How to succeed a star performer

Pity Tim Cook. He's got the greatest job going as CEO of Apple. But how do you follow an act like Steve Jobs?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Look and learn. 'Spend time with your predecessor and understand where he or she focused and why it has been a success,' says Peter Shaw, executive coach at Praesta and author of Getting the Balance Right. 'I'd want to understand from others why people were regarded as stars.

Was it about what they did, or how they did it?' This will help you to understand what your team's expectations are and how much direction they'll need.

Don't be overawed. 'You've been chosen in a rigorous process and if it's been done well, you will have been told why you are the right person for the job,' says Simon Mitchell, UK general manager of development company DDI. 'Go in with that confidence - it will be easier for you to be authentic to yourself.'

Cultivate the connection. An endorsement from your predecessor can only be helpful. As is using him or her as a sounding board, says Terry Bacon, scholar in residence for the Korn/Ferry Institute in Colorado. 'You can't defer - especially publicly - or people will think you are a puppet,' he adds.

Be opportunistic. If everything is going well, don't shake things up for the sake of it. The opportunity will arise to act decisively, says Shaw. 'In most jobs, a new challenge or crisis will happen within a few weeks.'

Put skills first. Don't bring in your own people without giving the existing team a chance. 'If the leader and the team have been successful, then changing it would destroy culture and trust,' says Mitchell. Take your time and identify where there are genuine gaps in the skills you need.

Indulge your critics. When someone says your revered predecessor wouldn't have done it that way, avoid taking it personally. 'Ask what would they have done and how,' says Shaw. 'Maybe they've got a point. If you're still convinced your approach is the right one, be willing to set out as clearly as possible why.'

Set the agenda. Find out what works well and then explain to your team what you're going to change. Establish the themes and the direction of your leadership. Your changes should give substance to your own style.

Pay homage. When you take over from a star, there's an 'icon penalty', says Bacon, and you are automatically thought less of. You can't stop it, so instead pay homage and honour the legacy of your forerunner.

Execution is key. If you can deliver on a par with your predecessor, you'll be accepted as the heir. As Bacon puts it: 'Execution trumps everything.'

Do say: 'Steve was a giant who made this company what it is today. I intend to build on that legacy.'

Don't say: 'I don't want to hear that name mentioned again...'

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