Ample advice is available on how to step into big shoes and take over from someone who did a great job. But how should you behave if the person you're taking over from was none of these things? How do you follow a failure, and how do you reduce the risk of becoming one yourself?
Start before you get the job
If you are brought in to clean up a mess, you need to talk about it frankly during the interview. Ideally, you need to know what the problems were, what the solution looks like, what resources you will have to sort out the problems, and what sort of timescale you have.
Look at what happened to your predecessor
Did they have the wrong experience or skills? Were they not given the right resources or the freedom to make decisions? Was the job not what they thought it would be? Was it cultural, or was it personal — did they clash with their boss? Try to understand the context of the problems and what you would bring to the role that is different from what they brought.
Do you know anyone who can give you the real story of what happened or is prepared to have an informal chat? What's the industry buzz? Are there any rumours? It's worth looking at their predecessor, too. If it's a job where nobody lasts longer than six months, then chances are the role is the problem. This doesn't mean you shouldn't take it, but you might say, "I'm interested in the role, but I think these parts of the job spec could be changed in order to make the desired outcomes more achievable."
Position yourself as a 'new broom'
Make it clear that you represent a clean break and that things are going to change. Talk to those you have to work with — your team, those above you, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. Now that you are here, you want harmonious, efficient relationships. Don't dwell on past problems. Instead, say that you know things may have been difficult and ask for their input and help with making changes.
The temptation is to move quickly. There's a mess, and it's not yours. Hesitate and it may become yours. But you also need to remember that people have had a rough ride. Take some time to plan, get those around on board, and ensure that you can start delivering improvements that will boost morale.
Once you get your feet under the desk, you may discover that things were worse than you'd been told. If this is the case, you must let those above you know. If they're much worse, you may even need to renegotiate your remit. Here you should expect the support of your company — but you probably shouldn't expect people to thank you for finding more problems.
Support and assess your team
If you're managing a team, chances are they will be demoralised and disengaged. Again, you need to stress to them that this is a new start. Give them goals and explain that you are there to support them, that you are all working together, and that you are invested in their careers and their success. That's the nice bit. The nasty bit is that problematic people often recruit in their own image. If you have people on your team who either do not buy into your vision or have become so disengaged they are beyond saving, you need to part ways with them — and you need to do it as quickly as possible. Afterwards, make it clear to those who remain that you have their backs.
Resist the urge to bash your predecessor
This is quite a balancing act. On one hand, you must acknowledge that there were problems and that changes must be made. On the other hand, you shouldn't criticise the person who had your job before, tempting as it might be. The best strategy here is to depersonalise it and look forward, not back. So, rather than saying, "Sarah ruined all our supplier relationships", you might say, "Our supplier relationships have suffered, and we all need to work hard to rebuild them." However, if others want to vent, you should let them. After all, they worked under your predecessor and have had to deal with the fallout. It's cathartic for them.
Remember that many failures can be complicated
Failure is rarely entirely one person's fault. But there's a fine line between understanding what went on and getting drawn into it. You are better off leaving the past behind. Again, look to the future and focus on the positive changes that you can make.
Rhymer Rigby is an FM magazine contributor and author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.