Sunday, July 13, 2008

Globe & Mail: When the act's tough to follow, follow your own act

As the CAW's change of command illustrates, anointed successors arrive with clear advantages but also face clear challenges


July 11, 2008

Even though he was hand-picked by his predecessor, Buzz Hargrove didn't want to be a clone of Bob White as president of the Canadian Auto Workers.

Mr. White had become extremely popular in the job for his calm and consensus-building approach.

"I was different," Mr. Hargrove says. "Bob once described me as like a bull: 'You just put your head down with your horns out and charge into whatever's in the way.'

"I had to prove to people that I was not Bob White's assistant any more - I was the president with a different style and vision," Mr. Hargrove recalls of taking on the union leadership in 1992.

Now Mr. Hargrove expects his hand-picked choice, Ken Lewenza, to do the same after he formally hands over the mantle of leadership in September.

That's sound advice, leadership experts say. While there are obvious advantages to being the anointed one - Mr. Lewenza, for instance, avoided the need for an election as his two rivals for the presidency of the CAW stepped aside this week - being hand-picked also comes with challenges.

When you're handed the keys to the office from a successful predecessor who groomed you for the job, there's a temptation to decide that you should be a "mini-me" of the person who came before you, says Eric Jackson, president of Jackson Leadership Development in Toronto.

In some ways, you feel indebted to the person who gave you this opportunity and try to carry on in the same style, he says.

"Hand-picked leaders are often reluctant to take the organization in a new direction because, after all, the existing approach worked," Mr. Jackson says. "But that's a mistake. You must become your own leader and do what is important for the organization today, and not just carry on in the way that used to work."

Having employees see a new boss that looks exactly like the old one can lull them into thinking of the new leader as a clone and have them develop a mindset that innovation and independent thinking is not important, he adds.

"With everything changing so rapidly, especially in the auto industry, you can't stay stuck in the old model and have everyone come to expect that there is only one way to get things done."

Another danger in having a leader anoint a successor is that "it can set up an expectation in the organization that you have to be a parrot and look like and sound like the boss to rise in the organization," says Julian Barling, associate dean of the Queen's University School of Business in Kingston, Ont.

So it is important if you are a hand-picked successor to develop a strategy to move out of the shoes of the predecessor and win over and reassure staff you are your own person.

But don't rush it. "It's generally a mistake to immediately jump in and start imposing your agenda and barking orders or saying: 'I'm going to start making changes,' " warns Ron Crossland, chairman of Cincinnati-based Bluepoint Leadership Development Inc. and author of The Leadership Experience.

When you are a chosen successor, chances are the organization is running relatively smoothly and you don't have to rush into the changes, Mr. Crossland says.

Mr. Crossland suggests a "handshake period" of a few weeks to get to know people before setting your own agenda in motion because people in the organization may be fearful and will be scoping out your intentions.

"The first few weeks is a golden opportunity to get feedback because at the start people feel you are more at parity with them."

A leader hand-picked by a high profile predecessor should be particularly aware of pent-up concerns employees (or, in CAW's case, union members) may have, Mr. Crossland says.

"A high-profile and individualistic leader may have been so dominant that people in the organization are chafing for more participation and involvement in decision-making," he says.

"If you don't hear grievances and suggestions early on, people will start to clam up once you start putting your agenda into motion. Once you become a busy leader, you don't hear the truth any more because people pull their punches because you are the boss and they will cover their butts."

You must honour the success and ideals of the person you are replacing, the pros say. But it is important to communicate that you are still setting your own course, and make it clear you're up to the challenge, Mr. Crossland recommends. "If the person was beloved and represents good things to the organization, the concern is, 'will that strong voice dissipate?' "

He recommends reassuring statements such as: "While I have big shoes to fill, I am determined to fill them."

And remember the team that played a big role in the success of the departing leader, he adds. "One of the biggest problems in an organization led by a high profile leader is that the one person is given too much credit for the success of what is the result of a team effort."

He suggests a phrase such as: "Some of the bigness of these shoes is due to your efforts and I want to hear what your issues are and what do we need to do together."

That's the approach Mr. Hargrove says proved extremely effective for him. "I was determined that I was going to use my own approach and build a reputation as a hands-on guy who knew what I was doing and when I made a decision I would stick by it.

"I moved to do that immediately by travelling right across the country to meet with staff and union members and engage them in my vision and hear their vision for where the union was going," he says.

That personal communication was the key to his emerging from obscurity to becoming a household name, he suggests. "Most people can adjust to different styles. What they don't like is being blindsided by not being told what to expect."

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