First-Class Coach

I've recently taken over as managing director of a company division. The previous MD has moved on to the main board, and though the division is no longer his direct responsibility, he clearly finds it hard to let go of his old role.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

He interferes with nearly everything I do, and tries to overturn decisions. How can I deal with his overbearing attitude without antagonising and alienating him?

A: It's an all too familiar tale, with the newly promoted, more senior person less at ease in his new role than his old one and so focusing on his familiar tasks and responsibilities, to the irritation of his replacement.

It happens a lot at the top of companies, where promotion often takes people away from the parts of the job they really enjoy - for example, interaction with customers.

It can happen irrespective of whether the new incumbent was selected by the previous one, particularly when a new appointee starts to make significant changes to how things are run. A new direction, policy, structure or process can be seen as implied criticism of the old regime, and will stir up defence of the status quo.

There are things you can do that might alleviate the situation, but it's worth asking yourself if you are contributing to it in some way. For example, people find it difficult to hand power to those they regard as inexperienced or not fully competent. Could these descriptions apply to you in any way?

Are there any visible signs that the key measures by which your performance is judged are anything but good?

If, say, your handling of financial matters is not quite up to scratch, or you are failing to deliver some other form of reporting on time, you could be laying yourself open to the sort of interference you are experiencing.

Though you find it annoying, it would be easy for your predecessor to justify his continued involvement.

If there are any legitimate grounds for criticism, do what you can to remove them, so that it becomes clear to others that although the ex-MD has different views from yours - to which he is, of course, entitled - you are performing your job well and are more than capable of taking decisions and making appropriate changes.

But, competence apart, it isn't realistic to expect complete autonomy on everything immediately, as you are still new to the position. You may have to develop trust over time before your predecessor reduces the degree of control he has over you, moving from directing you (telling you exactly what to do), to supervising (keeping a watchful eye while you do it), then mentoring (sharing relevant knowledge with you), delegating and finally abrogating responsibility to you.

Don't take him on in public. To avoid humiliation and loss of face, he's likely to be desperate to score points and be even more aggressive, and you'll probably be unable to create an effective working relationship - which is your goal. Instead, make a separate meeting to review progress together. Choose a time when he is at his calmest - it's amazing the negative effect of too much caffeine, a boozy lunch or a difficult journey into work can have on even the most reasonable of people. Tell him you want to work well with him and that you feel you have a lot to learn from him and his past experience, even though your views are never going to be identical. It is worth flattering him gently, so he feels appreciated rather than defensive.

Tell him you haven't felt happy with the way things have been recently between you and that you'd like to develop more effective ways of working with him. Then let him speak. Keep to the subject of productive professional relationships rather than the minutiae of the contention between you.

Keep a positive approach and avoid criticising him and his past performance.

Having created the conditions for clear communication, you'll probably find that he'll back down or agree to handle things differently. But if he's still behaving in a belligerent manner, look him in the eye, speak calmly and firmly and tell him that you have been given the responsibility and are now accountable for the division's performance and, while you are happy to hear his views, you'd prefer him to express them to you one-to-one rather than in the public forum.

With any luck, quite soon his new role will begin to take up much more of his time and he will stop trying to do your job as well as his.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail:

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