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When New Talent has Big Shoes to Fill

There is nothing more daunting than for a new talented employee to fill the big shoes of a predecessor who has achieved the status of a national or world leader. Last week, the new Public Protector, Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane entered her office filling the shoes of arguably South Africa’s best Public Protector yet, Advocate Thuli Madonsela. Thuli has attained world leadership as one of the top leaders in the world in the campaign against fraud, corruption and poor governance. She epitomises what good governance and ethics is all about. She raised the bar to such a high level that commentators are asking the question:  Is it possible to fill her shoes?

This is the reality in business, society and the public sector. People come and go. You can build on the success of those before you, or you can undo their good work.

However, history has shown that it is indeed possible for new talent to meet or exceed performance expectations. In South Africa we have a number of good examples to showcase that new talent often exceed expectations against all odds:

  • Thabo Mbeki achieved what was considered the “impossible” by all commentators when be succeeded the world’s most popular president, Nelson Mandela – Mbeki managed to achieve the best economic growth in several decades.
  • Pravin Gordhan managed to continue with great economic performance when other countries suffered under the global recession. Pravin succeeded the world’s longest serving Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel – considered by many as South Africa’s best Minister of Finance ever.
  • As CEO of First National Bank, Michael Jordaan turned the bank into the most innovative bank in the world, and following a focused period of succession planning, his successor Jacques Cilliers simply continued to drive innovation forward as the new leader of the bank, albeit with his own unique talent and style of excellence.

Talent Talks recommends the following guidelines for filling big shoes:

  1. Do a proper analysis of the scope of the position to ensure that you focus on what is required;
  2. Arrange a comprehensive “hand-over” session consisting of asking as many questions as possible from your predecessor. Focus on challenges and opportunities;
  3. Develop a vision, strategy and plan for yourself – be clear on what you would like your legacy to be when you exit the position in a few years’ time;
  4. Do an in-depth study of the work of your predecessor – ask yourself the question: What makes him or her such a success? Chart a path for yourself to replicate or build on these critical success factors;
  5. Build on the good work and strengths of your predecessor and see where you can fill particular gaps or opportunities for improvement;
  6. Outline your values and principles, but be consistent in the way in which you live these values – realise that people will judge you not only against these values, but also against your predecessor;
  7. Don’t try to clone your predecessor, acknowledge that you are different;
  8. Claim your space. Bring your own unique style and individuality to the job, but be careful of not creating the impression that you are trying too hard to be different than your predecessor – always honour the legacy of your predecessor;
  9. Don’t undo pieces of good work by your predecessor, rather in the spirit of continuous improvement, build on it;
  10. Never criticise the character or work of your predecessor. In cases where the predecessor was a top high performer and a national icon such as Thuli Madonsela or Michael Jordaan, current employees and other external stakeholders will not forgive you for such unprofessional behaviour;
  11. Remember that during the transition period it is normal for others to judge you against your predecessor, thus, be mindful of this fact, and rise to the occasion rather than to make it a problem;
  12. Be open to criticism and learn from it, have a clear plan on how you can change perceptions about you;
  13. Build a strong support network around you, including a trusted mentor or coach to ensure that you receive good professional advice and guidance to master the new role successfully;
  14. Create a set of milestones you want to achieve over the first year in the position and work purposefully towards these goals;
  15. Form and build good relationships with your colleagues and other stakeholders to ensure that you obtain their support and trust;
  16. Keep a journal of key aspects of your work, and reflect deeply on the mistakes you make, or the obstacles and challenges your face, but reframe this as opportunities for learning and growth;
  17. Develop your knowledge and skills in a focused and disciplined manner;
  18. Gradually build your own profile with your achievements and your unique style and strengths that you bring to the position;
  19. Grow in confidence and treasure the fact that you are talent and that you were considered the best successor;
  20. In high profile positions, build your profile in the company as well as the public at large – do media interviews, write articles and present at conferences and other key events so that you can tell your story. Where necessary honour your predecessor in these talks, but don’t overdo it, let the market know that you are working on your challenges and issues using your own thinking and approaches to your work.

Life and work is about transitions from one place to the next place – from one job to the next job, from one opportunity to the next opportunity. You cannot delete or ignore what happened in the past, but you can certainly influence the future. Top talent not only influences the future, they create the future.

As a new talented individual in a key position, don’t be overwhelmed when you have big shoes to fill. Settle down and rise to the occasion. Concentrate on building your own personal brand and credibility by means of the highest standard of professional behaviour and conduct. Emerge from the shadow of your predecessor, fill these big shoes with confidence and make your mark.

Admittedly, while some may doubt your ability, there are high expectations from others that you will realise your potential. Develop your own vision for the position and utilise your talents to the best of your ability. Yes, and while you have big shoes to fill, this is your opportunity to make a difference and to show the world you can make things happen as the chosen talented person to fill big shoes. Use this opportunity of beginning to build and write your own story so that you can also leave a legacy. If you are successful on this journey to high performance and excellence, when you exit the position in future, people will also say about you: These are big shoes to fill.

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