I heard a story lately about a leader who had just been promoted to replace a VP of Sales who was profoundly disliked by his organization. This guy was apparently a horrible leader.
He was known to bully people. He’d freaked out when things went wrong. He was quick to accept praise for success, but would never share in the blame when something didn’t go to plan.
By the time he was shown the door, he had undermined the executive team, and shaken the confidence of the sales organization.
Coming in on the heels of a performance like that, the new VP saw his promotion as a great opportunity to turn things around. And when he took over the reins of the sales organization, he was immediately greeted as a savior.
All those people that had suffered under the previous VP were grateful, bending over backwards to applaud the new guy and whatever he did. He became their hero.
The honeymoon carried on for quite a while, until it was time to assess the new leader’s performance. When the CEO took a hard look at the sales results, he was shocked to find out that the new guy – someone who was universally liked and the subject of constant, positive feedback – hadn’t done a better job than the loathed leader that came before him.
What happened here? It’s been my experience that a new leader can easily adopt a false sense of security when coming in to take over from a despised leader. Sometimes organizations are so glad to be rid of a bad leader, they set the bar too low for the new person coming in to take over. So in the early days, it’s pretty easy for the new leader.
This is an important lesson for all leaders. Our value to our organizations is not measured by how much more liked we are than a previous leader. It’s not enough just to be more likeable; you have to ensure that you are doing your best job, and getting the best out of your people, regardless of the performance of your predecessor. Sucking less than your predecessor isn’t a sign of success.
We can see many examples of this dynamic at work.
When Satya Nadella was confirmed as the new CEO of Microsoft in February, the initial commentary focused on much different he was than his predecessor, Steve Ballmer.
Ballmer was big, burly and often loud. He was infamous for having a volatile temper, and venting his frustrations and wishes at the drop of a hat. In contrast to the mercurial Ballmer, Nadella is soft spoken and low profile. He tends to quote Nietzsche and TS Eliot in his everyday life. He is, in almost every way, everything that Ballmer was not, and is apparently beloved in Microsoft for that.
However, around spring, the commentary on the Nadella era changed. Rather than focusing solely on the stark contrast personal style, it became all about bottom line results.
Fortunately for Nadella supporters, the company seemed to thrive on the new leadership, with share prices climbing by more than 25% since he took over. There are still concerns – principally around the drag that acquisitions like Nokia are creating for Microsoft – but for the most part optimism reigns at Microsoft.
Nadella certainly enjoyed a brief honeymoon for being kinder and gentler than Ballmer. But when the honeymoon ended, he had to start showing results. So far, that’s exactly what he’s done. He’s begun to tackle some sacred cows at Microsoft, doing it in his way, but doing it nonetheless. It’s clear he’s there to drive change, and not settling just a being a nicer guy to work with than Ballmer.
And that is the central message here: you can be more likeable than the last guy, but you have to produce at some point. Without results, the honeymoon you enjoyed when you came into the job will end. And then, you will find that being likeable just isn’t enough to save you.
This week’s Gut Check question: Are you really doing a good job, or do you just suck less than the previous leader?
Join the conversation with me @VinceMolinaro #GutCheck
About the Author
Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.Follow on Twitter More Content by Vince Molinaro