo. The sooner you let all the people know who's staying and who's not, the happier everyone will be. The worst thing to do is the "salami" solution - continual small slices and repeated layoffs with no end in sight. Go early and go deep - 2x is better than any piecemeal plan. And remember that the people who come back to haunt you aren't the ones you let go; they're the ones you should have fired and didn't.

The third rule is: don't let anyone make a liar out of you. People who aren't committed - people who are just biding their time and phoning it in - are the ones who you need to confront and convert or tell to take a hike. You need to get any resistance out in the open. People don't like conflict and will try to hide any bad news until the last possible moment when it's often too late to fix. Tell your people what you expect, what that will entail and require of them, and how their results will be measured. Commitments from these people in words, but not actions are worthless. Don't confuse their good manners with agreement. As Samuel Goldwyn used to say: tell me the truth even if it costs you your job. In the real world, the truth only hurts when it ought to, and there's no need to make or take things personally, but having straightforward and direct conversations as early as possible is essential. And don't accept apologies (or promises to do better next time) from people who don't change their behavior. These aren't apologies - they're insults.

The fourth rule is to fix a few things fast if you can. If you can't commit to major changes overnight (and you shouldn't), commit to what you can do and get those things done. Ordinarily, I suggest that, if you have to eat a bunch of frogs (problems), you swallow the biggest one first. But, in this context, it makes much more sense to watch for a while, understand the culture, get the leaders and the influencers aligned with your vision and aspirations, get buy-in from your board, and then move quickly to make the bigger changes once you've made the decisions. In the meantime, shoot for small victories, visible results, quick turnarounds and then make sure that you celebrate those early successes.

And finally, don't spread yourself too thin or try to be Superman. Set the major goals and objectives and let your team implement the strategies. Let them do their jobs. This involves and empowers them and gets them into the game rather than sitting on the sidelines waiting to be told what to do. And, most importantly, it gives them a real sense of controlling their own destiny.


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