A very good friend of mine was recently promoted to lead the division in which she has been working for a number of years. She confided in me that in addition to the usual worries about taking a new position was the worry that the person who assumes her old responsibilities will do a better job! This is an interesting concern and one that I’ve seen before. Addressing it we find a number of leadership lessons.
My answer to new leaders concerned that their replacement will outshine them? Don’t sweat it. If they do better than you, that will make your new job all the more easy, right? Having someone come in and out perform us may be viewed as a reflection on our past performance. It’s natural. It’s also a load of bovine excrement! Having someone do better than us at our previous job could just as well reflect the fact that we left things in such a state as to make it easy for the next person to perform well. Consider that, while your performance as an individual contributor likely influenced your promotion, it is more likely that your demonstration of leadership potential contributed much more to your being promoted. So even if your successor does do better than you at your old position (and let’s hope that they do) it doesn’t detract from your accomplishments or your ability to perform in the new position.
The truth of the matter is a different scenario is much more likely: that the new person won’t do as well, at least not initially. This causes even greater challenges for the new leader. If we take a new job in a different organization or even a different company it is easy to let go of the old job because we don’t readily have visibility of it. However, when someone moves up to take over the same department, not only do they still have visibility on their old job, they now have ultimate responsibility for the accomplishment of that job. This is where problems might rise.
First, because you are familiar with your old job you may tend to dwell on that position at the expense of your new duties. Remember, as a leader it is your task to accomplish the organization’s goals through the actions of others, not to do all the work yourself! You will have plenty of managerial “stuff” to do without also trying to do the work of someone who was hired to do your old job.
Second, because you were likely very good at your previous position, your expectations of performance may be too high for someone brand new to the position. The temptation will be to micro-manage the old position just “until the new person gets up to speed.” The danger here is that you will stifle the same kind of engagement and motivation that you had when you took over the position. As the leader you should be available to coach and lend advice as necessary, but afford the new person the latitude to discover their own path to success, which very likely will be different from yours.
Moving up to take over an organization that you were working in has plenty of unique challenges; don’t add to them by dwelling on your old position.