Filling Big Shoes: Living Up To and Surpassing Your Predecessor’s Reputation

“I’ve got big shoes to fill. This is my chance to do something. I have to seize the moment.”— Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States.


Filling Big Shoes: Living Up To and Surpassing Your Predecessor's Reputation by Laura StackIn just about every field of endeavor, you start out at or near the bottom (depending on the extent and quality of your education), and have to work your way up from there. According to the Peter Principal, you also rise to your highest level of incompetence; this takes quite a while for the best of us.

When you’re promoted into a new position, you’ll most likely fill the gap left by someone who’s either lost their job due to incompetence, or who was competent enough to win a rung slightly higher up. It doesn’t really matter which; you still want to wow your superiors with your sheer ability and high performance levels. But on occasion, you may find yourself trying to fill big shoes left behind by a rising star, someone so good at their job or so beloved it seems impossible to live up to their reputation and the lingering ghost of their presence.

This can prove a daunting task, but the supercompetent among us thrive on such challenges. Use these tips to help you handle the transition.

Be Yourself

First: make it clear that while you have great respect for the “rock star” you’ve replaced, you’re not his or her clone. Although you’ll honor the parts of your predecessor’s legacy that match your own goals and vision, you are NOT that person, and the stamp you’ll put on the job will inevitably be different. Some people seem to use occasion as an opportunity to root out and destroy every trace of their predecessor’s style, processes, and accomplishments, a pattern I see depressingly often. But that’s foolish and counterproductive.

Keep what works for you in place, but continue to grow your job, team, or division toward better alignment with company goals, greater efficiency, and higher productivity. Don’t reinvent the wheel or smash things just so you can rebuild them in your own image. It’s a terrible waste.

Start Slowly 

You probably won’t fit your new role perfectly when you start, unless you’re a lateral transfer from elsewhere in the organization or have come in from outside to fill a role where management felt they needed fresh blood. Even then, the job will likely fit you like an off-the-rack suit. You’ll have to tailor it to guarantee a good fit.

Start by affirming the organization’s purpose and goals. Have in-depth talks with your coworkers, subordinate managers, or others familiar with the role due to their association with your predecessor, and tap their professional knowledge. Genuinely consult and collaborate with them, taking their advice to heart as you learn your way around. You need a support team at work; think of them as your tailors. Every job is something you have to grow into, and while it may take a while, that new “suit” will soon become comfortable as you get up to speed. Meanwhile, your off-work support team of friends and family can help you blow off steam and ease into your new role. Continue developing your network in all aspects of your life.

The better you fit into and respect your new team, the easier it is to fill those shoes. Then it’s time to grow the shoes even bigger.

Stay Grounded 

You may well be the best thing since sliced bread, but then again, you may not be. Just because you’ve risen to a position of higher power doesn’t mean you’ve got the grit and drive to keep it without putting in the time and effort required to succeed. Set aside your ego, and take cautious actions well-thought-out in advance. One way to do this is to share any authority that may have come with the job, serving and empowering your team rather than just leading it.

Meanwhile, don’t risk ruining your team or organization with unthinking actions or poor judgment. On the other hand… 

Carpe Momentum

Sometimes you have to seize the moment to generate a quantum leap in productivity and excellence. If an opportunity can greatly help the team or organization if you grab it but doesn’t have much of a downside if you miss, then go for it—especially if you work within a non-punitive environment where the leadership encourages initiative. Spectacular success can further your ambitions, but failure can prove just as helpful in its own way. One way you grow to fill those big shoes is by making mistakes and learning how to fix them, gathering character and hard-earned knowledge in the process.

Moving Forward 

While you may have a tough act to follow, filling big shoes represents the sort of challenge we all need at some point in our professional lives. Sometimes the best thing to do is just bring in a new pair of shoes, but starting over is usually a mistake. When you step into the shoes your predecessor has left, don’t fear looking like a child clomping around in Daddy’s brogans. You can and will mature into the role.

And remember: just because you need to fill those shoes doesn’t mean you have to keep moving on the same path, unless it makes sense to you. Otherwise, strike out in a different direction, making your own distinct set of “footprints.”

© 2016 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (January 18, 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.