5 Tested Tips for Succeeding a Legendary Leader

You're taking the top job from a fabled founder or company icon. Here's how to build your own success story

Written by PROFIT Staff

When it comes time for a legendary leader to move on, the accolades and expressions of admiration flow freely. Iconic CEOs are celebrated for their devotion to their companies and their achievements while in office are lionized.

Illustration: Matt Murphy

But what if you’re the person who has to step into those gigantic shoes? How do you get the team onside and prove yourself worthy of the top job? How do you prevent comparisons between yourself and the icon you’re replacing? How do you balance the need for deference to your predecessor with the desire to make your own mark on the company?

These questions are particularly difficult to answer for those succeeding a company’s founder or a family member. Entrepreneurs and originators are justifiably protective of the firms they have built, and may be inclined to interfere long after they have formally left the business. Even if they consciously take a back seat, their personalities and skills are often intimately wrapped up with the origin and success stories of the business you now helm.

In the January issue of Canadian Business‘s Joe Castaldo explored the tough topic of succeeding a legendary leader. Here are a few key takeaways that will make you as successful as your iconic predecessor.

Start transitioning early

Businesses blessed with superstar leaders often don’t devote the resources to putting a formal succession plan in place. That’s particularly true of entrepreneurs and or the heads family-run businesses, who don’t have the time or the will to consider the messy details of what happens once they are no longer in the top job.

Developing replacements for your business’s big cheese is a good way to stave off the charismatic leadership model, where everything stems from one individual. “It’s a danger for organizations to have a lot of knowledge and clout resting with one individual. The idea of power-sharing is very important,” says Stephen Friedman, an executive coach and faculty member at the Schulich School of Business.

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Shut the door—gently

It can be comforting for a business to keep an outgoing leader around in a less everyday capacity, to ease the transition to a new boss or provide advice and guidance when necessary. Your predecessor may have been a mentor and groomed you for your top position, and the reassurance of having them on the business’s board or giving them an honorary position may be welcome.

Resist that temptation. “That’s usually a mistake,” says Guy Beaudin, a senior partner at managing consulting firm RHR International. “There are very few ways to win in that environment. You’re either going to create some severe boardroom battles, or you’re going to be executing the previous CEO’s strategy.”

But be gracious. After all, your predecessor is revered for a reason and deserves credit for all that he or she achieved. “You need to be seen as honouring the person as they leave,” Beaudin says.

That’s what Jim Leech did when he took over from Claude Lamoreux at Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan in 2007. “Some people think they’ve got to come in and within the first week put their brand on the place,” Leech says. “To me, that’s not what you do. We celebrated Claude’s accomplishments.”

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Talk to your people

When employees have come to revere a leader, adjusting to a new boss can be difficult. It’s important to recognize your staff’s affection for your predecessor while still asserting your control over the business and clearly informing them of your expectations.

“You need to say that there are ways in which you’re going to be different, and acknowledge that you’ll have to find new ways of working together,” says Guy Beaudin, a senior partner at management consulting firm RHR International.

Other stakeholders will also need to be consulted and brought onside. Talk to your business’s key clients, board members, investors and advisors. Make sure they know you’re now in charge and that you know what you’re doing.

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Don’t be a copycat

Just because the leader you’re replacing was successful doesn’t mean he or she was infallible. Having the skills and focus needed to grow the company further is more important than maintaining a legendary leader’s style or way of doing business.

Sean Durfy, who took over from WestJet co-founder Clive Beddoe in 2007, made sure to lean on his own talents. “You can’t try to replace someone like Clive. You’ll always fail,” he says. “I’d be a horrible entrepreneur. I’m a professional manager. I like strategy, and I like measured results.”

Don’t try to be a carbon copy of the person you’re replacing. Whatever the reason for their exit from the business, it’s yours to run now, so do it in a way that makes sense for you.

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Take your time

If you’re coming from inside the company, you’ll have a good understanding of what your predecessor did wrong and what you’d like to do differently. If you’re an outside hire, you’ve likely taken the time to establish a plan for where the business should go (after all, isn’t that why you were chosen?). But in either case, don’t rush to change everything all at once.

“If you’re seen in any way as dismantling what the previous CEO has done, that puts you at risk,” Beaudin warns. The key is to thoroughly explain why the changes are necessary and how the organization will benefit.

At WestJet, Durfy spent a lot of time ensuring employees understood why he was implementing a particular strategy and explaining what they could do to help fulfil it. “People need to understand the context. It’s new, and change is hard,” he says.


Have you ever had to succeed a legend? What did you do to make your mark? Share your experiences using the comments section below.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com