So, you’ve inherited a leadership role. What can you learn from your predecessor’s exit?


It’s January. Over the break, you discovered that your CEO or senior executives won’t be coming back after the holidays or if they are, they won’t be staying for long – and you’ve been selected to fix up the mess once they’re gone. How should you go about it? It depends on where your predecessor/s went wrong…

Last year, every Board member and CEO who told me they had parted with a senior leader (sometimes subtly, sometimes less so), repeatedly referenced three key factors – and I suspect these will be the same three reasons you’ll cite this January.

Here they are, along with what you might do to turn things around.

1. Reason for exit: the culture turned toxic (and/or the business hated them)

“A good leader takes care of those in their charge. A bad leader takes charge of those in their care.” (Simon Sinek)

A toxic culture is often the result of a leader who is totally focused on their external relationships or short-term financial results. In some cases, they are almost completely absent from their leadership of the organisation. In others, they have been exploitative of their workforce, driving them to burnout or placing their people in destructive competition with each other.

The tell-tale signs may come in the feedback about employee engagement or in the high turnover rate of the best staff. It can take a little while for the senior executives to find out, as the leader places high emphasis on crafting a strong public profile and upward impression management.

Your response:

  • Run an employee engagement survey.
  • Learn just what has been making people leave.
  • Sit down with direct reports and listen to what has damaged morale.
  • After you’ve been in the role a little while, get some 360-degree feedback so that you can be more self-aware than your predecessor was.

Then start emancipating the organisation. Provide direction but mostly show people that they have a voices – and choices.

2. Reason for exit: poor financial results (or more simply, the business was going broke)

“They make glorious shipwreck who are lost in seeking worlds. (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing)

Leaders must be skilled in ‘business aikido’ – they must shuttle between polarities without getting mired at one end or the other: short-term versus long-term, growth versus profit, whole-of-organisation versus parts of the organisation, high task focus versus high people focus, praise and critique, pace and reflection, work ethic and quality of life.

However, most leaders get their centre of gravity somewhat wrong – either some of the time or on some polarities. Some spend too much time on the ‘balcony’ and not enough on the ‘dance floor’. For others it is the exact opposite.

Some get the short-term versus long-term balance wrong. Going too far in either direction is often the cause of financial woes. Those who are ‘too visionary’, increasing the cost base and building up debt, eventually face a squeeze on cash – sometimes a fatal one. Those who obsess over the short term are too parsimonious, too myopic, to make necessary investments to gain and maintain competitive advantage – suddenly, the industry has left them too far behind to be competitive.

Your response:

  • Save the business – the Titanic may be heading for a wonderful destination, but right now it has hit an iceberg.
  • Form a coalition of senior leadership committed to the long-term turnaround task required. Strategy can wait till you have some cash but…
  • Gain some quick wins. Build confidence. Gain permission to move beyond survival mode, so that you can…
  • Move forward as soon as is tenable. Start practising leadership aikido, find the balance that was eluding your predecessor. If they were too short-term, introduce some vision and bolder strategic options. If they were too fanciful, bring some much needed pragmatism.
3. Reason for exit: no headway

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” (Attributed to Winston Churchill)

The business was going nowhere. The problems that the person had been appointed to resolve were still present. The organisation was not changing at the same pace as its external environment. Milestones were missed, projects were re-scheduled, launches were postponed, KPIs stuck like glue to the level they were at the previous quarter.

Your response:

  • Decide on a critical few initiatives. Make clear what will happen within 90 days.
  • Hit those milestones. Introduce program management disciplines at the highest level.
  • Reward and recognise those who deliver. Ensure that the impact of this progress is being measured and reported. Communicate that you are meeting the delivery plan.
  • Rinse and repeat.

In all of the above three cases, while it is valuable (for you and the company) to differentiate yourself from your predecessor, don’t fall into the same trap of favouring one polarity over the other. Once you’ve got the ship back on an even keel, keep it there by keeping your hand on the tiller, gently moving to port or starboard as required.

A final thought:

“The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.” (John Buchan)

There is one theme that runs through all of the above failures. All the leaders who’d failed had, in some way, failed to elicit and apply the greatness that exists in their people. If you can draw out that potential and create a culture that combines everyone’s greatness, you are already far ahead of your predecessor. 


About the author

Anthony Mitchell is an organisational leadership expert, a regular contributor to Dynamic Business, and  Chairman of strategic leadership advisory firm, Bendelta. He’s also Chairman of the Aurora Education Foundation, which provides accelerated education opportunities for high potential Indigenous students and Chairman of Amnesty International Australia from 2011-16.


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