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Big shoes to fill: How to prepare someone to follow a great leader

4 min read


When a company is ready to pass the torch, tapping someone on the shoulder and expecting him or her to step up is a delicate process. Having someone replace a legend is an even more daunting task.

Steve Jobs died shortly after Tim Cook became Apple’s CEO. Beyond just stepping into legendary shoes, Cook also had to uphold a legacy. He understood, however, that he could try to emulate Jobs but that no one would be able to replace such a presence.

What Cook did possess was a complete understanding and commitment to the mission of Apple, which is to create the “absolute best products in the world.” Cook has continued to successfully move the company forward and has become a highly influential leader in his own right.

Stepping out of the shadow

For an understudy becoming the lead, it can feel like walking a tightrope between doing things the established way a star did and adding a personal touch. To help a new leader fill big shoes, start by following these guidelines:

1. Give the new leader roots and wings. The companies that execute the transition successfully are those that embed the values of their founders within their organizations. This ensures that the new leader can both embody those core principles and step out to forge his own path.

After my father passed away, it fell to me to pick up his life’s work and continue to drive it forward. My father’s personality wasn’t something I could replicate. He was a scientist and a doctor; I’m an entrepreneur. With such different skill sets, I had to utilize my own strengths rather than try to emulate my father’s.

That allowed me to customize my own path to success. When I took over for my father, I had to establish that while I was continuing his legacy, there was a clear difference between us. I had to inspire the belief that I could keep the company moving forward and not just have everything grind to a halt while the team reminisced about a bygone era.

2. Smooth the way. Ideally, the transition should begin long before the legend announces his or her intentions to leave; especially, the changeover should begin before the news is leaked. That way, the outgoing leader can help with the transition and impart wisdom.

Companies also need to have their outgoing leaders publicly communicate their confidence in their successors and help them step into the limelight. The departing legend needs to help the company establish that this transition is a final decision. By giving the departing legend the requisite social events and honors as a victory lap, there will be ample time to celebrate, commemorate and move forward.

3. Pass the torch. Once the departing legend has been celebrated, it’s time to relinquish control and give the new leader full responsibility. It’s detrimental to everyone to hang in the transition period too long. Employees can become confused as to who’s in charge, and lines can be drawn in the sand.

Bottom line: When it’s time to replace a legendary leader, people must believe that the new leader is capable of taking on the challenge and has been selected because he or she is ready. Ensure that the new leader’s goals align seamlessly with the company’s goals. Then, help him move the company forward by establishing gold standards going forward.

Kevin Xu is the CEO of MEBO International, a California- and Beijing-based intellectual property management company specializing in applied health systems. He also leads Skingenix, which specializes in skin organ regeneration and the research and development of botanical drug products.

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