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Succeeding As A Successor

by Teena Rose of Résumé to Referral


It is perhaps one of the most challenging and exciting executive jobs to hold: filling a position where others have failed. How do you go about succeeding where your predecessors have failed? By applying some common sense, using effective communication techniques, and learning from past mistakes--both theirs and your own. 

Avoid Past Mistakes

Your predecessors failed in one or more areas, yet the CEO and the Board expects you to follow in similar footsteps. They may expect that because they don't know your predecessor failed. You may have inherited a time bomb, while you predecessor wisely took a massive severance and jumped ship. Or your predecessor may have instituted plans that simply did not adequately address known problems. Those plans sounded good, so you're expected to follow the same wrong trajectory.

How do you handle this situation? It can be difficult to contradict the views of senior management. However, your job is to create the turnaround situation that others before you were unable accomplish. If previous methods proved ineffective, yet are the company norm, you need to assert yourself as the expert.  

There is more than one way to contradict expectations, but all require tact. If you have been hired to perform a turnaround, a gentle reminder of this may be all you need to do. Senior management chose you following an executive search or through an executive recruiter for a reason. Defer to your executive resume, past accomplishments, and turnaround record.

Change is difficult, even when current practices aren't working. People are more comfortable with known factors, and this includes CEOs and Board members. The "known" may be losing money, but it is familiar. Understand that resistance to change is simply normal human behavior. And it can blind people to the facts. They need persuasion.

Use research to assert your position. If you come from previous turnaround situations, use examples from similar circumstances. Provide numbers for senior management. Present these simply and and make them easy to understand. When the information is in black and white, it is easier to accept. Offer a variety of scenarios forecasting different outcomes, including those that did not succeed in the past. You can make your case much more effectively when you have concrete information to back it up. 

Show That You're on the Team

You're the new kid on the block. So, others may view you as a threat. Make the effort to get to know your new colleagues and demonstrate how you fit in. People are more comfortable and trusting with others who are like they are. If you are able to show that you are not there simply to shake things up, but are genuinely interested in creating meaningful change, you will find cooperation rather than resistance. Your CEO and Board are no exception to this rule. 

When you enter an executive job where people before you have failed, others may see this as a reflection on themselves. What CEO may not feel a twinge of failure when choosing a string of poor leaders? As you seek to make change, it is at times necessary to do so gently. You need to be "one of the team," not someone who sits there and passes judgment. Be patient as you work to gain the trust of your colleagues and decide which changes you need to do now and which you can implement gradually. You're here for the long haul. Make this known. But don't do it with a "you can't run me off" challenge. That will only get you run off. Do it by showing you respect your colleagues and you care about their future. The more you build relationships by listening to others, the more you communicate your interest in the long term. 

Determine What's Best for the Company

As the expert, it's your responsibility to determine what is best for the company--even if this goes against the opinions of senior management. While some changes should be done gradually, others need to be avoided completely or undertaken in a more effective way. That is, choose your battles. You can't win them all. Trying to do that will cost you the war.

When you find yourself in a situation where you must disagree with top executives, make your case as best you can. Understanding that your suggestions may not be accepted.  

Again, solid research is key. If you don't have the numbers to support your position, there's no point bringing it up in the first place. However, if you have the strategy and the numbers, move forward and utilize effective communication techniques to present your case. 

Remember that everyone takes his or her opinions seriously. So do not state that the other way of doing business is wrong. For one thing, this is a direct attack on anyone who was implemental in doing it the other way. For another, you may end up doing it that way after all. You'll need the support of your team members.

Acknowledge everyone's opinion as valid before showing why you believe your way of doing things is better. That doesn't mean uttering a platitude like, "Everyone's opinion is important" and then behaving as though only your opinion matters. It means showing you value the opinions of others. Listen, ask non judgmental questions, and ask people to tell you the strengths and weaknesses of their opinion. Say things like, "Help me understand."

People aren't so much tied to their opinions as they are tied to the need to be heard. So, hear what they have to say--before you tell them what you have to say. You may need to ask some people to skip all of the details and give you the essentials, or you will never get through this process. Make it clear that you want to know how things work and why they are done that way. Then, you want to work with your team to make things better.

Demonstrate why this method is best for the company. Draw on ideas and comments given when you were listening to others, previously. Show how individuals have a stake in the outcome. For example, "I think if John could reduce that invoicing cycle, he'd be a much happier camper. Is that right, John?"

When people can relate to change on a personal level, they are much more likely to cooperate. Show how your method will benefit all involved and the company as a whole. Put the information into perspective. Use examples. Show the numbers. 

Finally, learn from your own mistakes. After all, everyone makes mistakes. Now you can benefit from making yours.

When presenting a new way of doing things, for example, communicate your own failings in the past, particularly if they relate to how your predecessors did things. Your new colleagues will see that you don't have an air of arrogance, that you don't consider yourself infallible. They will see that you have made and learned from your own failures.

Because of this, they will be much more inclined to trust and believe you. One easy way to explain that a plan is not best for the company is to use personal examples of how you found a better solution to the problem in the past. If you found that because someone else finally got it through your thick skull, then that's all the better. Tell your story, including any anecdotes about just how hard-headed you were at the time and how you are glad you finally listened. If your story involves how someone else was hard-headed, then leave that part out--it only makes you look like you have a superiority complex.

The bottom line is building trust. As the turnaround person in a new executive job, you must earn the trust of your colleagues--from the Board to the CEO to senior management. This will create a trickle-down effect, but you must start at the top. If the Board does not have faith in you, there's no reason to expect anyone else in the company will.

Building trust takes patience and time. Do everything in your power to build trust and the doors of progress will open to you.


Teena Rose operates a prominent and professional resume writing service, Resume to Referral. She’s authored several career books, including "20-Minute Cover Letter Fixer", "How to Design, Write, and Compile a Quality Brag Book", and "Cracking the Code to Pharmaceutical Sales."


Teena Rose, CPRW, CEIP, CCM
Resume to Referral
7211 Taylorsville Road, Office 208
Huber Heights, OH 45424
Phone: (937) 236-1360
Fax: (937) 236-1351

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