With Martin G. Moore

Episode #105

Steadying the Ship: Following an incompetent predecessor

Sometimes, you come into a new leadership role where the team you take over is broken. This happens with surprising regularity. Why? Because there’s a strong correlation between poor culture, poor performance, and poor leadership.

We know that great leaders are in short supply, and the role models we look towards don’t necessarily show us how to improve.

So how do you pick up the pieces after a poor leader has left? If you haven’t had to do this yet in your leadership career, just wait – you will.

We’re going to help you to work out how to take stock of the situation and move your team forward.

Don’t miss my 7 Ways to Reboot Team Culture, download the PDF resource for free below!


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Episode #105 Steadying the Ship: Following an incompetent predecessor

Hey there, and welcome to episode 105 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode, Steadying the Ship: Following an incompetent predecessor. Sometimes you’re going to come into a new leadership role where the team you take over is broken. This happens with surprising regularity. Why? Because of the strong correlation between poor culture, poor performance and poor leadership. We know the great leaders are in short supply and the role models we look towards don’t necessarily teach us how do we improve. This week we’re going to answer a question from William who simply asks, “How do you pick up the pieces after a poor leader has left?” Now, if you haven’t had to do this in your leadership career as yet, just wait. You will. Also, it’s been a while since we’ve done a free downloadable resource for our podcast fans, so today we have one. My 7 Tips for Rebooting a Team. Now we’re going to start with why you need to look past the facade. We’re then going to go on to talk about how to sensibly interrogate the status quo once you arrive in a broken team and I’ll finish with those seven tips for taking stock and rebooting your team culture. So let’s get into it.

When you take over a new role, you have to recognise a couple of cold, hard facts. Your predecessor may have had completely different drivers than you do, and different leaders respond to different things differently. Before you get too critical, remember one thing we’re all pretty much just doing the best with what we’ve got, that’s it. But what we’ve got can be wildly variable. I’m not talking about what we’re born with, but what we’ve worked to become. And lots of leaders simply choose not to put in the work. But for every leader and for every role, there are a wide range of differences. Let’s look briefly at a few of these. For a start, there are different pressures. Every leader handles them differently. It depends on what’s important to them, how much courage they have and how willing they are to fight for the right things. But how do they respond to the pressure of customers, suppliers, staff? How much do they push back and shape rather than going with the flow?

Every leader has to compete with different demands. And demands come from above generally, so from boards and from direct lines of bosses. But if the leader isn’t strong enough to push back, those people above who aren’t as close to the action as they need to be, can have a disproportionate say in how things are done. And this doesn’t end well. Different leaders have different focus areas. Now the focus on value creation for a leader should be a given. That should be the number one thing, but it’s not always the case. And different leaders have different levels of attention and energy for stopping rusted on activity that doesn’t create a lot of value. In the absence of strong leadership, we also see that lack of leadership equals a lack of direction and organisations can just simply spin their wheels. Different leaders employ different strategies. But are the strategies actually executable?

Sometimes it’s really hard to see past it. But do you really understand the industry dynamics? Now, what I found was sometimes it’s a real bonus to come in with a fresh set of eyes, because then you’re not constrained by conventional wisdom, and you get to ask all the dumb questions. Different leaders obviously have wildly different personal characteristics. And so what’s the balance that this person strikes between people versus task orientation? Between collaborative or individualistic behaviour? Between a focus on the customer or focus on commercial value for the organisation? What’s their level of conscientiousness and how much they favour results over process? Are they an intuitive decision maker or an analytical decision maker? And what’s their change tolerance like? Do they embrace change or do they resist it? Most of all, what’s their resilience like? Do they have grace under pressure or is it thinly veiled panic?

Each leader has a different set of tools in their kit bag. Some have worked on becoming great leaders, even though they’ll all say they have. Many are just still locked into their technical discipline. Everyone has a different approach to leadership. Are they permissive? Do they just let people get on with it? Do they micromanage or are they strong leaders who actually drive results? They’ll also have varying levels of capability, both in terms of business and leadership. Everything from their communication skills to their commercial acumen, to their abstract reasoning capability that helps to formulate complex strategic planning. The whole range of things are going to be wildly different. Strong leaders, however, are great to follow. Whatever is done or left to do, they will have made positive progress. And if they’re really good, you’ll have some momentum to build upon. Weak leaders on the other hand, are an absolute nightmare to follow.

You can bet your life the culture will be poor. The motivation of the team will be low, and there’ll be lots of skeletons in the closet because they’re too weak to tell the truth to people upline. The inertia of that makes the simplest task feel like it’s almost impossible. Now here’s my rule of thumb. For weak or underperforming leaders, for however long they were in that role, it takes at least that long again to undo the damage. So if a bad leader is in place for five years, you require a five year recovery to erase the damage. Without wanting to cast any aspersions on my predecessor at CS Energy, I found that even after I’d been in the chair for three or four years, I was still finding some really ugly critters every time I lifted another rock. It was ugly under every rock, but the key, was to lift the rocks in the right order, highest value first.

Now my successor at CS Energy, a guy by the name of Andrew Bills, is a great leader who will take the organisation a lot further than I did. But if I were Andrew, and I’d walked in fresh to CS Energy after I just completed my five years and took a snapshot, I would have wondered who that muppet Marty Moore was. The company was coming off such low base, and there was still so much to do when I left. But when I went in, it was about as broken as a business can be and still do business. In fact, without a funding guarantee from the government, it probably wouldn’t have been able to trade. But by the time I left, the difference from when I started was absolutely night and day. Now that wouldn’t look obvious unless you looked at the history. And so the number one message here is respect the history. But of course the work shows out in the results, financial performance, leadership capability, and for the most part, culture. But at the end of five years, there were still parts of that company that I was genuinely embarrassed about. And I had gone absolutely like stink to try and reform that for five years.

So when you go into a team like this, how do you even work out where you are? How do you sensibly interrogate the status quo? Well different leaders have different skills, we’ve discussed that. When you’re stepping into a broken team, though, you’ve got to be pretty good at turnaround. Now my background was as a project manager in project recovery. I’d be called in to look at projects that had gone off the rails for one reason or another. And I have to analyse them, triage them, in other words work out what the prognosis is for recovery, and then make some recommendations about what to do with them. But it was taking something was fundamentally broken and trying to work out how to fix it. Now sometimes, when you’re looking at this, you’ve got to cut your losses. You actually turn around and say, “Hey, look, you shouldn’t put good money after bad. You need to kill this project it’s done”. But more often than not, you can find a way through with some compromise.

Now if you don’t have an appetite for turnaround, you’re really going to struggle to follow a poor leader into a role. And the next leader is going to struggle to follow you. It’s alright to be a good leader when things are going well and you’re in a steady state. It’s alright to be a good leader when you’re in growth mode. But in growth mode it implies you’ve got a wind at your back and a wind in your sails. When you walk into a team after a poor predecessor, it’s all headwinds. Believe me. So where do you focus? Well, let’s start with the value drivers. You’ve got to work really hard on understanding where the value is going to come from, and to what extent you’re tapping into that now.

You need to look at the behavioural norms. So what are the people’s habits and work ethic like? How do they treat each other? How do they value the organization’s resources and what values do they operate under? You need to look at accountability structures. How easy is it to find that one, head to pat, and one ass to kick that we talk about that gives you clarity for execution. You need to make an assessment of pace and urgency. Now you can tell a lot by seeing the energy that people work with as you walk the floor. Interestingly, a lot of this is lost with remote working. So how you are going to get a sense of pace and urgency is really difficult, just looking at hard outputs. You’ve got to look at productivity. You’ve got to understand how productive people really are at delivering what they need to, and you’ll need to apply some of your experience here.

This is pretty hard though, if you’re new to an organisation or a team and you’ve got to work it out without that level of expertise. So those are the things that you focus on and look for first up. One thing I would recommend to get some more clarity on this is that you need to take some benchmarking, if you possibly can. It’s really important to find a comparitor in the areas that you find are going to be critical to taking the team forward. If I had my time again at CS Energy, I would benchmark way earlier. In fact, immediately, particularly in the operations team. But you wouldn’t believe it, I listened to the old, “No we can’t do that, Marty. We’re different.” No, you’re not different. You’re the same as any other organisation that’s ever stepped up to the plate. What you need to do, is find out the comparative levels of productivity, production, and outcomes from your organisational part of the organisation.

The operators at CS told me why the benchmarks didn’t apply. And when I finally did demand it, what I found made me realise why the head of operations was so keen to avoid it. A lot of people don’t like the scrutiny that comes with comparison, even some of your most senior leaders. But as I like to say, the best disinfectant is sunlight. You’ve got to shine the biggest spotlight you can possibly find on the ugliest bits of the status quo. Until you do that, nothing can change. Find out what drives the current poor performance. The why? And don’t assume that it’s just the leader before you. Don’t forget that leader lead a team. So start with a question, cui bono? Who benefits? Someone gets something out of the status quo. Work out who that is, maybe multiple people, and work out what it is that they get out of having things run the way they are. It’s unusual to have a whole team where every individual is against the leader, no matter how bad that leader is. And the reasons why cultural norms develop like this are normally quite complex. The better you understand the root cause, the easier you’ll find it is to change it.

Let’s finish with my seven tips for rebooting the team. And as I said, this will be a free downloadable available to download above. The old ‘control alt delete’ has been a remedy forever with technology. And it’s the same with teams. Sometimes you just need a reset. So I’m going to give you a list of seven things to do when you come into a position after a poor leader has already stuffed it up.

Number one, take accountability for the current state. Now sure you didn’t create it, but from day one, you own it. It’s yours. Don’t look back, only look forward. But make sure that people know that you’ve got it and you’re responsible for everything that goes on that team from that day forward. The snapshot of where you are will tell you how far you need to go.

Number two, listen to your people’s experiences. Let them get some of the shit off their livers. Don’t jump in the hole with the team. Don’t get down there and stop bitching and moaning with them. But you need to make it a cathartic experience. Get them to park any of that ill feeling. To burn it and let go of it. Your goal is to purge the evil and leave it behind.

Number three, provide a compelling reason for change. Why do we have to change? Why can’t we just go on the way the team’s gone on before I turned up? Well, you have expectations and aspirations for the team, which you want to widely agree with the team members. What sort of a team do we want to be? What things do we need to do differently? And this is the platform that you keep coming back to once you’ve done it. Do you want it to change? Okay, well, it’s up to us. It’s not just me as your leader. It’s up to us. You’ve already taken accountabilities as the leader, now you need your people to take accountability for doing their job.

Number four, talk about behaviour first. Here’s what my expectations are for behaviour. And these things are going to be not negotiable. Remember when we said we want to be this sort of a team? Well, this is what I’m talking about and this is the behaviour that we need in order to meet those aspirations. Now you’ll obviously have to give people some time to adapt and adjust, but you could do that fairly quickly. Any indulgence that you have for poor behaviour, can’t last indefinitely. There’s gotta be some sort of movement towards the right behaviour, even if they don’t get it straight away. And you’ve got to reward that movement. If they’re not moving towards the right behaviours, you have another choice to make and you’ve got to make that otherwise that’ll hold the whole team back.

Number five, describe with some level of clarity and certainty the new performance expectations. Here’s the standard I’m going to set and going to ask you to meet. Now if that doesn’t energise your people, there’s a bit of a problem there. And for some they’ll actually work against those performance expectations, either passively or actively. For those people, you need to free them up to be successful in another organisation that isn’t as convinced that they need to set such a high standard.

Number six, talk about what you want the people to focus on and talk about it a lot. You need to quickly align people to what’s changing. So put extreme goal clarity in place and a work programme that achieves it. The planning piece is sometimes one of the trickiest alignment points. It’s all well and good to have the aspiration, but convincing people to do different things can be extremely challenging. So put a lot of your focus onto this.

And finally, number seven, remove the unwilling. People need to nail their colours to the mask quickly. You’re either in or you’re out. Now as long as people are moving in the right direction with the right intent, you can tolerate a lot of stuff. But leaving people in place who aren’t aligned with the new team ethos holds everyone back. You’ll always find ways to rationalise why you should make a hard choice. Oh, they need more time. Oh, they don’t just quite understand it yet. Oh, they’re having difficulty adjusting. Oh, they’re so abused by my predecessor. It’s my job to make them whole again. No, no it isn’t.

Your job is to put a team together that can dig their way out of the hole left by the person before you. Unfortunately, this has casualties more often than not. But don’t give people unlimited rope with which to hang themselves. If you come into a broken team, there’s a fast, methodical way to turn it around, but it won’t happen without a little pain and a lot of energy and commitment on your part. If you aren’t prepared to do the heavy lifting, make sure you temper your promises to the team when you arrive. It’s not at all helpful to tell them you’re going to change things for the better, if you know deep down that you don’t have the stomach for it.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 105. Thanks so much for joining us, and remember, at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please take a few moments to rate and review the podcast as this enables us to reach even more leaders. I look forward to next week’s episode, where we’ll bring the rough and tumble of another live mentoring session.

Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can, to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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