Any leader who is assuming a role previously held by someone else has to face their predecessor’s legacy, but those who are replacing poor or controversial leaders have a special challenge. These three strategies will help your company move on: 1) Acknowledge the contributions of the previous leader. Don’t ignore their contributions or blame them for all of the organization’s challenges. 2) Create space for forgiveness. It will allow people to let go of the past and make room for a new vision and direction. 3) Seek to understand your employees’ experience. Ask them what they want and need going forward. You will have some employees who are supportive of previous leadership. You don’t automatically become a good leader merely by taking over for a bad one. Ultimately you become a good leader by leading differently and more inclusively.

Every leader who fills a top role previously held by someone else faces the same challenge: They must deal with the outgoing leader’s accomplishments and shortcomings. When your predecessor was successful, you will be judged against their accomplishments.

But when replacing a poor or controversial leader, you may have to take accountability for your predecessor’s mistakes, while simultaneously creating a new vision for the organization. Poor leadership can damage an institution, whether it’s a government or a Fortune 500 company, and often a new leader must take aggressive action in order to save the enterprise — while avoiding throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Finally, all of this must also be done within an organization that may be both skeptical and exhausted.

Managing all of these tensions can be challenging for even the most seasoned leaders. As an executive coach and consultant, I’ve helped dozens of leaders navigate this transition over the past two decades. I’ve seen leaders rise to the occasion, but I’ve also seen struggles, even when leaders come with the best intentions. With a few basic strategies, it’s possible to not only help a company move on from poor leadership, but to transform the organization and help everyone within it reach their potential.

1. Acknowledge the contributions of the previous leader

Good leaders create a separation between the past and the future. Many people are inclined to do this by completely ignoring their predecessors — or worse blaming the previous leaders for all the faults and challenges facing the organization. This is especially tempting if your predecessor is viewed in a bad light.

But good leaders acknowledge the past realities, including the likelihood that any leader, no matter how poor, did something right. You will probably have employees supportive of previous leadership, and they will have mixed views on what went wrong before and what has to be done differently. New leaders are well advised to acknowledge any positives that a predecessor brought while also openly discussing the trauma and damage they created within the enterprise.

Sometimes, the reason for parting isn’t as heavy, but still must be addressed. I recently helped with the CEO transition of a large multinational company. The business had suffered greatly during the pandemic, and as a result the business strategy had to evolve dramatically. The board determined that the previous CEO wasn’t the right person for the next phase.

As we managed the transition, the new CEO continually emphasized gratitude for his predecessor, who had built the company up, reaching extraordinary levels of success. He simply wasn’t the right person to get the job done going forward.

Successful leadership is about the art of balancing these two seemingly opposite truths. The predecessors certainly weren’t idle, but they also were not effective or were not likely to be effective going forward. Good leaders must acknowledge both of these things directly, authentically, and with integrity.

2. Enable a vision for the future by creating a space for forgiveness 

Most bad leaders’ actions are, in some part, rooted in good intentions. But often even the best of intentions have unintended consequences or worse, result in collateral damage.

Acknowledging the gap between the previous leader’s intentions and results can be as simple as saying “I understand the previous executives had big dreams for this company, but their methods (or approach, or style) didn’t work.”

Often, we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. Reminding people of this doesn’t absolve the previous leader, but it does humanize outgoing leadership and creates room for forgiveness. As the saying goes “to err is human, to forgive divine.”

In this context, forgiveness creates room for a new vision and direction and allows people to let go of the past and move into the future together. Resentments have a gravity of their own that often leads us to repeat the patterns of the past. Forgiveness often has the opposite effect and creates room for new possibilities.

In one example, we helped a new CEO take over from the dynamic but controversial founder of a tech company. To create space for forgiveness, the new leader held a senior team meeting focused on three questions:

  1. What about how we have worked and operated do we want to maintain?
  2. What do we want to leave behind?
  3. What do we want to create anew?

What the team discovered was that many of their current methods were effective, and that those philosophies were enabled by the previous leader. However, there were also some things that needed to be left behind. That balanced view allowed for feelings of both appreciation and forgiveness regarding the previous leader, while repositioning the go-forward efforts as a healthy evolution. There was no negation of the past leader and what had been put in place, good or bad. Circumstances change, requiring leaders to evolve and adapt.

3. Seek to understand your employees’ experiences

Many new leaders falter when they simply see themselves as the corrective force to their predecessors without investing the time to understand the full impact of the previous regime or by failing to include their teams in creating the future. You don’t automatically become a good leader merely by taking over for a bad one, or in having a different perspective from the outgoing executive. Ultimately, you become a good leader by leading differently and more inclusively.

Listen to people who felt the adverse effects of the previous leader and use that information to inform your vision. Explicitly ask individuals or groups within the company how can I help you now? What do you most want and need going forward? What do you hope I will do? What do you hope I won’t do? Bad leaders don’t ask those questions, but good leaders always do.

In the executive transition at the multinational company discussed earlier, before the new CEO issued any new plans or strategies, he started interviewing. He spent a full month meeting with and talking to employees at every level of the organization and saw what was needed for the company to evolve. When he rolled out his strategic plan, it was received with universal enthusiasm because every employee saw their voice represented in the go-forward vision.

Humans are built to move on and once they feel truly understood they often move on of their own accord. This can’t be rushed, but if you give them a vision of what “could be” most people will gladly leave the past behind. You can’t force people to move on, but you can show them that things will be different by listening and taking their hard-earned lessons to heart.

By acknowledging the gap between the actions and intentions of a previous leader, recommitting to your own vision, and asking the people under your leadership what they need, you can be on the path to not only replacing a bad leader, but becoming a much more effective leader yourself. Whether it’s replacing an outgoing CEO or a president, leaders who commit to these practices will unlock the energy and wisdom of the people they lead. In so doing, they will help create a future that is distinct from the past and that makes sense for everyone.

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