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Big shoes to fill: how to succeed a brilliant leader

Published 17 November 2023 in Audio articles • 6 min read • Audio availableAudio available

Executives winning promotion must navigate their transition with a balance of humility, respect for legacy, and a vision for the future.

In a succession that made headlines, Morgan Stanley’s Chief Executive James Gorman, who had masterfully steered the ship for 14 successful years, announced his decision to step down in May. His departure left an imposing void that needed to be filled, and Ted Pick will soon find himself at the helm, stepping into Gorman’s big shoes come January next year. This scenario is far from unique in the business world. Many executives at all levels of an organization may face the challenge of succeeding a brilliant leader. It’s a journey fraught with pitfalls, requiring new leaders to navigate their way through a complex maze of expectations, relationships, and the shadows of success. They must find a way to acknowledge and honor their predecessors’ legacies while forging their own path. Gorman’s tenure at Morgan Stanley serves as a good example. He transformed the bank through a series of strategic acquisitions, significantly diversifying its revenue streams beyond investment banking’s feast and famine cycles. Now, as Pick prepares to take the reins, he must balance maintaining these hard-won successes with making his own mark.

Re-engineering workplace relationships

This challenge is particularly significant when you’re promoted to lead former peers who might harbor frustrations about your elevation. To succeed in such a scenario, new leaders must engage in a deliberate process of re-engineering workplace relationships. The journey begins with a mindset of humility, acknowledging the organization’s achievements and recognizing that there is much to learn. Key figures within the organization should be met before formally assuming the leadership role, as people are often more open and candid when you’re not the official boss yet. This phase is about learning and laying the foundations for success. When leaders are brought in from outside the organization, they face a unique set of challenges. They must rapidly build credibility and establish themselves within the company’s culture, an environment they are not intimately familiar with. Building credibility through achieving early wins is critical to any leadership transition. These wins should align with the organization’s goals and the new leader’s commitment to learning and appreciating what the organization has achieved. It is equally critical to ensure that the entire team under the new leader is committed to the shared vision for the organization’s future. In Pick’s case, inheriting a thriving business in Morgan Stanley presents a question of how to propel it forward in the next phase. The difficulty intensifies when there are underlying problems within the organization. In such instances, the new leader must play effective defense by identifying and addressing these challenges while avoiding blaming the former leader, who likely left a positive legacy.

Dealing with a departing leader’s involvement

The challenge can be further complicated when departing leaders continue to be involved in the business, as was the case with Bob Iger at Disney. Iger announced his intention to retire as CEO in 2020. However, he extended his tenure multiple times. When he did finally step down, he continued to work as executive chair alongside his successor, Bob Chapek, running the creative side of the company. In these situations, several challenges can arise.
Building credibility through achieving early wins is critical to any leadership transition. These wins should align with the organization’s goals and the new leader’s commitment to learning and appreciating what the organization has achieved

Having a former CEO who is still active in the business can create confusion about who holds the ultimate decision-making authority. This ambiguity can undermine the successor’s ability to assert their leadership and make critical strategic decisions. Employees may have also built strong loyalties to the former CEO. If the predecessor remains involved, it can create confusion among the workforce and potentially divide loyalties, making it difficult for the successor to build their own team and establish trust.

To address these challenges, it’s essential for both the predecessor and successor to establish clear boundaries and open lines of communication. The former CEO should be supportive and offer guidance without overshadowing the successor’s authority. Otherwise, things can get messy. In Disney’s case, Iger returned to run Disney and replace Chapek last year, after a torrid period for the company during which its share price halved from its 2021 nadir.

Being the catalyst for change

It’s worth noting that organizational challenges can serve as a catalyst for change, which can be more challenging when inheriting a stable business. Identifying opportunities to pivot and re-energize the firm is crucial, but these initiatives should be positioned as part of a broader vision for the organization’s success.

An excellent example of this done well is Satya Nadella, who took the reins as Microsoft’s CEO in 2014. He followed Steve Ballmer, who had led the company for 14 years. Nadella brought a significant cultural shift to Microsoft, emphasizing a “cloud-first, mobile-first” strategy. Under his leadership, Microsoft shifted from a more traditional software-centric approach to a company that embraced cloud computing and open collaboration.

Nadella also recognized the need to be more agile and open to change, which led to a more innovative approach to product development and a willingness to collaborate with competitors. However, Nadella continued to support and develop Microsoft’s core products, such as Windows and Office. These products are integral to the company’s legacy and remain important revenue sources.

Balancing past and future

As well as acknowledging and preserving an organization’s core values and history, also crucial to a successor’s journey is positioning oneself correctly relative to the former leader. It’s essential not to attempt to replicate them but rather to communicate early about your unique leadership style and differences, all while respecting the previous leader’s legacy. Success in following a stellar leader is about focusing on the team’s and organization’s success, not about individual ambitions.

A great example is Tim Cook taking over Apple after Steve Jobs passed. Recognizing Jobs’ legendary status and profound impact on the tech world, assuming his role was a formidable challenge. One of Cook’s initial actions was to pay homage to his predecessor’s legacy. In his early speeches, Cook frequently alluded to Jobs’ core principles and vision.

However, Cook also emphasized that he wasn’t attempting to emulate Jobs, but rather to guide Apple based on his unique values and vision. Striking this balance between honoring the past and charting a course for the future was vital in preserving Apple’s heritage while adapting to the changing times. Indeed, it partly explains the continued prosperity of Apple with Cook at the helm, with the groundwork laid by Jobs.

Ultimately, incoming leaders succeeding admired leaders must navigate their transition with a balance of humility, respect for legacy, and a vision for the future.


Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD, and author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 12 other books on leadership and negotiation. His book, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking, explores how executives can learn to think strategically and lead their organizations into the future. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. Over the past 20 years, he has used his First 90 Days® methodology to help leaders make successful transitions, both in his teaching at IMD, INSEAD, and Harvard Business School, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, as well as through his private consultancy practice Genesis Advisers. At IMD, he directs the First 90 Days open program for leaders taking on challenging new roles and co-directs the Transition to Business Leadership (TBL) executive program for future enterprise leaders.


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