Stepping in for Superman

The king is dead…long live the king. Taking over the reins from a much-loved boss means establishing your own style but respecting his legacy.


So you’ve just been awarded the leadership gig of a lifetime, complete with a talented team, a host of challenges to tackle, and (come on, admit it) a sweet bump in pay. Congratulations! There’s just one little problem. The guy who ran the place before you ranked somewhere between God and Herb Kelleher in your employees’ minds. As you unpack your boxes, they’re still whispering about naming their firstborn after him.


Taking over after a popular leader bows out can be a confidence-shaking experience. Even if you have the vision of Steve Jobs and the optimism of Jeff Bezos, you’re simply the person who replaced Mr. or Ms. Wonderful. “If you think the stakes are higher, they are,” says Mark Thompson, an executive coach with firsthand experience following a beloved leader. Years ago, he replaced a popular company veteran as chief communications officer at Charles Schwab. His predecessor was Schwab’s resident golden boy — smart, charismatic, funny — “all the things I didn’t picture myself to be,” says Thompson. In fact, the guy was so popular that one of Thompson’s mentors advised him to seriously consider whether he should even take the job.

If it’s lonely at the top, it’s even lonelier when you’re leading people still mourning the passing of their patron saint. But there are ways to cope with their brutal comparisons, transfer their loyalty, and keep your integrity intact. With the right finessing, your employees may name their second born after you.

1. Stay True to Your Style

Jerry Kirkegaard had been with Quest Diagnostics, the clinical-test laboratory, as far back as the Ford administration, and his legacy seemed to stretch back even longer. The affable, informal Kirkegaard, a regional managing director, was famous for promoting a familial culture: Under his watch, many employees worked with their spouses, and more than 100 of them attended his 60th birthday party.

So imagine being Chris Shlagor, who took over Kirkegaard’s spot three years ago. Not only was she missing his close-knit connections; she also lacked his laid-back leadership style. For example, to prepare for a visit by top brass, Shlagor designed a rigid schedule that subjected the execs to detailed business-plan presentations. Kirkegaard, she says, “would have put his feet up on the desk and just talked to them for two days.”

Shlagor worried her new staff would size her up as a stiff corporate suit. But she also knew she couldn’t just mimic Kirkegaard’s style, which favored spontaneous hallway strategy sessions. So she immediately fessed up to those differences, admitting how difficult it would be for her to run meetings without an agenda. Surprisingly, the team didn’t roll their eyes. “Here I was, worried I was going to be putting rules in place that people would balk at,” Shlagor recalls. “But it turned out discipline was good. People said we needed more of it.”


2. Give Time to Grieve

No matter why your predecessor moved on — a promotion, retirement, or even an untimely death — employees need time to process that the person responsible for much of their happiness at work is no longer part of their lives. Assert yourself before that grieving period is over, and you’ll face a wall of resistance.

Andrew R. Gatto learned that the hard way when he took the reins at Russ Berrie and Co. last year, replacing the toy company’s founder and namesake after he died of heart failure. (Berrie’s wife temporarily served as interim CEO.) Berrie had started the company out of his garage and nurtured a staff of loyal workers. Acting more like a frontline manager than a CEO, Berrie worked closely with employees in the field. In turn, his employees treated him like family. One executive asked Berrie to be the best man in his wedding. Another visits his grave once a week. “He tells me he still has a spiritual link to the man,” Gatto says of the employee.

Hoping to reinvent a company that had essentially been operating the same way since 1963, Gatto reorganized sales territories by geographic region. The change made pragmatic sense but disrupted decades-old relationships. Clients called Gatto on behalf of their Russ sales reps asking him to reconsider. Gatto persisted, even as buyers threatened to pull their business and several salespeople quit in protest. While he contends the move was right for the business, Gatto now says he wishes he’d taken a more gradual approach. “There’s an emotional hole that exists, and that hole takes some time to fill.”

3. Embrace Your Predecessor

In many cases, of course, Mr. or Ms. Wonderful is still in the picture. So can you win over your staff if the Great One is still around? Absolutely, says Rob BonDurant, director of brand development and communications at outdoor outfitter Patagonia. BonDurant’s predecessor, Hal Arneson, had been with the company nearly 20 years and was part of the team behind Patagonia’s marketing strategy, which invites customers to send in photos of themselves skiing, rock climbing, and surfing to fill the company’s ads.

Rather than charging in with his own agenda, BonDurant spent his first few weeks helping his staff finish projects started under Arneson’s watch. His team continued discussing those assignments with Arneson, some meeting with him as often as once a week — for breakfast, lunch, or even an afternoon surfing session. While most leaders would be threatened by such coziness, BonDurant welcomed it. “I have no problem with anyone asking for his opinion, because I certainly do,” he says.


That’s the right attitude, says Betty Vandenbosch, an associate dean at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. When an employee says he met with your predecessor, respond positively. “If you feel insecure,” she says, “you’re sunk.” If you learn about the meeting beforehand, offer to tag along. Or arrange confabs that include yourself, your predecessor, and each individual. You’ll learn more and send the signal that the leader they love supports you, too.

4. Break Traditions You Don’t Support

While it’s good to toe the line with some cherished customs, don’t be afraid to question the ones you don’t believe in. After all, Superwoman may have been lionized more for her generosity with the corporate card than her courage to make tough calls.

When Shlagor took over the Quest division, she discovered employees were using blood-testing methodologies that other divisions didn’t use. They believed those systems were better, even if they prevented the division from being measured accurately against its peers, and thus, participating in incentive plans. Shlagor could continue to champion these techniques, as her predecessor had, or trust her belief that companywide benchmarks were superior. In some cases, she forced the switch. “At first, my team was reluctant because they’re technologists who had been very set in their ways,” says Shlagor. “But once they got the new procedures down, they accepted the change.”

5. Forget Your Epitaph

It’s natural to obsess over the impact you’ll have in your new gig. But a long-term focus — on yourself, not the business — will only get you into trouble. Patagonia’s BonDurant understood that. Outdoing Arneson’s legacy any time soon would require a revolutionary marketing change when the company frankly doesn’t need one. “What it needs is small refinements that have big returns,” he says. To that end, BonDurant is focusing on a change so minor few will recognize it. Traditionally, Patagonia assigned clever names to its retail categories; for example, the “endurance” department included mountain-based sports such as trail running. The problem? Those categories aren’t always intuitive. So he’s refining the names to make it easier for customers to shop.

Next to his predecessor’s contribution, BonDurant’s seems kind of paltry. That’s fine by him. And according to Michael Watkins, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of The First 90 Days (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), he’s smart to think that way. “You shouldn’t even be thinking about your legacy until after your first year on the job,” he says. “If you’re coming into a successful organization and are worried about your legacy after a few months on the job, you’re crazy.” Leave the epitaph for your employees to write. nFC


Michele Marchetti is a New York-based freelance writer.