Charismatic Leader's Act is Tough to Follow
By Mortimer R. Feinberg and Bruce Serlen
When Citibank chairman John Reed announced on May 19 that the bank would be putting aside a $3 billion reserve fund to cover future loan losses, it was significant on two fronts: not only was Citibank telling the financial community it would be talking a hard line on its Third World loans, but that John Reed had now personally come into his own.
Observers said the announcement signified Mr. Reed had finally emerged from the shadow of his illustrious predecessor Walter Wriston, who had headed the bank for 14 years. Though the formal succession occurred in the fall of 1984, the loan-reserves decision was seen as one of Mr. Reed's first major initiatives. In the public's mind, the "Reed era" has now formally begun.
The phenomenon is not that uncommon. Many leaders in business as well as government one day find themselves-at times unexpectedly-inheriting the mantle of a charismatic figure. The same applies when the person being replaced is much lower down the corporate ladder but engenders that same respect. The office manager or shop foreman—whether benevolent or otherwise-may well have built up a consider able reputation over the years. Employees may feel they even "grew up" under the tutelage of these parental figures and experience a real sense of dislocation when they are replaced.
Given this situation, how do you then proceed? How do you carve out an identity separate from that of your predecessor? And even more to the point, how do you go about introducing your own agenda without de-motivating those in the organization whose allegiances may well be rooted to the previous regime?
The first three to six months of a successor's reign will prove to be most significant. In this period, you'll be easing into your new responsibilities and gradually be ginning to establish your own reputation. Yet it can take a year or two, if not longer, before your full agenda starts to emerge.
"Don't try to go for the brass ring right away," confirms E. Garrett Bewkes Jr., chairman of American Bakeries Co. It is far preferable to let some time go by be fore introducing any major initiatives. Keep a low profile for a while, so that the luster of the predecessor can grow a little dimmer. "Yet remain alert at all times to the possibilities of becoming your own per son," advises Mr. Bewkes.
"Never force your own priorities or agenda. Implement your plans very cautiously, step by step," adds Dennis C. Bottorff, chairman of Commerce Union Bank. "Understand the way things work before making any changes. Comprehend the culture and how your predecessor used it to forward his or her special agenda."
The issue of timing aside, consider the following recommendations that managers need to weigh when succeeding a charismatic leader, whether a CEO, a division head or a line supervisor:
"Part of establishing your own style will mean putting your own team in place eventually," confirms Hugh Chapman, president of Citizens & Southern Corp.. a banking concern. When you do put together your team, choose players whose strengths compensate for your own weak nesses. "Where you are weak, they should be strong," says Mr. Chapman. This en tails recognizing your own drawbacks, at the same time making sure you're not aping any weaknesses of your predecessor.
Mr. Feinberg is chairman of BFC Psychological Associates in New York. Mr. Serlen writes on management subjects from. New York.