Leading Effectively When You Inherit a Mess

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Ron Carucci for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here

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An executive I work with recently stepped into the biggest challenge of her career. Recruited from outside the organization, she faced multiple problems: The business was losing money, costs were bloated, customer loyalty was fading, and key talent was defecting. Her predecessor had made a failed attempt at reorganizing before leaving for the competition. Morale was low, while distrust and anxiety were rising.

A 10-year longitudinal study on executive transitions that my organization conducted found that more than 50% of executives who inherit a mess fail within their first 18 months on the job. We also uncovered numerous landmines for leaders in this situation. And, with the best of intentions, my client was about to step on a number of them. When a leader inherits a mess created by others, especially when arriving as an outsider, the situation can feel fragile and knowing where to begin the long journey of change can feel precarious. Based on our research and my experience, there are six things the most effective leaders do to avoid failing in a new role.

Resist the temptation to emotionally distance yourself. Difficult and unfamiliar circumstances can make leaders feel vulnerable. To combat their anxiety, they actively avoid being implicated in the mess in subtle but damaging ways. Four weeks after my client’s arrival, I noticed a distinctive pattern in her language. When referring to the significant challenges of her new organization, she consistently spoke in third-person references — they, them, those people. And when speaking about possible changes that needed to be made, she spoke only in first-person language: I will, I don’t. Her growing contempt for the organization was visible. Instead of building confidence in their future, she was unwittingly fueling anxiety, distrust, and low morale. Deeper reflection revealed she was trying to emotionally distance herself from the mess because of an underlying fear that she might fail to turn it around. To win the trust of those who must live with the changes you create, you have to engage as part of them, not apart from them. The quicker you can lose your outsider status, using inclusive language like we and us, the sooner they will be open to changes you need to make.

Never blame your predecessor. It’s a natural temptation to blame the past regime when entering organizations in disarray. In one meeting, my client’s frustration got the best of her, and while looking over the past quarter’s budget, she blurted out, “What on earth was he thinking?” Well, since “he” isn’t there anymore, everyone else in the room was implicated by proxy. Nobody knows better about the mess they are in than the people in it, much less about how it came to be. You are better off simply making no references to decisions or actions taken prior to your arrival. Your best response when being baited to blame those that came before you is simply, “We can’t change what happened then, but we can change what we do going forward.” People appreciate when you take the high road.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.

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