Companies & Industries

How to Fill a Predecessor's Big Shoes


It's daunting to step into a position previously occupied by a star performer. Take it easy, be yourself, and remember what leadership is

Are you prepared to step up to fill big shoes? When you get that opportunity, how will you stay focused on your True North and not get pulled off course by the pressures and seductions?

Stay grounded, and never lose sight of your roots.

Recently we've seen a succession of leaders self-destruct because they lost control of their egos, with former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (BusinessWeek.com, 3/12/08) being just the latest example. Instead of recognizing the heavy burden of responsibility that comes with leadership, they develop such an inflated sense of their power that they think they can do whatever they choose.

Authentic leaders know who they are and where they come from. They don't get caught up in their egos, nor do they think leadership is having legions of followers. They recognize their job is to unite their troops around common values and a common vision and empower them to step up and lead.

Stay Grounded

Goldman Sachs (GS) CEO Lloyd Blankfein stepped into enormous shoes when Henry Paulson became Treasury Secretary. As a member of the Goldman board, I watched as Blankfein took over the reins without missing a beat. In two years he has put his distinctive stamp on the firm, expanding its footprint around the globe and developing quality relationships with everyone from government leaders around the world to Wall Street insiders.

Blankfein, son of a postal worker, stays grounded by constantly worrying that Goldman's enormous success today could lead to big problems tomorrow. That's how he sensed early signs of the subprime crisis, prompting him to shift his firm away from its perils just as his competitors were expanding their risks.

General Electric (GE) CEO Jeff Immelt faced a similar challenge in succeeding "CEO of the Century" Jack Welch. Immelt says: "I had one good day as CEO—September 10, 2001—before the roof caved in." The attacks of September 11 affected a number of GE's businesses, yet Immelt was undaunted. Recalling earlier challenges in his career, Immelt said: "At times like these, you've got to be able to draw from within. Leadership is one of these great journeys into your own soul." Immelt focused on making GE more innovative and more customer-focused and launched Ecomagination to unite GE's energy-related businesses (BusinessWeek.com, 3/4/08).

Thorny Problems

IBM (IBM) CEO Sam Palmisano replaced iconic leader Louis Gerstner, who saved IBM in the 1990s. The down-to-earth Palmisano didn't try to emulate Gerstner, but decided just to be himself. He transformed IBM into an "integrated global network," focusing the company's best talents on solving difficult customer problems. To unify his employees around this new vision, Palmisano engaged all 350,000 employees in an online "values jam" to create IBM's core values—dedication to customer success, innovation, and trust. Palmisano's efforts are paying off as IBM's revenues and earnings are growing and its stock price soaring.

Target's (TGT) new CEO, Greg Steinhafel, is also taking over from an enormously successful predecessor. Target became the first retailer to compete toe-to-toe with Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), making discount cool and the Target bull's-eye ubiquitous. Asked how his leadership differs from his predecessor's, Steinhafel replied modestly, "This isn't about me. It's all about the brand."

Xerox (XRX) CEO Anne Mulcahy stepped into very different circumstances when her predecessor was forced out as the company facing possible bankruptcy. With Xerox's organization imploding, Mulcahy rallied her troops around "restoring Xerox to a great company" (BusinessWeek.com, 3/4/08). As she endured incredible pressure from bankers, shareholders, and the Securities & Exchange Commission, former CEO David Kearns asked her, "Do you believe those lies about you in the media?" "No, David," she replied calmly. "Good," he said. "Then don't believe it either when they call you the savior of Xerox." In spite of Xerox's remarkable recovery, Mulcahy has never lost her humility.

Lessons from Leaders

In interviews with 125 business and nonprofit leaders for True North, Peter Sims and I learned from authentic leaders the importance of staying grounded and the many things leaders do to ensure they don't lose their way:

1. Be humble, and don't get caught up in the perquisites of your office. When I was CEO of Medtronic (MDT), one of the best things we did was to eliminate all officer perquisites.

2. Don't lose sight of your roots, and remember your life's most difficult times. We learn a lot more from our failures than our successes. Starbucks (SBUX) founder Howard Schultz still visits Bayview Housing Projects to show his daughter where he grew up in Brooklyn.

3. Build your support team, starting with your spouse, partner, or mentor. Throughout my career, my wife, Penny, has been invaluable as a counselor and supporter. So has my men's group that has met weekly for more than 30 years.

4. Focus on your intrinsic motivations—those things that provide you lasting meaning. Money, fame, and power will never bring you the satisfaction that making a difference in the world does.

5. Lead an integrated life: Be the same person at home, at work, and in your community. As JetBlue Airways (JBLU) founder David Neeleman said when he stepped aside as CEO, "Never lose sight that your family is what's most important."

6. No longer is leadership about getting people to follow you. To succeed as a leader in the 21st century, it is essential to recognize that leadership means serving the people on your team and empowering your team to lead.

Bill's bottom line: Staying grounded is the best way to keep focused on your True North.


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