Suppose you're Tim Cook. The new chief executive of Apple succeeds an i conic CEO in Steve Jobs, a man who rescued the company from near death more than a decade ago with innovative products and great marketing that made investors, customers and employees happy. What does Cook do now?
No matter what level of an organization you work in, at some time you, too, will find yourself succeeding a big leader, perhaps not with the status of Jobs. How to fill big shoes left empty is a challenge most everyone faces at some time in their career. Whether you're the department leader of a mid-sized business, or the founder of a small start-up, it can be daunting to follow a successful leader.
Leadership experts, recruiters and executives say the first step is re cognizing you're a different person from the one you're succeeding. Cook, 50, brings his own strengths and weaknesses to Apple.
Cook's trick will be to put his own stamp of leadership on the company while respecting the traditions and culture that have made Apple, well, Apple.
That's just one of a number of tips to keep in mind if you find yourself stepping into the shoes top performer:
Re cognize the Situation and Act Ac cordingly
New leaders tend to face one of two situations: either the organization is broken and needs fixing or it's running in tip-top shape. Different personalities tend to do better in one situation or another, said Ed Reilly, who has counseled a number of large companies through leadership transitions and is CEO of FD, the strategic communications practice of FTI Consulting.
"There are people who love coming in and fixing a mess," he said. "They have the ability to communicate with a degree of confidence that they are the right guy to turn it around." But once that's done, he said, they lose interest.
Then there are those like Cook, continuity leaders who are tapped to keep the engine running. "That's more nuanced and complex, you have less flexibility to make change," said Reilly.
"You would have to hope that Cook in the Apple transition is a continuity guy," he said.
Don't Imitate the Person Before You
One of the biggest mistakes any new leader can make is attempting to imitate and emulate the traits of the person before them.
"If I were the successor of a CEO, I would not try to imitate the leader I'm succeeding -- particularly if they're big shoes," said Todd Jick, professor of management at Columbia Business School and an expert in the field of leadership and organizational change. "Respect their tremendous ac complishments and revere them, but redirect people to the next chapter."
That's initially what happened at Wal-Mart when David Glass succeeded co-founder Sam Walton in 1983. Glass maintained Walton's vision while opening more superstores. By the end of the 1990s, Wal-Mart was the largest private employer in the world.
And make your tweaks quickly. "You need to demonstrate how you are going to provide, in your own way, your stamp of leadership and do it very clearly right from the start," said Reilly of FTI Consulting.
Keep Key Players Loyal
One of the biggest challenges is keeping high-performing subordinates on the team. Many will be tempted to leave along with the person you're replacing. Cook, for instance, needs to woo employees already in place.
" Cook needs to re-recruit the talent that he really wants to be there, especially those with close ties to Jobs," said Elaine Varelas, managing partner with Boston-based management consultancy Keystone Partners. "If he has his core team in place already, then he needs to make sure they re cognize that they are a part of the core team, or will remain a part of the core team. They need to re cognize the depth and level of responsibility of their roles and that it's going to stay that way."
Identify New Talent
Find people in the organization who can complement your talents and compensate for your weaknesses. All new leaders need to take time to re-evaluate their staff to find the visionaries, highly efficient producers and the strongest mid-level staff members that may have been flying under the radar.
"What Cook needs to do is re cognize talent, promote the people he wants to keep and show them that this is their opportunity to shine outside the shadow of Jobs," said Judith Hurwitz, author of Smart or Lucky? How Technology Leaders turn Chance into Success. "It's easier to hold on to great talent by promoting those people, giving them re cognition and authority, and allow them to continue thinking outside the box."
Putting a spotlight on talent that may have been suppressed is particularly important for leaders who bring a markedly different set of strengths and weaknesses than their predecessor.
"There's no such thing as a perfect leader," said Jeff Cohn, author of Why are we Bad at Picking Good Leaders? A Better Way to Evaluate Leadership Potential. "The great ones would do an assessment of their own skills, saying 'Here's where I'm good, here's where I'm not,' and finding a way to bridge the gaps with the people on your team."
Don't Fix What Isn't Broken and Explain Why You're Fixing What Is
Uprooting perfectly viable systems and methodologies won't make your mark as much as it will alienate your staff and colleagues.
"Don't change things for the sake of changing them," said Al Delattre, global managing director of technology with executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International, who succeeded two of his own supervisors in previous roles with global management consultancy and outsourcing firm Accenture. "I made sure I explained, painstakingly and repetitively, what was going to be different, how it was going to get done, and most importantly, why."
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
New leaders making drastic changes often fail to keep their doors open to employees, customers, colleagues and bosses.
"Frequently there's a tendency to remove yourself from visibility and dialog with key stakeholders," said Reilly. "That creates a vacuum of leadership and people begin to fill that with facts that are not accurate."
Timing Is Everything
New leaders and managers often make the mistake of waiting too long to make changes. If an organization is sinking, make your first moves quickly.
"You only get one opening act," said Reilly. "If pain is to be taken, don't stretch it out. If there are changes in strategy or personnel, get as much as that behind you as quickly as you can."
When Jack Welch became CEO of General Electric, he moved so swiftly to close non-performing operations and move out executives that he was nicknamed "Neutron Jack." Yet his biggest self-criticism was he moved too slowly.
It's equally important to lay out realistic milestones for the team to achieve. That maintains your credibility. "You don't need to fix everything all at once," said Reilly. "In terms of building your relationships and your leadership position, it is important to be seen as someone with a very realistic view of where the business should go."
Write to Kelly Eggers at kelly.eggers@dowjones. com